Wall Street protests gather the disaffected

by Matt Kennard and Shannon Bond in New York
October 4, 2011 6:48 pm
"Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators stage a march dressed as corporate zombies during a protest near Wall Street in New York,

Victoria Sobel says her parents have worked hard all their lives but are now struggling to make ends meet.

That’s why the 21-year-old Cooper Union student has been sleeping rough in downtown Manhattan for nearly three weeks and does not plan on going home any time soon.

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“I’m fed up with the way our financial system is structured,” she says. “My parents work harder than anyone I know, but I’ve had to watch them really scrounge. That’s the reality for me and many people.”

Ms Sobel is just one of hundreds of people who have been camped out in Zuccotti Park to show their frustration over a range of issues, including what they see as a lack of government regulation and taxation of big US banks at a time when arecord number of Americans are living in povertyand are out of work.

She says she is not typical of the growing ranks of Occupy Wall Street protesters– because there is no typical protester.

“We have a spectrum socially, ethnically and ideologically,” she says. “It’s very spread out.”

Some observers, including Van Jones, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, have called the Occupy Wall Street protests the start of a “progressive” version of the Tea Party movement.

“You are going to see an American fall, an American autumn, just like we saw the Arab spring,” Mr Jones said on MSNBC.

As the protests have extended into a third week in New York and sparked similar demonstrations in Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago, even Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was asked about the growing movement during an appearance before Congress.

“Like everyone else, I’m dissatisfied with what the economy’s doing right now,” Mr Bernanke said, adding that protesters had cause to be unhappy over the economy and political issues.

The New York City protesters have been boosted this week by support from the Transport Workers Union. But a judge on Tuesday rejected a union request to bar the police and the city’s transit authority from requiring drivers to transport arrested protesters.

Over the weekend, the police commandeered city buses to carry some of the700 demonstrators arrested on Saturday as they marched on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“The protesters have hit a chord with workers and working families,” Jim Gannon, union spokesman, told the Financial Times. “We are expected to pay for Wall Street’s implosion with jobs and wages and benefits. Protesters are putting a spotlight on that. We’re trying to do what we can to grow that spotlight.”

The TWU, which has 38,000 members, and other unions have pledged to join a march on Wall Street on Wednesday, which organisers expect to draw thousands.

Mr Gannon said the union had been in contact with the organisers of Occupy Wall Street about how to help.

“They said we don’t need anything right now, they are organised,” he said. “So we are going to provide moral support, and over the next weeks and months there will be material support as needed.”

In Boston, hundreds of demonstrators have marched on the state house on Monday, while protesters in Chicago beat drums outside the Federal Reserve Bank. In New York, economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, actress Susan Sarandon and filmmaker Michael Moore have all stopped by Zuccotti Park to lend support.

“I think [the movement] reflects an inchoate anger and frustration at the failure of the Bush and Obama administrations to hold people to account for malfeasance over the last few years,” said Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor who teaches the history of American radicalism.

He said that if history was any judge, the fact that the demands of the Occupy Wall Street protesters were so far “unfocused” did not mean it would not develop into a mass movement.

“In the 1930s labour had unfocused demonstrations and strikes, dealing with very specific things, then it developed into the modern labour movement.”

Mr Foner said some of his students had joined the protests, many of them enthusiastic supporters of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. “I think it’s a warning sign for the Obama administration that that kind of enthusiasm doesn’t exist any more.”

Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs have found little support so far among Democrats, outside of a few lawmakers on the left of the party.

“The message of Occupy Wall Street is we think both political parties are owned by the same guys,” said David Graeber, a former professor of anthropology at Yale who joined in the protests. “If democracy is to mean anything, it means that everybody has to weigh in on this process of how money is created and promises are renegotiated.”

In Zuccotti Park on Tuesday, Ms Sobel said the movement was reaching “a crucial point in which we need to begin to address infrastructure and sustainability, make the place conducive to getting work done”.

“I’m in for the long-haul,” she added.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011