Since mid-September, several hundred protesters have been camped out on a plaza in the heart of New York’s financial district. They call their leaderless movement "Occupy Wall Street" and they are opposed to what they say is a government controlled by corporate money and the growing income gap between the very wealthy and the rest of America.
The office workers and construction crews who lunch in Zuccotti Park on weekdays have had to make way for the colorful, messy encampment. They step around the home-made signs arrayed along the plaza making the demonstrators’ anti-corporate case: "Capitalism is a Violent Monopoly!" and "There Is No Economy on a Dead Planet - End Corporate Ecocide."
Community organizer Naif Littles spelled out the basic agenda.
"We need to stop these huge corporations, particularly the big banks on Wall Street, from controlling our members of Congress," he said. "The top 400 richest Americans have more wealth than 150 million Americans combined."
Most of the protesters appear to be in their 20s. Some say they have huge college debts, but can’t find jobs. Julien Harrison has a master’s degree, $50,000 in student debt, and wants to be a teacher. He’s been able to find only manual labor.
"Of course, they’re laying off teachers all over the country," he said. "It’s getting more and more competitive. I just came from Portland. There’s people with Ph.Ds, masters, undergraduate degrees competing to be a barista at a coffee shop."
So, he’s a fulltime protester, for now. The demonstrators have made themselves at home, setting up a first-aid station staffed by an emergency medical technician, a haphazard library along one wall of the plaza, and a "kitchen," where donated meals - mostly pizza - are distributed. Some have even brought in armchairs, and queen-size mattresses. Others nap on the cement.
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons was the most recent celebrity visitor to offer support. Actress Susan Sarandon and filmmaker activist Michael Moore also have stopped by.
"I’m here in solidarity to all the people who are protesting the money-grab and the fierce class warfare that’s been waged on the poor and under-served," Simmons told the crowd. His listeners recited his words back to him, using what the group calls a "human mic" to amplify the sound, since megaphones are not permitted in the park.
New Yorkers and tourists at Zuccotti Park have varied reactions to the ragtag incursion. Richard Oranger, who said he worked in insurance, expressed contempt.
"Lazy bum Marxist freeloaders," he said. "Their sign right there saying capitalism doesn’t work? Oh yeah, it doesn’t work?" He gestures sarcastically at the skyscrapers above. "Capitalism built this city up!"
Retired social worker Diane Lloyd wholly approved.
"I’m extremely angry," she said. "In my opinion most of the problems, the economic problems were caused knowingly by financiers. They are making tons of money after hurting tons of people, and Main Street is suffering."
"I think it’s very true," agreed Anne Glass, a tourist from Ireland. "It’s the same all over the world. Same in Ireland. Greedy people, that’s all it is."
College student Fadil Palgevic jeered.
"They should go home and stop wasting time," he said. "There’s no point in this. It’s not like they’re going to get jobs like this anyway. They’re not even looking. They’re just repeating each other."
The protest began with a call in July by a group called Adbusters, but has no formal organization. Protesters meet each day to discuss strategies and goals. Everyone has an equal voice. The demonstrators also assemble for rallies in support of workers and other causes, and for frequent marches on Wall Street.
"We are the 99 percent," they chant. And "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!"
New York police are with them wherever they go. During a march on September 24, police arrested about 80 people, and used what several onlookers said was undue force. One high-ranking officer, a deputy inspector, sprayed pepper spray in the faces of several demonstrators, including a group of women who had been fenced in by police netting. A police spokesman said the department is investigating the incidents.
There has been no violence since then, and protestors make a point of thanking the police and chanting "professionalism, courtesy, respect!" as they set out on their marches.
Some critics say that "Occupy Wall Street" is too unfocused to gain traction. Supporters reply that it is an exercise in direct democracy - and that their aims are coherent. They say they will keep their demonstration going even into the winter months. Several other New York community groups and several labor unions have announced they will join in the rallies, and meet in Washington for a similar protest being planned a few blocks from the White House.