The Occupy movement claims it represents our neighbors, the 99 percent of Americans unhappy by one thing or the other. So I thought I would put that to the test.
A few days after the Salt Lake version was evicted from Pioneer Park, I went to its daily noon-time performance at the Gallivan Center plaza to get a firsthand look. Who are these people, exactly?
As the show was assembled and props — a makeshift coffin, some flowers and a blue and gold cloth — put in place, I confronted an articulate and polite participant and asked him questions.
He told me his name was Jesse Riddle. I had to squint a bit. It had been a few years. But beneath his beard and the older features, I recognized him as someone whose family once lived one block over from mine.
Former neighbor? Well, close enough, I suppose.
But while the "We're your neighbors" claim hit home in a way I hadn't expected, the message I came away with wasn't made any clearer. Big banks are bad. The 1 percent of earners controls everything. Yeah, so?
The Occupy movement has been a sort of experiment in persistent vague protesting, and it seemed to reach the limits of collective patience last week.
The First Amendment doesn't put any qualifiers on free speech. You don't have to actually make sense to be free to speak. But when you set up tents in the park and carry on day after day it apparently can lead to a situation when, almost in unison, police departments nationwide begin a crackdown.
That happened in New York City, where police had ugly confrontations with campers in Zucotti Park, and where a court ultimately agreed with the city that the freedom of speech does not equate to the freedom to permanently occupy a public space.
It happened in Oakland, where tussles and arrests made for riveting video, and where a broader Occupy California movement later stormed a Bank of America lobby.
And, well, Salt Lake City's version has been a bit kinder and gentler, in keeping with the city's overall image. Still, 19 people were arrested here last weekend when the city decided it had seen enough. Police Chief Chris Burbank called it a question of public health and safety, no doubt exacerbated when one of the protesters died in his tent.
It was just past 12:30 p.m. when the show began, the handful of players took their places in the chill and golden-leaf swirl of an autumn day. Amid solemn funereal music from an electric piano, the dialog commenced.
"The American dream is dead," cried one actor.
"Democracy is dead," wailed another. They stared in anguish at the coffin.
After 10 minutes or so of this, the villain, dressed in a suit and tie with pretend dollar bills attached — the personification of the greedy banker — was handcuffed and led away by another actor.
As vague as anything else the movement has produced, it appeared to be a statement about the recent arrests and the evictions.
But it was, above all, a fine display of the freedom of speech, without even the hint of government interference.
I was reminded of a column I read last week by James Kirchick in the New York Daily News. He had witnessed a protest last year in Belarus, where the government apparently staged violence in order to justify a bloody and indiscriminant crackdown.
The Occupy movement, he said, should see a real police state. Last week's arrests were because "squatting creates a public health hazard."
Jesse Riddle disagrees. Camping, he says, was a form of expression. The homeless who regularly live in the park felt the protesters were good for the neighborhood.
While I no longer can scoff at the claim that the Occupy crowd is made up of at least one of my neighbors, and while Jesse's parents are some of the nicest people I've known, I have to disagree.
It's time for occupiers to pull up stakes and get involved politically to see if their message resonates. My guess is it doesn't.