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."
Wesley follows the stench of hot, steaming manure to three guys shoveling mulch from the back of a truck as they manicure the Plaza's plant life. Their English is broken, but they appear supportive. Wesley uses his limited Spanish to encourage the men to bring their families to the rally.
Not everyone is open to Wesley's message. He's rebuffed by road workers in the middle of traffic. Shoppers walking to Armani Exchange and N Valentino say terse No thank yous.
Steve wanders alleys looking for workers on smoking breaks. He tries to strike up a conversation with a man, who isn't interested.
"I'm a Republican," the man says and walks away.
"It's not political!" a frustrated Steve calls after the man. His words fail to register.
After a couple of hours of canvassing, the three head back to the camp.
Around 1 p.m., two police cars pull into the parking lot near the encampment. Three officers get out and gaze at the tents and occupiers. Tyler, a 29-year-old protester who says he came to the site on September 30, the first morning of the Occupy KC movement, says the police have been a daily presence.
The area gets quiet. People clump together, looking at the three officers in the distance as if they're conquistadors coming ashore. The police walk the hundred feet or so to the congregation. Tyler videotapes them with a small camcorder.
The widespread thought throughout the site is that Mayor Sly James has told police to not arrest occupiers for illegally camping on public land. Sgt. Greg Williams (a few protesters call him "Officer Quentin Tarantino," for his slight resemblance to the filmmaker) brings a simple message today: That's not true.
"There hasn't been a reprieve from the mayor's office. It's still against city code; at this time, we're not enforcing it," says Williams, who is on a first-name basis with many of the occupiers.
Williams says multiple times that the protesters need a camping permit. Once they get the permit, he says, they won't be in violation of city code. "Get that permit," he tells them.
"You could be cited. We're not here to enforce this now," he says. "You guys are peaceful — we appreciate that. We appreciate the open communication. But at some point, we might have to take enforcement."
The officers walk back to their cars. Tyler is unmoved.
"They are not our friends," he says. "There is no trust given to the police. We're just glad we're not getting our asses beat by them. So we're going to curb stirring the bee's nest as long as possible."
Asked why the protesters don't chip in to pay for the permit, Tyler says it isn't going to happen.
"That's not what the occupation is about," he says. "It's not about conforming to every rule and taxation and fee and law and red-tape bureaucracy they've come up with. I mean, why can't we, as citizens, come to our park and set up our tents and work together as our community?"
In the evening, it becomes clear that Occupy Kansas City is a story of a group split into two shifts. At the occupation site, the parking lot fills with station wagons, Priuses and sedans. The general assembly meeting brings a more professional, scrubbed-behind-the-ears version of the Occupy movement. Many of the hard-core inhabitants have scattered, yielding the land to occupiers in porkpie hats, khakis, messenger bags, polished-leather boots and sleek cloaks. The rhetoric isn't necessarily fierier, but it is more organized.
A generator powers a light, microphone and amplifier under a statue dedicated to veterans of the Spanish-American War. Organizers announce encampment news —the kitchen needs to be moved because the ground underneath it is getting muddy — and proposals are brought up for discussion. Assembly members use hand signals to signify support or disapproval of ideas.
After an idea to create a group to promote minority involvement is shot down, the general assembly shifts to soapbox time, giving everybody a chance at the mic to rail about any topic. Several people who aren't living in the park talk about women's safety at the camp and how sexual harassment has been reported. Some Occupy sites in other cities have been sullied by crime and alleged sexual violence. At least one woman told police that she was sexually assaulted in a tent at Occupy Lawrence. A man also complained that he had been physically assaulted. The city of Lawrence ended up evicting the protesters from South Park.
No such reports have been made at Occupy Kansas City.
The rants end and people break into their working groups to discuss Sunday's rally and other efforts. Three hours after dark, the supporters who came for the general assembly get into their cars and leave the overnight occupiers for another cold night. There is some good weather news: It's dry and the steam coming from the pretend flame on the nearby Liberty Memorial is flying straight up, indicating there's not much wind. That should make for easier camping than a couple of nights before, when the wind ripped tents out of the ground.
On Sunday, Occupy Kansas City's rally at Ilus Davis Park and march to the Northeast neighborhood goes on as planned. The minimal police presence at the rally — and at the encampment itself — looks accommodating compared with demonstrations in other cities. Police in Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, arrested several Occupy protesters. In Nashville, a reporter for The Pitch's sister paper, the Nashville Scene, was arrested and charged with criminal trespass and, dubiously, public intoxication while covering an Occupy rally.
Kansas City police made no arrests associated with Occupy KC's Sunday rally.
Camping without a permit and pending winter weather put the movement's future in question. But even without an official reprieve, it appears that the authorities are not interested in stifling the local Occupy movement ... for now. Many protesters hope that they will be allowed to maintain a presence in Penn Valley Park until they achieve their goals, however long that takes.
On Sunday, Occupy KC's Twitter feed captured the mood: "It's a beautiful day for a revolution."