DES MOINES, Iowa — Occupy Wall Street protesters in Des Moines and Iowa City have plenty of concerns about corporate America and the growing gap between rich and poor, but they may soon have a more immediate problem to deal with — an icy Iowa winter.
In Des Moines, up to two dozen people have camped most nights at Stewart Square, a city park about two blocks from the Capitol. As overnight temperatures dip into the low 30s, protesters have bundled up in coats, hats and gloves. Some have already surrounded their tents in layers of cardboard, hay bales and trash bags filled with leaves and tarps.
Protesters said they're committed to staying in the park to draw attention to their concerns.
"I'm equipped to be out here however cold it gets, whether it's 20 degrees above or 20 below," said Bill Lewis, a 31-year-old who receives Social Security disability payments.
Christopher Catron, 17, is camping with friends in a tent surrounded by layers of leaf bags and cardboard. Catron insisted he'll stick it out over the winter.
"Through the winter and next summer or until we win," said Catron, a high school drop-out. "Someday I'll be able to look back and say I helped with the movement and helped with change."
Still, considering that last winter the temperature dropped as low at 11 below zero in Des Moines and individual storms dropped up to 8 inches of snow, it's clear that wintering outside in Iowa isn't easy.
David Goodner, a protest organizer and staff member of the group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, acknowledged it would be difficult.
"There is no question that is the biggest challenge," Goodner said. "We have a tremendous base of support and it isn't going away anytime soon. People are taking this serious. They're fortifying their tents and getting ready."
Rod Niemier, 50, doesn't camp at night because of health reasons but he spends up to 10 hours a day at the park. He said protesters have started to build some reinforced structures that have weathered high winds.
"Last night we had 30 mph winds, so I know a blizzard will be no problem," said Niemier, an Air Force veteran who graduated from the University of Northern Iowa in 2006 but lost his job at a Des Moines manufacturer that makes parts for military equipment.
Although residents and business owners have grown weary with protesters in some cities, there haven't been conflicts with those who live near Stewart Square. The small park is surrounded by a mix of state offices, small businesses and apartment buildings.
Some from the neighborhood have brought food and supplies to the protesters and the campers have organized community dinners each night that are open to area residents.
Peggy Ingram, president of the neighborhood association, said the protesters should be allowed to stay as long as they want. Ingram said she and others would help them with warm meals and blankets.
"We invited them to our neighborhood meeting and everyone welcomed them with open arms," Ingram said.
In Iowa City, about a dozen protesters camp out each night but daily meetings draw as many as 50 with 100 or more participating in marches and rallies, organizer Shay O'Reilly said.
He expects participation to drop off with wintry weather, but a large tent on a wooden frame should help keep protesters warm.
O'Reilly said he would support revising the group's rules to give protesters the flexibility to not maintain a round-the-clock presence during the winter.
Although there have been arrests and occasional skirmishes at other protests, including one in Oakland, Calif., in which a man was critically injured, the Iowa protests have been largely peaceful.
Thirty-two people were arrested Oct. 9, on the first weekend of the Des Moines protest, when occupiers refused police warnings to leave the Capitol grounds after an 11 p.m. curfew. Since then, the city has issued permits for the nearby park and there have been no arrests and few complaints.
"Morale here is very high and there's no indication this is going away anytime soon," Goodner said.
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