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Walking through the crowds on what they called "The People's Plaza" during the Minnesota version of Occupy Wall Street, I was reminded once again that democracy is a messy thing, and often poorly dressed.
It can be scattershot and unfocused, borderline incoherent at times, even comical.
It can also be downright uplifting.
Across town, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson was deriding the OccupyMN protesters as "clueless, obnoxious ... anarchists or socialists or whatever they call themselves."
Too bad Johnson didn't actually talk to the protesters, or he would have found them reluctant to attach labels of any sort to themselves, except as Americans concerned about the very real economic issues facing the world. Sure, there were lots of nose rings and stunt hair cuts, but that shouldn't mask what most economists and even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke admit: They are right about a lot of things.
Several protesters had signs calling to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, put in place in response to the collapse of the banking industry at the time.
Let me introduce you to Carol Brunholzl, 78, and Dave Bakken, 75, who drove up from Rochester because they are afraid for the futures of young people, not to mention Medicare and Social Security.
"My two kids bought houses eight years ago, and they are going to lose their asses," said Bakken. "Those houses are worth half what they paid. I lived in the best of times, and if you didn't make money it was your fault. That's not true anymore."
One of the first things I noticed at the protest Friday morning was that there were lots of people under 30 and over 60, those most marginalized by today's economy. Second, I'd seen some of the signs before. At Tea Party rallies. "Take Back Our Country" was one.
I guess a lot of people can agree with that sentiment, be it the flag-waving guy in the three-corner hat who wants to return to 1776, or the kid in the red mohawk who would probably settle for the 1990s when there was at least a possibility he would get a decent job.
So, everyone wants to take the country back -- the question is from whom. Tea Partyers say the government. The Occupy folks say Wall Street. To some extent, they are both right.
Wall Street invented cockamamie investment schemes and pursued reckless lending, and the government either cooperated or looked the other way. If you think the kids sleeping on Wall Street or downtown Minneapolis in funny clothes are creating a carnival, what would you call the current economy? The only difference is that those barkers are wearing Armani.
Because the Occupy groups are trying to propel a "leaderless" movement, their message has been a bit muddled, causing many to ask the question: Why are they here?
You don't have to go far from the plaza to get some answers. Inside the Hennepin County Government Center, you can go to the third-floor housing court and watch people get evicted from their apartments, one after another, because they are broke. Walk across the plaza to City Hall, Room 30. There you will find dozens of notices of foreclosure sales, the death of the American dream tacked to a billboard with stick pins. During the first quarter of 2011, more than 5,300 homes were foreclosed on in Minnesota. Since 2007, more than 100,000 Minnesotans have lost their homes.
Why are they yelling? Why aren't you?
Then at the far end of the plaza is US Bank, which actually is not as vilified as most banks because it didn't engage in subprime mortgages. The bank didn't want a bailout, got one anyway ($6.5 billion), then paid it back as soon as it was allowed. I wanted to see how CEO Richard Davis (dubbed the "golden boy of banking") felt about the protest. He declined to comment.
It's too bad, because some of the protesters' rhetoric is too simplistic. "We are the 99 percent," they chant. Yes, the games of the 1 percent of the richest Americans did most of the damage in the economy, but some of the middle class who lived far beyond their means played a part, too.
Not everyone in the 1 percent is evil: How about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet? How about Wheelock Whitney, who at 85 recently stood up to those who would want to ban gay marriage?
But headlines this week talked about a stalled jobs outlook, mortgage fraud, corporations stealing from our pensions and the fact that fewer Americans now own homes than any time since the Great Depression.
Which is why David Ross, 27 and living with his parents because he can't find work, came up from Mankato to help organize the Occupy protest.
"Anyone who says they don't understand our message is not being honest," he said. He pointed to nearby skyscrapers. "The people on the top floors of all these buildings -- we are looking at you."
This movement will have to get a lot bigger and last a lot longer for those in government offices and skyscrapers to stop mocking and start listening. Meanwhile, the words of one of those 1 percenters, Jobs, might help:
"Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
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