Occupy Wall Street caught America’s eye in 2011. Then it faded from view. Now a former Egyptian biochemist and a blue-collar Ozarks family man are trying to keep the spirit of Zuccotti Park alive in Springfield.
story by Roman Stubbs / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published May 31, 2012
Abdo Soliman is alone, but he’s not lonely, and he understands what he must do on this warm Sunday morning in May. He is a 66-year-old former biochemist from Cairo. He drives a yellow 1981 Mercedes station wagon that has a bent hood ornament, with gardening tools and anti-war signs stacked in the hatch. He pulls into the empty Bank of America parking lot and pulls out his sign. It reads, “WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER.”
Abdo is here to carry the Occupy movement — alone.
Abdo is mad that no one else has shown up, but he doesn’t hesitate to act. He starts pacing up and down Battlefield Avenue in front of the bank. It’s one of the busiest streets in the area, especially on a mid-Sunday morning when the masses are commuting from church or are pouring into Springfield’s Battlefield shopping district.
No cars honk as he patrols the sidewalk. He wears black-frame glasses, pushed halfway down his nose. As he passes by each car stopped at a red light, he tries to engage each driver’s eyes, and hopes they will look into his. Most are preoccupied and stare straight ahead. He hardly gets a glance from anyone.
For all he knows, all the drivers catch a glimpse of is the wrinkled face of a man with a neatly trimmed beard, in vanilla khakis and a yellow-colored shirt, someone who is sweating profusely, someone with a righteous cause but not much hope of seeing it through — a well-intentioned but empty gesture.
What the drivers can’t possibly know is that Abdo is on a mission. What they can’t see is a man trying to bring new life to a recovering movement while he still has the chance.
It may be his last.
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By early November, Occupy Wall Street caught America’s attention – big news headlines in papers, cameras pointed at Zuccotti Park in New York. Americans might not have been sure exactly what the Occupy movement was demanding, but the images of Zuccotti, and the National Mall in Washington, and the tent-city in downtown Philadelphia – those images went national.
Across the country, the disgruntled and disenfranchised took notice and formed their own Occupy movements. By October, there was a bonafide faction of a couple hundred protesters in Springfield, Mo., organized under the name Occupy 417.  The movement was one of nearly 1,000 grassroots Occupy organizations that sprouted up in cities nationwide in the wake of the Wall Street protests.
The general assembly meetings in local Phelps Grove Park were large and spirited; social networking was well organized; and protests at places like Bank of America had drawn attention to the movement. But there was still a misplaced sense of identity for Occupy 417, and with that came a sense of urgency to leave an impression on the community.
“We definitely needed a defining moment,” says Occupy 417 member Auna Lochlan, 32. “We purposefully wanted to spotlight one specific thing that had gone wrong in our community to bring it home to the public.”
Occupy 417’s biggest victory, members believe, came in what became known as the “Escrow Field”  incident.
The group, numbering some 65 protesters, laid siege to a vacant lot east of the Expo Center in downtown Springfield. The land was secured under eminent domain by the city, which in turn sold it to local businessman John Q. Hammons in 2007. Hammons initially wanted to develop a hotel on the property for visitors to the Expo Center, but the project lost traction in the four years it spent in development.
The desired cause-and-effect action came on Nov. 11, 2011. In an effort to push the city to act on its option to buy back the land for $1, many protesters taped dollar bills to their foreheads or shirts and camped on Hammons’ land. By early evening, police had surrounded the rally, and most of the protesters had dispersed. A defiant few sat quietly on the grass and refused to leave, prompting eight arrests.
It was a wild day. One of the police vehicles was locked with the keys inside, stalling the transport of the arrested, and later that night, there was speculation that Occupy 417 had been behind several acts of vandalism to area banks. The material for news outlets was rich with content, and the movement was exposed as one with serious demands.
“The local Occupy people have been very careful to be nonviolent,” says Republic, Mo., native Jim Evans, who protested with the group in a few functions last fall and is now running for Congress on the Democratic ticket in District 7. “They’ve made their voice heard, I’ll put it that way.”
A month after the Escrow Field protest, the city council passed an ordinance to buy back the land from Hammons for $1. Occupy 417 claimed the decision as major victory for the movement.
“I don’t think anything would have happened with the city buying it back for a very long time if we hadn’t stepped forward and brought media attention that there was something wrong with this, and the community was not getting what it deserved,” says Lochlan.
The group had its moment, and its momentum. Then winter came.
