DES MOINES, Iowa -- The headquarters for the Occupy Iowa Caucuses movement is a spacious, coffee-shop like warehouse on one of the main streets of downtown Des Moines, where laid-back protesters mingle amid signs reading "Mitt - get bank $ out of elections" and "Give us liberty from corporate greed!"
On Thursday night - after protesters lined up for free food provided with donations to the movement - occupiers gathered for a performance and civil rights panel that attracted perhaps 70 occupiers. (A small occupy tent city has been set up a few blocks away, though protesters spent $1,000 to rent the indoor space for the week.) About five hours earlier, 12 occupiers had been arrested at the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters after they refused to move out from in front of the front door of the building, including a 14-year-old who was released into the custody of her father.
The occupiers don't see much distinction between the Democratic and Republican parties, though the fact that President Obama is effectively unopposed for reelection gives them little in the way of targets on the Democratic side. Emily Allison of Des Moines, who was among those arrested Thursday, said she felt "betrayed" by Mr. Obama for his unwillingness to veto the National Defense Authorization Act and for not closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility.
"I thought he would stand up for the people," she said. Allison, who was charged with criminal trespassing. She described Democrats as the "lesser of two evils" - but added that "after seeing all the money that Obama has accepted from the corporations and the bankers it's difficult to distinguish the parties as two different things."
That's a popular perspective among the occupy protesters here.
"The main goal is to draw that connection between the corrupt culture on Wall Street and the corrupt political culture in Washington DC," says Ed Fallon, a radio host and former Iowa Assemblyman who has emerged as one of the leaders of the movement in Iowa.
Fallon says Iowa Republicans have falsely cast the occupiers as agitators who plan to disrupt the protests in an effort to "mislead the country."
Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn criticized the movement.
"There's really no more grassroots process in American politics than the Iowa caucuses," he said. "So it's a little puzzling why they'd choose to disrupt that process." The Iowa GOPit was moving the caucus vote counting process to an "undisclosed location" due to expected occupy disruptions, and is coordinating with local law enforcement to ensure the integrity of the caucuses.
Fallon dismissed Strawn's concerns, saying, "We have made it emphatically clear over and over again that we have no plans to disrupt the process on January 3." Indeed, many occupiers say they plan to participate in the caucuses - but vote "uncommitted" as a protest against what they see as a corrupt political system.
That isn't to say they aren't trying to disrupt the candidate events going on around the state this week. On Wednesday, five aggressively interrupted a Ron Paul appearance, including a 16-year-old girl who forcefully ripped down the Paul signs that the Texas congressman's supporters put up to block her. (In response, Paul, who has offered qualified support to the occupy movement, commented on how "wonderful" he finds freedom of speech.) Seven occupy protesters were arrested at Mitt Romney's Des Moines headquarters the same day, where they were protesting the candidate's ties to nearby Wells Fargo bank, and five were arrested Thursday at Paul's campaign headquarters, where they were protesting Paul's proposal to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency.
Right up until the Jan. 3 caucuses, the Occupy Iowa Caucuses website.are vowing to "chase the candidates and their Wall Street cronies around the state of Iowa, dogging their heels at all their black-tie dinners and staged media events, drowning out their empty rhetoric with the strong, clear message of the 99%," according to the
Fallon said the movement simply wants to "call them out" - both Republicans and Democrats - for ignoring the needs of the many to favor the wealthy few.
"The opposition is trying to characterize the movement as a bunch of disgruntled renegades who are unwashed and uninformed," he said. "It's a game they're playing to hype up opposition to what the movement is all about."