It was not exactly like the occupations of Wall Street or Boston, of Oakland or Seattle.
Rod House’s “wee encampment” was a one-man occupation on the library grounds in LaVeta, Colorado, population 906, some 65 miles southwest of Pueblo. He was so horrified by what he saw happening to protesters in other cities he was at wit’s end.
“I’ve got to do something, but I’m 71 years old,” House said.
So on Black Friday, that day that represents consumer society on steroids, House, an Air Force veteran, pitched his tent on the library grounds, determined to make his own stand for a better world. He was there simply as individual standing against the power of money that has corrupted politics.
The mayor stopped by with a city ordinance prohibiting recreational camping on city property. House did not exactly see this as recreation, so he handed the mayor of copy of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution with its guarantee of the right of citizens to peaceably assemble.
House and the mayor had a friendly chat for about a half hour that first day. No one ever moved to dislodge House during the week of his encampment. But lots of people passed by with either cheers of support or jeers of derision.
“I have no demands,” he told a local reporter. “I just want to encourage people to talk with each other.”
If there was a disappointment in all of this for House, is that was more people did not stop to talk at length. He sees the black and white views of so many folks as part of the problem.
It’s a problem he can relate to. He once saw the world in black and white terms as well.
He grew up in a rock-ribbed conservative family that idolized Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunt in the 1950s for anyone who might be a Communist. House was in the military, read everything that libertarian Ayn Rand wrote, argued vehemently with co-workers over their liberal perceptions of the world.
Slowly, slowly, House began to change his viewpoint. One of the things that bothered him about Rand’s books was the absence of children. “I love children,” he said. He became a teacher, a literacy volunteer, he fell in love with a woman who was a liberal.
Now here he was on the library lawn, taking a stand against the concentrated power of wealth defended by what he saw as brutal police reactions around the country. An Iraq veteran suffering brain damage in Oakland. Books from the New York occupation hauled off to a garbage dump.
It was a book that helped crystalize House’s reaction. He randomly picked up a new book called Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, by Parker Palmer. He was deeply touched by its call to pay attention to how change begins in the depths of the human heart, in the core of our beings. He bought extra copies of the book for the improvised library at Zucotti Park in New York before the police trashed the book collection there.
After a week on the LaVeta library lawn, when House folded up his tent and went back home to be with his wife, he felt he had made his point and that ripples from his wee encampment had spread out farther than he might have expected.
A woman in her 80s stopped him in Charley’s Grocery and Ice Cream store, put her hand on his shoulder, and told him, “I’m so happy that you did what you did.”
A cowboy author in town – “a pretty right-wing guy” in House’s description – continued their chats, even though “he acknowledged that he knew I had been up to something.”
The librarian sent a letter to the town council thanking the town leaders for “being supportive” of the occupation – even though being supportive meant that they just let House continue to camp out on the library lawn without confrontation.
And then there was the story he learned from the author whose book was the catalyst for his action. Palmer contacted House after the author heard about the connection between the book and the occupation. Palmer called House’s action the kind of “review” of his book that meant more than any academic praise. “He reviewed the book with his life,” Palmer said.
The day before his conversation with House, Palmer had met with a group of teachers from the Madison, Wis., public schools, teachers who are leaders in their profession but who were deeply discouraged by all the political attacks on teachers and public education during the past year.
Palmer told them about House’s solitary action in LaVeta. “They lit up,” Palmer said. “There was new energy in the conversation. The tone was, ‘If he can do that, we can do things as well.’”
House himself said that the book and then the occupation have refocused him a bit. He always saw himself as someone who could fix things. Now he sees himself more as part of an “everlasting conversation” in a democracy where things are never finally fixed but where the work goes on and on. “We have to do the talking part,” he said. We have to live with holding the tensions that come with disagreement.
And once in a while, Rod House learned, you have to pitch your tent and take a stand, inviting others to engage with you about how to make a better world.
Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis., a suburb of Madison.