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Abdo Soliman once told a reporter in Carbondale, Ill., that this region was a “strange corner of the world.” That was in 2002, and Abdo was running a farm in the area. He moved to the Midwest in the early 1990’s with his wife, Joan Test, a Harvard-educated transplant whom he met while studying for his PhD in biochemistry at Stockholm University in the 1980s. Test secured a job as an education professor at Southern Illinois University, and Abdo had already done academic work for the school, he says. But that career as an academic never fully materialized in the States.
In Carbondale, his life’s work was in agriculture and political activism. He would meet people through farmer’s markets and small community gatherings. What it provided was an environment of ideas, a new world that opened his mind to the realities of the country’s economic markets. As a farmer, he was seeing the encroachment of American politics on the American laborer. As he raised his animals, he also chose to raise his voice — a skill he’d first learned on the streets of Cairo.
He belongs to the post-1967 generation in Egypt, a humiliation that triggered a lifelong pursuit of political dissent. During his years as an assistant professor at the University of Cairo in the 1970s, he joined leftist student protests in the city.
Abdo observed the aggressive nature of the Bread Riots in Cairo in 1977. During the fall of that year, he lost both his best friend and father  within months of each other. The deaths had crept up on him, and were pivotal. He had already decided to leave Egypt when millions of protesters flooded Cairo’s streets. Years later, he says in order to avoid death or arrest during the uprising, he fled to Scandinavia for a new life. He took to the streets of Stockholm to protest the Egyptian government’s recent political moves, especially those made in the aftermath of the 1978 Camp David Accords.
But Abdo felt disconnected from his country – and his people. Making a stand against something happening thousands of miles away proved to be a difficult task. In the years since, Abdo has continued to struggle with this disconnect. He has tried to find a home within movements in Europe, and in places like Carbondale. In 2008, when he moved to Springfield, Joan had started teaching at Southwest Missouri State University , and they settled into a lush neighborhood near Phelps Grove Park after Abdo was able to sell the farm in Illinois. He sought out groups to march with, but found that the anti-war and anti-capitalist groups in the area were limited, at best.
He would get his chance in the fall of 2011. Nearly six months after the breakthrough at Tahrir Square had kept him glued to the television night and day , an energized Abdo began to visit the Occupy 417 protests in October.
In the early days of the movement, just as Abdo was starting to find his place, he received unwelcome news: He’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The growth is still in its early stages, he says, though to look at him you wouldn’t know it. Months later, his hair is still black and curly, and his skin is still a dark bronze. His muscles are still taut from all the gardening and landscaping he does in the back of his home. And his words are still sharp, the result of days spent poring through his expansive library of scientific literature. But his mind doesn’t ignore the cruelty of his illness, or the inevitable intrusion of death.
“Of course your body is breaking down and breaking down all the time … It makes you more aware that you’re dying in the very near future. It will happen,” he says. “If anything, it makes you reckless.”
He labels the cancer as being in the “observation,” stage, which means local doctors are keeping an eye on his condition. That hasn’t stopped Abdo from maintaining his presence at Occupy 417 — even though what he witnessed through the winter wasn’t to his liking. The group transformed from a large contingent ready to put up inspired performances like that of Escrow Field into a piecemeal following. Some original members remained. New members joined, hoping to test their own vocal chords.
“It’s not a big deal to join an organized group in Chicago. The big deal is to create an organization when there is no one. It’s much more important to come and stand here in Springfield, even if there is ten, than to become one among 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 in Chicago.”
But the issue that had plagued the movement through the fall persisted. Everyone could say that Occupy stood for something. The problem was the lack of consensus as to what that something was.
“Last year here, there was a march,” says Abdo, “and there was some people who said that they were against all ideology. And I said, ‘Then why are you here?’”
As the temperatures dropped in the coming months, so too did the numbers at general assembly meetings and protests. Abdo saw his opening. He started to play a more central role at meetings and marches. He helped organize events, and wanted to bring philosophies to the movement that challenged conventional notions in a predominantly conservative town like Springfield.
“It’s not a big deal to join an organized group in Chicago. The big deal is to create an organization when there is no one,” says Abdo. “It’s much more important to come and stand here in Springfield, even if there is ten, than to become one among 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 in Chicago.”
It’s that mentality that brought him to Bank of America on that Sunday, and kept him there even as the lone protestor. That is a small victory that he will carry, he says.
Three days later, Abdo travels to St. Louis for another observation of his prostate at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He rushes the three-hour drive home so he can attend the general assembly meeting at Phelps Grove Park that evening.
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The meeting is well organized. Most of the 15 people in attendance chip in for a potluck on the balmy spring night. Five months after the Escrow Field victory, the remaining Occupiers are resting on picnic benches in the middle of the park, where hundreds came to take part in the demonstrations this past fall.
