The Occupy Wall Street movement is, in many ways, a numbers game. The same is true of its Denver affiliate, where the numbers might be smaller but the fervor for the cause -- the causes, really -- maintains a strength in direct proportion to its national parent. During a three-hour span this afternoon, eleven people, one of whom is Lupe Fiasco, will donate bedding, tents, parkas, sweaters and other items to Occupy Denver. Four people will start or finish a joint. Seventeen people will share a single watermelon. And six people will say, without overhearing the others who already shared the sentiment, "This is the beginning."
Of what, they are not able to state as clearly. There is never any lack of conviction among the movement's Denver followers, around seventy of whom are gathered in front of the Capitol building, but there is often a lack of clarity. Although the local occupation has maintained a constant presence, 24 hours a day, for the past fifteen days, that presence is not predicated on anything particularly concrete. The group has yet to make demands for specific change.
"I suppose there's a personal reason for all of us and a broader reason that combines all of us into one unit," says Michelle Lessans, who has spent the past twelve days with the movement at Broadway and Colfax. "There'ss so much wrong with the nation right now, with only one percent of the country controlling all of its money, and the other 99 percent of us just sit there. Well, we're not sitting anymore."
Much of the group's strength lies in its diversity, which tends to divide at the employment level. Lessans is one of a heavy handful who are currently unemployed: The recent college grad has spent four months of unemployment adjusting to the realization that the masters she received in social work will not be directly applied anytime soon. (As she explains the situation, as if on cue, a rarity occurs: An occupation detractor stops in front of the group, rolls down his car window and shouts, "Get a job!" But she can't. She has tried.)
Many of those around her have taken paid sick leave or simply quit their jobs in order to spend their days here. One man is speaking nervously on his cell phone to his boss while Lessans is party to an equally uncomfortable conversation across from his bench, ending an argument -- a feat at which she is noticeably talented. In five minutes, she will ask one of the gathering's homeless followers to stop cursing in front of children, but not before he threatens someone with violence and the police are called. Right now, however, she is explaining Occupy Denver's principles to someone who is trying to unite with the group for reasons that have nothing to do with the occupation.
"You just have to remember that we're representing a bigger movement," she tells the man, who mentions the anti-Columbus Day rally that will take place tomorrow from 10 a.m. to noon. Occupy Denver's weekly Saturday march is set for the same day from noon until 3, and pains have been taken to keep the two from overlapping, to stop Occupy Denver from attracting an increased police presence. "There is certain behavior that comes with that," she explains. "We're an inclusive group, but we are a people movement, not a political one. And people don't understand that."
Because the New York faction of the occupation has attracted an aggressive level of police attention, its Denver peers emphasize the care with which they approach a relationship with the Denver Police Department. So far, that relationship seems excellent, marked by a long list of reliable DPD contacts on the wall inside the group's security tent, and they hope to keep it that way. ("There are definitely still people who feel very uncomfortable with a police presence," Lessans says.) This means responsible behavior and a well-developed weariness about tying the occupation's credibility with that of other organizations. No group, however, is banned from consideration, and lining the group's front desk is a consistently expanding set of posters for neighboring causes. Close by, piled in nooks and crannies and underneath structures built from donated wood, are the donations, hundreds of them, dropped off as a means of support even from those who cannot support the job. In order to organize and sustain the benefits of these donations, the food portion of which feeds the group's small army on a daily basis, Occupy Denver got organized -- and quickly. In the beginning, the group began as a handful of people who basically just hung out, albeit all day, every day. Today, that group has morphed into a machine as well-oiled as any group that defies the concept of leadership really can be. Each day includes two general assembly meetings that, though frequently plagued by people who mistake them for extended soapboxes, regulate the group's goals and needs. On a more direct level, the group is split into delegated committees -- marketing, events, outreach, security, even a "safe places" committee -- that strive to provide comfort and safety to those who return on a regular basis. At its most basic level, this includes guards, dressed in easily visible orange vests, to act as security and make sure no belongings are stolen.
Garrett Ballantyne, a 22-year-old Occupy Denver security guard, started his volunteer position three days ago, roughly forty hours after he joined the group. While walking back from a bar at 2 a.m. Monday morning, he stopped to quiz four members of the occupation group about their intentions. He has yet to return to his home in Fort Collins or his job as a waiter. At the moment, his phone isn't functional, turned off by his provider because he didn't pay the bill. Later tonight, he'll call his boss again to ask for more time off. He's uncertain how the conversation will end.
"What makes me get time off work is the realization that I'm a part of something so much bigger than myself," Ballantyne says before rolling a joint, breathing it in and then offering it to a stranger he just met. "I was really critical of the guys when I first stopped by, but our country deserves better. A lot of people just sit on their couches and bitch, and I was one of them."
Ballantyne, like most of the group's core of frequent attendees, supplements his enthusiasm for the cause with a disconcertingly eloquent means of describing it. Even if it wasn't clear he has been awake for twenty hours, that he and the other guards sleep in shifts, that he finds a strange comfort in the proliferation of big-picture and ideas and lack of small-picture demands, he tends to imply it all: "We're kind of following in New York's steps as far as taking specific approaches to solving the big issue. I'm just here to plant the seed. Once it blossoms and we can pull the fruit of that tree, that's when the legislature actually changes."
In large part, fulfilling this rather prophetic metaphor means simply lasting, which in about a week will mean lasting through the cold -- at night. So far, donations of food and supplies, lessons from the police on how to keep things legal, and a series of daily activities have kept the group motivated and sane, but this will be harder to maintain once the temperature drops. In the meantime, those gathered are collecting moments and memories to cash in on when the donated blankets might not cut it.
"One time a mom walked up to me holding her two-year-old daughter, sat the baby down and just started bawling," Ballantyne says. "I just hugged her, and the baby hugged my leg, and for an awkward three minutes, I didn't say a word. I was half- hugging her and half-holding her up. Then I felt her stomach growl against mine."
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Stories like these provide the philosophical cachet needed to motivate a local group that is tied to the national movement mainly through social media and a set of firm but occasionally vague ideals. Lessans's most valuable memory so far came from a twelve-year-old who, during last week's rally, spoke to the 500-strong group about her fear for her future. At the core of the group, one still segregated by individual agendas, this fear is shared by everyone.
"People always ask us when it's going to stop, when we're going to go home," Lessans says. At this point, she is interrupted by a friend, another security guard, leaving for work. Denver's occupation has no end in sight, and preparations are currently being finalized for both winter plans and an October 22 concert.
"It depends on who you ask," she concludes. "I would say it will end when things change, when people stop pretending there isn't a problem."
More Occupy Denver coverage: "Photos: #OccupyWallStreet on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol."