DES MOINES, Iowa — Already they have interrupted Michele Bachmann and drawn a withering putdown from Newt Gingrich as "all noise, no thought."
Now, to the dismay of Iowa Republicans, Occupy activists in Des Moines are vowing to expand their protests as GOP presidential hopefuls converge on the state that speaks first in the race for the party's presidential nomination.
"The 99 percent have woken up and we're not going to take it anymore," Occupy activist Stephen Toothman, of Des Moines, said as an advance guard met Tuesday to decide which candidates to target in the coming week.
Hundreds of Occupy activists from at least 10 states were expected to participate in a "People's Caucus" near the Capitol to plot activities between now and the Jan. 3 caucuses. The activists are promising to interrupt candidates at events and camp out at their Iowa campaign offices. They say they want to change the political dialogue, but critics fear their tactics could tarnish Iowa's reputation for civil political discourse ahead of the contest. Activists say mass arrests are possible.
They planned to break up into preference groups based on which candidates they want to target and present with a list of grievances.
Organizers are encouraging activists who live in Iowa to show up on caucus night and vote "no preference" as a protest but say they have no plans to interfere with the voting itself. Nonetheless, state Republican Party officials have instructed precinct leaders to report any disruption to police and the party.
Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn criticized Occupy activists for targeting the caucuses, which have long been held up as a model of democracy where citizens in the months leading up to the event can directly question candidates and then gather with their neighbors on caucus night. Strawn said he worried most of the problems would be caused by those from out of state.
"It would be an absolute shame if outside agitators ruin the Iowa caucus experience," he said.
Occupy activists, who came from as far away as New York and Seattle, said the caucuses were largely meaningless because the parties and candidates were overly influenced by wealthy, special interests that led them to ignore key issues.
"The caucuses are really a statement as to where the nation is as a whole. I think this occupation is really a statement that they are dissatisfied with all the choices that we've been given," said Ivan Burghart, an activist from St. Louis who mingled with others at the group's Des Moines headquarters.
Occupy Des Moines organizer Jess Mazour, 24, said protesters wanted candidates to address issues ranging from campaign finance reform to college debt to the home foreclosure crisis. She said the weeklong set of actions marked a new phase for the nationwide Occupy movement, and would be a test of whether activists could flex political muscle as one group.
The group insists it will practice non-violence, and activists were going through civil disobedience training Tuesday. Still, police fear scuffles could break out between frustrated candidates' supporters and protesters at events.
Already, the tactics have annoyed candidates and angered supporters.
When Occupy activists started chants against Bachmann at an Iowa City diner last week, campaign aides blared Christmas songs from a sound system to drown them out. That prompted one activist to yell in the face of a Republican organizer to turn down the music, and the restaurant manager called police as tensions rose. Bachmann soon departed — and her supporters left upset by what had transpired.
Stephany Hoffelt, a member of Occupy Iowa City, said protesters believed the in-your-face tactics were justified because their message hasn't gotten through in the past.
"It's perfectly appropriate if you were listening to what we were saying," Hoffelt said of the group's chant blasting Bachmann's positions on health care and taxes. "She is part of the 1 percent."
Protesters with Occupy Des Moines startled Gingrich when he started speaking at a news conference at the Capitol this month, surprising him from behind and shouting "put people first," before being ushered out. Protesters later trailed Gingrich through the Capitol halls and taunted him. "You can run but you can't hide," one said.
Gingrich dismissed them as the "one-tenth of one percent" and noted he'd been similarly heckled during an earlier stop in Iowa City. "All noise, no thought, tried to drown out conversation," he said.
In the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, where Gingrich, Bachmann and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, have campaign offices, police met with staffers to discuss how to handle protests.
Urbandale police Lt. Kent Knopf said offices may keep their doors locked to prevent sit-ins, and he advised campaign aides to call his department if they want protesters to leave. Knopf said protesters would be cited for trespassing if they ignore orders to leave or camp directly outside offices instead of a public space within 15 feet of the street.
"It's a waste of everybody's energy for what they are trying to accomplish," Knopf said. "They think they're doing something. We'll see if it makes a difference or not, but it hasn't yet."
Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.
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