Occupy movement plans Midwest regional gathering

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Organizers of Occupy protests around the Midwest will gather next month in St. Louis, pledging to emerge from a “winter lull” as a bigger and stronger force.

Occupy Midwest Regional Conference will start with a gathering at 7 p.m. March 15 beneath the Gateway Arch, organizer Chuck Witthaus said Tuesday. A mass occupation will continue through March 18, but not on the Arch grounds. Organizers aren’t disclosing the location.

Witthaus, of St. Louis, said peaceful protests are also planned, but he declined to discuss details.

Occupy movement supporters from about a dozen cities in seven states — Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Wisconsin — have confirmed they will attend. Participants in nearly 20 other cities may also be there, Witthaus said. He projected that up to 3,000 people will participate.

Another organizer, Rachael Perrotta of Occupy Chicago, said the conference will build stronger ties between the various Occupy movements and allow for better coordination of regional and national protests and commemorations.

“In order to move forward we need to build stronger ties between occupations, and between occupations and their allies,” Perrotta said.

The Occupy movement began in September in New York and spread to dozens of cities with protests — some drawing thousands of participants — and tent cities. Protesters cite concerns about economic issues, particularly high corporate profits and income inequality.

At the peak of the fall protests, more than 100 tents were set up in Kiener Plaza, a downtown St. Louis park. One rally, a march to a Mississippi River bridge, drew more than 1,000 participants here.

But police in many cities shut down encampments late last year. There have been scattered protests over the winter, but with mixed results. Just four people showed up for a planned protest last month at St. Louis City Hall.

Perrotta said protesters aren’t as visible during winter but have been preparing for a busy spring.

“In terms of massive physical actions, there’s been a winter lull, but every occupation I know has been organizing like crazy, getting ground work done to do actions in the spring,” Perrotta said. “When spring begins I think you’ll see us back bigger and stronger than ever.”

Occupiers in St. Louis came up with the idea for the conference, which Witthaus said will allow for a “re-emergence for the whole Midwest.”

It wasn’t immediately clear just how close to the Arch the protesters will be allowed to gather.

Ann Honious of the National Park Service, which operates the monument on the St. Louis riverfront, said a permit required for gatherings and protests. The gathering will likely be in a designated area on the sprawling Arch grounds, not directly beneath the structure.

“We would need to talk to them because most of our areas don’t hold that many people,” Honious said.

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