NEW YORK — Anarchist literature and cardboard signs declared a small corner of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to be a “class warfare zone.” A handwritten placard warned “bourgeois tourists” to move along.
“Why not just do away with money all together?” asked Patronum Ignis, 25, a bearded bohemian who referred to himself as an “advocate of the peaceful fire.” He believes in class conflict, but recently told the Register that he was also sleeping in a tent at Occupy Wall Street to “love and be loved.”
“Jesus’ love has been paralyzed by the system,” he said.
Less than 30 feet away, Michael Stewart-Isaacs, a well-dressed, self-described entrepreneur comfortable in corporate boardrooms, held a sign plugging his hip-hop community nonprofit. He said he believed Wall Street can be reformed to benefit the common good.
“We want Wall Street to invest money into things that matter, into human beings,” said Stewart-Isaacs, 28, who predicts the decentralized, amorphous Occupy protest movement will develop into a political party and create a new global bill of rights.
“People have felt so undervalued. ... I want to make sure we don’t lose the message,” he said.
Nobody — not even the small central group of organizers trying to frame the movement’s narrative via the Internet — can predict what will ultimately become of Occupy Wall Street, which began in mid-September and has since expanded to more than 950 cities across the United States and internationally to Rome, London and Toronto.
The Occupy movement models itself after the Arab Spring uprisings, but unlike the Middle East protests, there are no organizing principles, such as demands that government leaders step down. Occupy Wall Street has no real leadership, no list of demands, and is incoherent in ideology, other than an overarching theme of attacking corporate greed.
But Occupy Wall Street is growing, and it is gaining momentum. Declaring themselves to be the “99%,” college students, young professionals, working-class people and retirees are holding flags and marching together. Socialists who envision government control of large sectors of society converse with anarchists. Grandmothers hold signs next to young homeless people. Nearly all races and ethnic groups appear to be represented.
“This movement has roots in American society that run far deeper than any of the labor rights and anti-war protests I have been involved in,” said Mark Bary, 29, a member of Occupy Wall Street’s press team.
“This is the most significant social movement I’ve seen in my young 29 years of life,” he said.
“The people it’s attracting means this is something we will have to keep an eye on,” said Christina Greer, an associate political science professor at Fordham University in New York City.
Greer said Occupy Wall Street is catching on because many people are still struggling three years after the 2008 financial meltdown and are beginning to realize that a small percentage of the population has not been affected.
“People are angry that the vast majority of those who have put this country in its current position have not gone to jail for lining their pockets,” Greer said.
That anger is palpable walking around an Occupy site in any major U.S. city.
At Occupy Boston, located in Dewey Square, a literal stone’s throw from the Federal Reserve Bank Building, anti-capitalist signs calling to “End the Fed” and declaring “Capitalism Is Slavery” dot the small park in Boston’s Financial District. Red socialist flags, complete with images of the late communist revolutionary Che Guevara, are prominent.
An Occupy site is comparable to a small city. People check out books at the library tent and seek out medical attention at the “hospital” tent. Volunteers serve food — free-will donations accepted — in a kitchen area. There is no church, but a tent serves as a “sacred space” where people meditate. The sacred space often has statues of the Buddha, incense and literature extolling New Age spirituality.
Protesters introduce their own pet issues. There is graffiti demanding marijuana’s legalization, as well as calling for an end to fracking, a method of extracting oil and natural gas that critics say harms the environment and poisons drinking water. Anti-war, pro-Palestinian, pro-homosexual-rights signs are ubiquitous. Boston protesters also recently signed a resolution expressing their solidarity with indigenous peoples the world over.
Lack of a Coherent Message?
Libby Glenn, 23, of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood who had spent a week at Occupy Boston, told the Register that the movement’s greatest strength was its lack of a charismatic leader or central organizing principle.
