600 expected at Occupy the Midwest conference in St. Louis

Thursday, March 15, 2012

ST. LOUIS -- This week's Occupy the Midwest gathering in St. Louis is more than a reawakening of the movement that took hold last fall -- it is illustrative of the next phase of the effort, organizers and participants said Wednesday.

At least 600 people from nearly 20 cities, mostly Midwestern but some from as far away as New England, are expected for the conference. It runs today through Sunday and will begin with a march to the Gateway Arch at 5 p.m. today.

Occupy the Midwest will include a "general assembly" on the Arch grounds, tent encampments throughout the city and workshops on 30 topics, ranging from how to deal with police brutality to avoiding home foreclosures.

The conference will also hold at least four protests. One will be against Bank of America, and another on Friday will target St. Louis-based Monsanto because of the company's involvement in the world food supply, organizer Zach Chasnoff said. Occupy members declined to elaborate, saying only that news releases will be sent out in the hours before the protests.

The Occupy movement began in New York in September over concerns about economic issues, particularly high corporate profits and income inequality. It quickly spread to other cities, including St. Louis, where Occupy members set up camp in dozens of tents in Kiener Plaza, a small downtown park. The St. Louis encampment ended when police began enforcing a park curfew in November. Twenty-seven protesters were arrested for curfew violations when they refused to leave. A federal judge refused to overturn the evictions.

Aside from a mid-November march that ended with about a dozen protesters arrested for trying to block a Mississippi River bridge entrance, the movement has been largely quiet in St. Louis since the end of the encampment. But about two dozen Occupy members at the news conference were enthusiastic about renewed involvement with the arrival of warmer weather.

"Occupy the Midwest is an example of the escalation people are expecting," said Mike Hipson, 19, of Boston, who drove to St. Louis with a friend. "These groups are getting bigger and getting better organized."

Jay Kurtz Jr. of Occupy St. Louis agreed.

"With spring upon us, we are gathering to expand the communication we built among our tents," he said.

Chasnoff did not say specifically where conference participants would camp. He said organizers have not sought permission from the city for any encampments.

Messages seeking comment from city officials were not returned.

Ann Honious, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, which operates the Arch and its grounds, said a permit was granted for the general assembly that will take place on the stairway beneath the Arch. But Occupy members will not be allowed to camp on the Arch grounds, she said.

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