The smell of the Occupy Kansas City encampment is the concentrated odor of civilization. The air on the small, oddly shaped shard of land on Wyandotte Street and Kessler Road, across the street from the Federal Reserve, smells of burned wood, cooked food, rain-dampened bedding, and extinguished cigarettes.
Following the lead of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York's Zuccotti Park, 1,500 encampments have cropped up in cities worldwide. Just over a month old, Occupy Kansas City has about 30 people living full time in tents on the site, and another 30 offering moral and organizing support, spending evenings in the park during decision-making sessions called general assemblies and planning meetings. These Kansas Citians don't have a specific list of demands, much like occupiers across the country, but their main target is corporate sway over politics. They're unemployed, buried in student debt, dismayed over lobbyists' control over politics, and generally pissed off.
On a wet, 44-degree morning last week, occupiers stir in the more than 17 tents and one conspicuous tepee. Just after 9 a.m., the camp comes to life. An occupier boils a pot of ramen noodles in the kitchen, which is outfitted with a camping stove and grills and is stocked with canned goods and produce.
Occupiers bundled in hoodies, jackets and knit hats mill about and drink steaming coffee from cardboard cups. Occupy Kansas City's sleepy and cold residents are eager to talk about their purpose.
"Our message is about poverty. That's why we're here," says Mary, a 29-year-old who has spent the last few days living in the camp. "Some of us, we're very poor. We know the money is being kept in very small circles at the top. And here we are hurting as regular people, regular Americans. And it's not fair, and it's why we're protesting."
That fits into the canon of ambiguous statements that Occupy protesters around the country have said to the media, leading to criticism that it's a movement without a goal and protesting for the sake of protesting. If that's the case (and as the protests go on, it's not clear that it is), the Occupy KC protesters are at least some of the most organized purveyors of civil disobedience in a long time. The encampment at Penn Valley Park is a functioning, if tiny, society.
Protesters have organized into working groups that focus on media, local outreach, legal issues and comfort. The occupation survives and thrives only as long as people use their skills to improve the encampment.
On this morning, Sam, a small, 22-year-old woman who spent a couple of years in the Navy, is in the kitchen chopping potatoes and onions for a group breakfast.
"I ran a free kitchen in the woods in Tennessee for a while when I lived there," she says. Her skills are appreciated regardless of what she cooks. Her most popular dish?
"I don't have one," she says with a laugh. "It's slop in a pot."
Around 10 a.m., three occupiers drive to the Plaza to hand out leaflets announcing a march and rally at Ilus Davis Park on Sunday.
Wesley, a tattoo artist; Steve, an unemployed truck driver; and Nathan, a custodial worker, spread out across the Plaza speaking with whatever well-heeled customers don't blow them off and the working-class folks employed at Kansas City's most lavish shops.
Wesley is friendly and eager to engage. He invites a window washer scrubbing the façade of The North Face to the rally. The window washer shakes Wesley's hand and apologizes for being soapy.
"It's all right," he says. "Hopefully I'll see you there."