“Occupy DM Leaders thrust into spotlight” by Regina Zibermints, DM Reg, Dec 31, 2011
It was a motley assortment of people.
A former Catholic priest. A few people who could reasonably be called professional activists. A former Wells Fargo employee. A college student.
The group of about 20 people who gathered regularly at a Catholic Worker house in Des Moines — a small fraction of the 400 people who attended Occupy Des Moines’ first meeting almost three months ago — has been central in planning this week’s protests that have thrust the small Occupy Wall Street offshoot into the spotlight.
The local protesters, primarily interested in what they believe are income inequalities, include people attending their first protests and those experienced in such actions.
This week, as presidential candidates rushed from one event to another, members of the local Occupy movement showed up at banks and campaign headquarters as they tried to get their message out. Some, including Occupy leaders, were arrested for trespassing.
Frank Cordaro trained many of them. The former priest has been active in anti-war protests for decades, even before he left the priesthood in 2003 after 18 years.
He helped start the Catholic Worker community in Des Moines and lives in one of the houses. He’s been arrested several times and refuses to pay his fines out of solidarity with those who can’t.
Police know him well.
“Hey, Frank,” one said, shaking his hand when they stopped by the group’s headquarters. “How many today, Frank?” another said as they prepared to make arrests Thursday.
People who returned to Des Moines from both coasts for the week remembered working with Cordaro years ago.
At a recent meeting, the group took turns introducing themselves and saying why they were there.
“My name is Frank Cordaro,” he said. “I’ve been here 35 years. And I’ve been waiting for you.”
Cordaro was the only person David Goodner knew when he moved to Des Moines after graduating from the University of Iowa in 2009.
Goodner, a prominent, sometimes divisive, and usually respected figure in the movement, attended his first demonstration in Washington, D.C., in 2002 to protest the impending Iraq war.
That was the moment he “went from a frat boy to a card-carrying socialist,” Goodner said.
He became active in anti-war groups at the University of Iowa and left Phi Kappa Theta soon after.
He said it was time to move on because he couldn’t agree with many of his fraternity brothers’ support of the conflict.
After college he got a job at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and moved into one of the Catholic Worker houses. He’s traveled to both Columbia and the Palestinian territories to protest and participate in protective accompaniment — essentially acting as unarmed bodyguards for vulnerable citizens in the hopes that American faces will deter would-be attackers.
Goodner, 30, also credits his Catholic faith with inspiring him. “The Jesus I follow fed homeless, healed the sick, spoke truth to power, marched into Jerusalem and kicked the money changers out of the temple,” he said.
Goodner was arrested at a protest in November and when police searched him, they found marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Three days later he issued an apology, said he would no longer be a public face for the group and vowed to enter a drug treatment program to determine whether he had a substance-abuse problem. For about a month he stayed out of the Occupy spotlight, still working behind the scenes.
He has since resumed appearing at public events, though has largely let others lead the group’s “mic checks” and do media interviews.
Goodner met his partner, Megan Felt, five years ago when the two were handcuffed next to each other at Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Cedar Rapids office. Felt, who is eight months pregnant with Goodner’s child, is “way tougher than I am,” he said.
Felt said she’s been arrested about a dozen times.
“So, not that many times,” she added. Three of the arrests have been during the Occupy movement, including two this week.
She focuses her activism on South America, particularly Columbia, doing everything from translating paperwork in Des Moines — she speaks fluent Spanish — to traveling to Columbia three times to provide protective accompaniment.
“It was logical to get involved because I do resistance work on a daily basis,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for something like this to spring up.”
She uses the word “beautiful” a lot to describe the movement.
The 24-year-old with short hair is much quieter than Goodner. Others often strain to hear her. But she has been at the front of protests over the past several days.
On Friday, her mother, who traveled from Wisconsin after being involved in massive protests there, insisted Goodner not let her be arrested anymore.
Cordaro, Goodner and Felt have experience and have worked together before. But in the past three months others without previous protest experience have had a crash course.
Tony Tyler, 30, moved to Des Moines from Oklahoma a year ago for work. He won’t say where he works for fear of repercussions there, just that it’s a full-time job outside of politics or the financial industry.
“The movement is strong because of the individuals involved,” he said. “Community groups seemed to affirm and join in, but the power lies in individuals getting involved. That’s why it’s effective.”
Tyler said he’s never been involved in protests before, but has a simple reason to get involved now.
“Economic justice,” he said. “It’s a simple phrase; it’s what I’m passionate about.”