NEW YORK — Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon have
dropped in. A seasoned diplomat dispenses free advice. Supporters send
everything from boxes of food and clothes to Whole Foods gift cards.
They even have their own app, for the legions of fans following them on
iPhones and Androids.
Nearly two weeks into a
sit-in at a park in Manhattan’s financial district, the “leaderless
resistance movement” calling itself Occupy Wall Street is at a
crossroads. The number of protesters on scene so far tops out at a few
hundred, tiny by Athens or Cairo standards.
the traction they have gained from run-ins with police, a live feed from
their encampment and celebrity visits is upping expectations. How about
some specific demands, a long-term strategy, maybe even … office space?
So far the group has none of those.
“At a certain point, there’s a valid criticism in people asking, ‘What are you doing here?’” said protester Chris Biemer, 23.
answer isn’t entirely clear as the demonstration wraps up its second
week. The group generally defines itself as anti-greed, but also weighs
in on a broad range of social issues.
exchange that illuminated one of the dilemmas that any movement for
change faces, Biemer and protester Victoria Sobel made it clear they had
different visions for Occupy Wall Street.
who recently moved to New York from Florida with a degree in business
administration, says that ideally the group should team up with a
nonprofit organization and get office space.
possible to stay here for months or longer, but at some point we’re
going to become a fixture,” he said of their home in Zuccotti Park, a
privately owned, publicly accessible plaza dotted with trees and flower
beds about midway between the Stock Exchange and the former World Trade
Sobel, who like Biemer serves on
Occupy Wall Street’s finance committee, disagrees and said the group’s
strength lies in its ability to remain highly visible and in a place
where anyone can visit and participate. The 21-year-old New York
University student happily reported Wednesday that bookshelves had been
delivered to the UPS store where the group receives mail. They’ll sit
beneath a tarp in the park, all part of Sobel’s vision to solidify the
“It’s a moment of clarifying for
us,” Sobel said, confident that as autumn’s chill turns to winter’s
subfreezing temperatures, Occupy Wall Street will stay put. “We’ll
layer,” she said with a laugh, when asked how they’ll manage the cold.
protest, which evolved from a network of individuals and groups
galvanized by the demonstrations in Egypt last winter, has moved far
beyond what it was on Sept. 17, when police barricaded the streets
outside the Stock Exchange to prevent a march there to protest corporate
greed. A map in Zuccotti Park pinpoints scores of other cities with
Occupy Wall Street events either under way or planned, including sit-ins
planned for Los Angeles on Saturday and Washington on Oct. 6.
its proximity to the real Wall Street and its series of high-profile
visitors have made the New York protest the focal point. So have
inflammatory videos posted online that show a New York police officer
using pepper spray on some protesters last Saturday.
its settlement has gelled into an organized community that hums along
almost Zen-like, coexisting with the city that rages around it and
ignored by many either too busy or too uninterested to stop. Harried
commuters seem to barely notice the mishmash of humanity a few feet away
as they rush down the sidewalks skirting the park.
stroll in to snap pictures and read the protest signs scattered across
the ground, then wander off to their next sightseeing stop. Executives
drop in on lunch breaks to talk politics and economics. Police hang back
on the sidewalks, and follow along when groups of protesters stage
Protest numbers vary as people drift in
and out of the park. Some live in the area and come by for a few hours
each day or week. Others stay there around the clock, their sleeping
bags, guitars and clothing bundles spread on the ground. On Wednesday,
they included a sleepy-eyed young man in a rumpled T-shirt cuddling a
pet rat, and a woman who pranced about in her underwear.
are committees, including one for finance, food and comfort, which
ensures that anyone who needs blankets, dry clothing or perhaps a hug
gets it. There are twice-daily meetings where anyone can make a brief
announcement. To avoid violating a ban on bullhorns, the crowd
obediently repeats in unison every phrase uttered by the main speaker,
to ensure everyone hears.
Each morning, protesters
stage a “morning bell march” through the neighborhood, to coincide with
the clanging at 9:30 a.m. of the bell that marks the start of trading
at the Stock Exchange. Most days, a “closing bell” march also takes
place in the afternoon.
On its website, Occupy
Wall Street describes itself as a “leaderless resistance movement” drawn
from people of all backgrounds and political persuasions.
one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 percent that will
no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent,” the
website says. The posters in Zuccotti Park speak to the lack of a narrow
platform: “End financial aid to Israel”; “End greed, end poverty, end
war”; “No death penalty”; “Tired of racism.”
supporters of the premise wonder how far Occupy Wall Street can go in
galvanizing others if it does not translate its anger into specific
“I see something beautiful here. I’ve
never had a more interesting political debate,” said Carne Ross, a
former British diplomat. But Ross, who stops by regularly to advise
Occupy Wall Street, said it needed “far broader outreach” and a narrower
“I’d prefer to see a list of demands,”
one fan wrote on the Occupation Wall Street Facebook page, echoing the
concerns of a woman who tweeted something similar to Moore as he did an
MSNBC interview. She asked for “some specific, tangible goals.”
T. Heaney, a University of Michigan political science professor, said
such groups often bumped up against pressure to become more focused and
to build or join other institutions.
talking about is a degree of buying into a political system,” Heaney
said. “But the more you use tactics that we recognize as getting you
influence, the more you buy into the system, and … open yourself up to
In Occupy Wall Street’s case, Heaney
said, demands could be as vague as simply calling for financial bailout
programs to apply to individuals rather than banks.
Most of those in Zuccotti Park, though, don’t see the need for a change in tactics. At least not yet.
isn’t a consolidated message, and I don’t think there needs to be,”
said Andrew Lynn, 34, who drove three hours from his home in Troy, N.Y.,
to help the demonstrators’ media team.
Skolnick, a young Israeli American who by Wednesday was in his ninth
day of participating in the protest: “I think the main thing we’re doing
is knocking on the walls of ignorance in this country so people wake
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