Members arrive slowly, some alone, some in pairs. Each week, the movement comes together, either to meet or to march. Its resiliency – especially from those who stayed loyal through the winter – is the redeeming quality in the park this evening.
The gathering is leaderless, true to Occupy form, and everyone honors the movement’s international language by using hand signals to communicate. Members must use “up twinkles” to agree with a motion, which means raising two hands in the air and wiggling all ten fingers. Crossing the forearms across the chest represents “blocking” a sentiment, and by simply raising a hand, a member has just as much power to speak as the person sitting beside them.
At the beginning of the meeting, the whole group huddles around one Occupy member, Vicke Kepling, to hear about her adventure to Chicago for the NATO protests the weekend prior. “The crazy thing is that at some of these protests,” says Kepling, with a wide smile on her face, “you start to see the same people.” The crowd around her leans forward and listens as if Kepling were telling stories around a campfire.
While she speaks, a young man who supports the Black Bloc passes around a clipping from the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the weekend’s protest. He identifies himself as Traven Mahler, and he looks the part of the anarchist faction: long dark hair, with the words “Black Bloc” spray-painted in black on the back of his gray sweater. He’s the only one at the meeting wearing a Guy Fawkes mask , which has become the trademark veil of the Occupy movement.
Mahler is proud of the subject in the newspaper, and excitedly hands it to other Occupy members at the table. The clipping features his former roommate, Samuel Blantz, a Springfield resident who told a reporter about tearing down a NATO banner and escaping Chicago police. Blantz was arrested on May 19 for criminal damage to property.
The Occupy movement may not be top-of-mind anymore among the American people, but out in cities across America – even Springfield – the spirit of Zuccotti Park is still alive.
As Kepling continues to relate her experience in Chicago, Abdo sits and listens quietly. He’s not the type of man to speak without insight. He’s looking for the right time to address the group, because he has a lot on his mind. He sits near the end of the table, wearing a white-and-yellow short-sleeved striped shirt. He clasps his hands peacefully.
After everyone breaks away from Kepling and settles into their seats, Abdo asks to speak. The table grows quiet. “Nobody showed up on Sunday,” he says quietly, but firmly.
The table grows quieter, and Abdo proceeds to tell them that he was at Phelps Grove Park to make signs at 10 a.m., as planned on Facebook. And that he was there early for the protest on Battlefield. That was planned in advance, too. He never raises his voice, and he avoids trifling talk; everything he says has a purpose.
One group member says he drove by the park early and that nobody was making signs, so he didn’t stop.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Kepling says to Abdo. “I know if I feel strongly about something, I will go even if nobody shows up. I know how that feels.”
Scott Youngkin stands to the side, arms folded in front of his green tie-dyed shirt. Here, he just listens.
He’ll wait for his chance to speak.
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If the ambition of a seasoned activist like Abdo Soliman is going to help carry Occupy 417 to new heights, then the salt-of-the-earth vision of a man like Scott Youngkin is what will allow the movement to remain grounded.
Like Abdo, he gardens in his backyard. He has 28 tomato plants on a half-acre lot in South Central Springfield that he’s been growing for about 20 years. His grandfather, Joseph Noenig, used to own a greenhouse on East Division Street. During the Depression, the family story goes, many people would come to Joseph’s house regularly, and he would serve them a plate of tomatoes. He was a respectable man, from a tough German family , Scott says. It’s easy to see where his lack of idleness comes from.
Scott asserts that he is dually employed. By day, he works as a designer for Positronic Industries, while at night, he schemes new ideas for the Occupy movement. At Positronic, an electrical connector supplier, he receives rough sketch assignments from the company’s brass and is instructed to design and build new connectors. Precision is key. Temperature, surface evaluation, electrical schematics – the design must be executed in absolutes.
When Scott makes his way to Occupy meetings, he feels like the role is similar — it’s just the setting that’s changed.
At the general assembly meeting in Phelps Grove Park, he receives rough ideas from the group and then takes those ideas to help shape the group’s next month of activism. Many of the group members support an idea to hold a festival sometime in the fall, which would require a permit fee and deposit. Scott advocates holding a yard sale for the movement next month, and a date is set for June 23.
The group also expresses interest in Green Party politician David Cobb, who plans to visit Springfield in October, and Youngkin begins scheming a plan on how to incorporate the administrations of Missouri State and Drury into the movement this summer. In turn, the discussion leads to the subject of recruitment for the group’s expansion.
The fact that Scott is a facilitator at this meeting is, in many ways, remarkable. It never crossed his mind to protest in his hometown until eight months ago. The streets he now marches are the streets where he was raised, specifically in the Oakwood Terrace Apartments off Grand and Fourth. He calls them the “projects of Springfield,” and that’s where he learned to bust his back in a household commanded by a single mother trying to raise three boys.