“We are learning to have conversations together. Everybody has a place here. If we had that dynamic leader, we wouldn’t have as much ownership of the movement as we have. We would lose that,” said Glenn, who studied philosophy, religion and international relations at Boston University. She works in advertising research and said her years volunteering in her Anglican church’s social ministries helped shape her political consciousness.
“The Kingdom of God is among us here,” Glenn said.
“Anybody is welcome here. It’s open to whoever wants to be involved. It’s a broad spectrum of opinions, and I think that’s okay. This is what democracy is,” said Danny Bryck, a 24-year-old theater actor in Boston. Bryck said the Occupy movement has a “manifold, complex” message.
“It’s a little messy, but that’s the give and take of it,” Bryck said.
However, not everyone in the Occupy site believes the decentralized model will work long term.
T.J. Jacobs, 19, who has been residing at Occupy Boston since late September, said the movement needs to focus its demands to produce a list of action items.
“The slogans are not getting us anywhere,” said Jacobs, who added that he is not anti-capitalism. He also called several of his fellow protesters “hypocrites” for shouting someone down at a rally who had proposed presenting a list of written demands to City Hall.
“Nobody runs this. Everybody is in it for themselves,” he said.
The lack of a coherent message could ultimately undo the Occupy Movement, said Ray Nothstine, managing editor of Religion & Liberty at the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank.
“I’m hesitant to say it will bring about any change,” Nothstine said. “You have too many splinter groups. I can understand people are frustrated with the political status quo, and they’re mad about crony capitalism and government bailouts.
“But some of the demands that have been coming out of this movement, like a $20 minimum wage and across the board debt forgiveness, are very Utopian, and they’re really sort of economic disasters, as I would put it. They would create inflationary policies, create more deficit spending, and create more problems that helped to create the mess that we’re in.”
Skeptical That Reform Is Possible
Nothstine said he was not surprised to see labor unions latching on to Occupy protests. He calls the labor movement “partisan,” and warned that the unions’ involvement could sap the Occupy movement’s grassroots energy. He also said the protesters were directing their ire at the wrong target.
“Why is it focused on Wall Street? When I think, really a lot of the blame should be put on the out-of-control federal spending that caused a lot of the problems.”
But Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, an Illinois-based alliance of religious leaders dedicated to advocating for workers, said that Occupy Wall Street provides a “teaching moment” to religious congregations on the issues of social justice and workers’ rights.
“The core issues here are the growing inequality in the nation, the lack of responsiveness to that and the job crisis,” Bobo said.
“There is a growing frustration with what people have witnessed in Congress, which almost had a total meltdown this summer and couldn’t get anything done at all. People are just like ‘What are our options right now?’ We’ve got to get attention from our policymakers on these issues.”
Bobo said the Occupy movement was a “great thing” because it gives voice to the unemployed and underemployed who have been increasingly overlooked and ignored.
“In my opinion, only good can come out of this,” she said.
“Occupy Wall Street will get to a point where President Obama will have to address this and recognize this,” Fordham’s Greer said. “More people are realizing corporate greed damaged the American dream.”
Back at Zuccotti Park, Amber Yoder, 26, of Brooklyn, wore an anti-corporate greed sign. Yoder, a graduate student at Long Island University, said she grew up as a political conservative until the 2008 financial meltdown.
“I’ll be here as long as it takes. ... We’re in it for the long haul. This is just the beginning, the organizational phase of something much bigger,” Yoder said.
Next to her stood Bruce Smith, 49, a former corporate banker who left the industry during the deregulation of the 1980s.
“I’m angry about cronyism and our government being sold off to the highest bidder,” said Smith, a small business owner in Maine who is skeptical that reform is possible.
“We have a government incapable of effecting change,” he said.
Passing through Zuccotti Park, speaking through a din of beating drums, Herb Rogall, an elderly New Jersey man who grew up during the Great Depression, said he empathized with the protesters, though he did not know what would ultimately become of them.
“I think it’s like a hippy movement,” he said. “I wish it could take off, but when the cold weather and the rain come. ... We’ll see.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.