Anti-Wall Street protests escalated with more than 700 arrests over the weekend, thrusting the once-dwindling demonstrations into the national spotlight.
The rallies, which began 16 days ago with a goal of occupying Wall Street for months, spread to cities including Los Angeles and Boston, where 25 people were arrested Sept. 30 after police said they refused to leave the lobby of a Bank of America Corp. building. The next day, New York City police halted a march over the Brooklyn Bridge and took hundreds of activists into custody for blocking traffic. Some people arrested claimed officers had tricked them into leaving the pedestrian walkway.
“The huge event on the Brooklyn Bridge is likely to bring thousands more into the movement,” said T.V. Reed, a professor of American studies at Washington State University who wrote “The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism From the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle.”
On placards and in chants, protesters are citing Americans’ frustrations with a financial industry that received unprecedented taxpayer bailouts while damaging an economy in which unemployment remains above 9 percent. They aim to put Wall Street on the defensive, just as firms seek to shape regulations and influence next year’s general election.
More Cities Targeted
Protests also have been held in San Francisco, and last week, about 200 people met in a Methodist church in Philadelphia to organize a similar event in that city, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported yesterday. (For a slide show of Amy Arbus’s portraits of Wall Street protesters, click here.)
Demonstrators initially struggled to build momentum, drawing a fraction of the 20,000 participants that organizers such as Adbusters, a group promoting the demonstrations, aimed to lure to lower Manhattan for the Sept. 17 kickoff. Instead, about 1,000 people showed up, and by the time traders and bankers returned to work two days later, the crowd had dwindled to about 200. The number of protesters camping in Zuccotti Park a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange fell into the dozens that week.
On Sept. 24, a larger group of weekend protesters watched as a New York Police Department deputy inspector used pepper spray on some participants. The incident stoked public interest.
Amateur videos of the episode were posted to Google Inc.’s YouTube. Celebrities including Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore stopped by to voice support. The police department, facing protester accusations that it had acted improperly, said its Civilian Complaint Review Board would examine the incident.
“Maybe the pepper spray was a mistake,” Jon Stewart, host of the news-satire program “The Daily Show,” joked on his Sept. 29 broadcast. “It was a hot day. Maybe that officer was reaching for his canister of cooling, cucumber-mist spray and grabbed the pepper spray by accident.”
Provoking police is part of protesters’ strategy to get noticed, said Michael Heaney, a political science professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who has researched social movements.
“The police actions give them sympathetic attention,” Heaney said yesterday in a telephone interview. “The protesters want to be pepper-sprayed, they want to be arrested,” because if authorities take actions that may be perceived as unjust, “then that helps their cause.”
The arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge may have a bigger effect on public opinion.
Entering ‘Prime Time’
“This gets you into the prime time,” said David Meyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine and author of “The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.” The question activists face is “‘How do you do something that generates news, which doesn’t implicate you for being at fault?’ And I guess New York City police were really helpful in this regard.”
Police gave “multiple warnings” and told protesters to remain on the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, Paul Browne, an NYPD spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. Some people complied, while others blocked traffic. Authorities issued more than 700 summonses and tickets, he said.
Nine protesters who didn’t have identification or had outstanding warrants spent about 24 hours in jail over the weekend, said Martin R. Stolar, a member of the National Lawyers Guild who is representing the protesters. The nine were the first to spend time behind bars. As many as 830 people have been arrested since the protests began. All were released with no bail, and all 700 people who received summonses are slated to come back to court in November or December.
Stolar said he seeks to have the Manhattan District Attorney dismiss all the arrests, comparing them to 1800 arrests made during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, where most cases were dismissed after uncertainty over whether police led the protesters on before arresting them.
“In video that I saw, and in what was anecdotally reported to me, protesters started out using the walkway and when it got crowded it appeared the police invited them to walk in the roadway,” Stolar said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported the police department’s actions on the bridge.
“The police did exactly what they are supposed to,” he told reporters yesterday before marching in the Pulaski Day Parade in midtown Manhattan. New York “is the place where you can come to express your views. Protesting is fine, but you don’t have the right to go and without a permit violate the law.”
The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Overshadowed by Economy
The protests are part of broader theme of class warfare, which might help President Barack Obama in next year’s election, said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., told Charlie Rose in New York during a Sept. 30 interview on PBS that class warfare is going on, “and my class isn’t just winning, I mean we’re killing them.”
Still, concern about Wall Street’s conduct isn’t likely to supplant voters’ primary focus on jobs and the economy, according to Madonna.
The Agenda Question
Another challenge facing demonstrators is their lack of a focused agenda, Meyer said. As events began in Manhattan, organizers aimed to get Obama to establish a commission to end “the influence money has over our representatives in Washington,” according to the Web site of Vancouver-based Adbusters.
On the ground, protesters have been less unified, with demands that ranged from increasing taxes on Wall Street and the wealthy to ending global warming.
“There’s certainly a potential for starting a movement, but right now it’s just a series of events and a holder for all different causes,” Meyer said. “You have people talking about ending global capitalism, and that doesn’t poll well.”
Labor groups such as the United Steelworkers union, which says it has 850,000 members in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean, and the local chapter of the Transport Workers Union of America, which says it has about 38,000 members and represents workers for the city’s subway lines, have said they support the protests.
Spreading the Word
“We are fed up with the corporate greed, corruption and arrogance that have inflicted pain on far too many for far too long,” Leo Gerard, president of the steelworkers union, said in a statement posted on the group’s Web site.
Yesterday afternoon, people who had been arrested the night before congregated again in lower Manhattan, celebrating and vowing to stay put. Musicians strummed guitars, beat drums and played a saxophone while people danced. A bare-chested singer painted the words “Lotion Man-Utube” on his torso and bellowed the words “Occupy Wall Street.” National television networks trolled the area, broadcasting live updates.
“This is the start of something big,” said Shannon Deegan, a 28-year-old employee of a Seattle technology company who said she flew to New York Sept. 30 and witnessed the bridge arrests. She aims to replicate the protests when she returns home.
Though the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge was initially discouraging, “the arrests gave us more visibility,” she said. “People are watching, and they will see our cause.”