“My dad died when I was 9, Valentines Day. He had a rare bone disease,” Scott says. “He was in World War II and Korea, so he didn’t leave us anything. Cashed out his insurance policy before he died. So we were left pretty poor.”
His calls his hometown a service town , but he’s always made the right moves to survive by using his hands. Scott was schooled in the area’s drafting academies, first at the now-defunct Draughon Business College, then at Ozarks Technical. Over the last two decades, he’s bounced from one industrial job to the next, from rotary engineering to concrete pouring to hours on the assembly line.
Most Americans don’t associate a time and place with the great economic crash of 2008, but oddly enough, Scott Youngkin does. He was sitting in a Tulsa pizza place one night in September 2008, watching television. He doesn’t understand why he can remember the moment.
What he remembers is being tired. For the two years leading up to that moment, he’d worked everywhere, from Aerotek in Boise to General Electric in Kansas City to an aircraft engineering crew in Tulsa. Sitting there in that pizza place, he wonders to himself: What the hell is going on? Youngkin didn’t own any stock, but he started to feel the effects of the crash reaching him.
He craved stability, and so he picked up his life — again — and moved back to Springfield.
More than the hard times in the workforce, he remembers worrying about his son Andrew, one of two sons he had with his ex-wife. He says shortly after Andrew suffered his third concussion playing running back at local Parkview High, he began experiencing mental health issues. Wading through the health care system to properly diagnose his son presented major problems, Scott says, and issues with his insurance policy further complicated the process.
“I was seeing how there just wasn’t anything in place to help people with mental disorders,” he says. “Just that one thing in itself right there, kind of spawned me during those times, and then when I went to Occupy, it all just kind of came out.”
People like Scott – middle-aged, blue-collar Springfield natives with no history of activism, or even political motivations, for that matter – don’t just become demonstrators overnight. Scott went to his first Occupy general assembly meeting in October as a favor to his girlfriend. By May, he was a co-facilitator for the first time. He’s a leader in the Move to Amend 417 cause, researching issues such as bank divestments, and sends out media advisories across Springfield for each demonstration.
One of those advisories went out on the Friday before Memorial Day, outlining Occupy 417’s plans to protest the grand opening of a Walmart on Glenstone Avenue. The new facility – yet another entry from the Bentonville giant into the greater Springfield area – has smooth brown stones and glossy neon green trim.
On the Friday following that week’s general assembly meeting, Scott and the Occupiers stand outside the store, 14 strong. As an overflow of shoppers park their cars on the new pavement for the first time, the team stands silently, holding signs in protest. Vicke Kepling is there, waving her sign with several other female members. Abdo is not there.
The contrast from Abdo’s one-man protest outside Bank of America could scarcely be stronger. On this day, Springfield residents see the signs and respond. One woman in a red minivan rolls down her window while stopped at a red light, and screams, “Walmart Sucks!”
“That’s putting it mildly,” screams Scott Youngkin, standing at the far end of the boulevard alone and holding a sign that reads, “PLEASE BUY LOCAL.”
After a couple of hours outside the store, Occupy 417 calls it a day. The group will return to the same spot the next morning, and can only hope the traffic forecast is thick. Heavy traffic means big business for Walmart, but it also means more exposure for the Occupiers.
Scott is the last to leave. He folds his poster and heads for his red 1988 Ford F-150 parked in the La Hacienda parking lot next to Walmart. He doesn’t park between the enemy’s yellow lines.
When he tries to start his truck, the clutch goes out, and radiator fluid begins to flow underneath the vehicle. Scott inspects the leak, and realizes that he’s going to be waiting awhile. He calls a mechanic friend for a tow. Then he pops the tailgate, takes off his shirt and lights an American Spirit.
As he sits on the tailgate, he stares deeply at the people who come and go from Walmart’s entrances. He points to them, and says, “They’re in a mode. I used to be in that mode. I used to go to Walmart. I broke away eight months ago.”
He thinks about how much he’s changed in those eight months. He feels like he’s become more active in his city. He feels like he has a role in his community.
He says he knows his place in Springfield now more than ever.
Eventually, Scott’s friend pulls into the parking lot with a white Ford pickup, and hooks two thick ropes to the bumper of the rig. Scott puts his tailgate up, puts his shirt back on and climbs into his truck for the ride home.
The attached old Fords slowly creep out of the parking lot. The trucks merge with buzzing traffic on Bennett Avenue, and disappear.
He’ll be back in the morning.