Demonstrators from New York City to San Francisco took to the streets to protest what they call a growing wealth disparity between large U.S. corporations and average citizens in the wake of the financial crisis.
Picketers marched yesterday as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began three weeks ago in Lower Manhattan and has spread across the U.S. The New York crowd was estimated at 10,000, according to Patrick Bruner, a spokesman for the effort.
“There’s power in numbers, and we outnumber the people we’re trying to hold accountable,” said Henry Liedtka, a 27-year-old pharmacy worker from New Jersey who said he’s protested since Oct. 2. “We should be bailing out the American public -- not corporations -- by raising the minimum wage, bringing jobs back from overseas and improving labor conditions.”
Protesters criticized the government for propping up hobbled financial giants, including Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp., with a $700 billion taxpayer-funded bailout in 2008, while leaving Americans to struggle with unemployment, depressed wages, soaring foreclosure rates and slashed retirement savings.
“We bailed them out and they are not lending the money,” JoAnn Herr, 60, a retired sheet-metal worker from Oakland, California, said in an interview yesterday outside the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, where a march through downtown formed. “They are just holding onto it, giving themselves bigger bonuses and not paying their fair share of taxes.”
U.S. labor unions are supporting the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations with rallies next week because the protests have tapped into the anger of unemployed Americans, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said yesterday.
“We’re not going to try to usurp them,” Trumka, leader of the nation’s largest labor federation, said on a conference call with reporters. “We’ll support them around the country and we’ll continue to work collectively with one another.”
In New York, members of National Nurses United, the profession’s largest U.S. union; Transport Workers Union Local 100, the biggest labor organization in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the Working Families Party, a coalition of community organizations, marched to Wall Street from Foley Square, north of City Hall.
The Transport union “applauds the courage of the young people on Wall Street,” the union said on its website. “Workers and ordinary citizens are putting up all the sacrifice, and the financiers who imploded our economy are getting away scot-free.”
‘People Losing Hope’
Laurence Fink, the chief executive officer of BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, said he understands the concerns of the protesters.
“These are not lazy people sitting around looking for something to do,” Fink, 58, said yesterday during an event in Toronto. “We have people losing hope and they’re going into the street, whether it’s justified or not.”
Not everyone watching the march near Wall Street yesterday supported the protesters.
“They’re just a bunch of wacko leftists trying to get on TV,” said Onel Delorb, 33, an unemployed office worker from the Bronx. “It’s my fault that I’m not doing anything for work. It’s not government’s fault.”
He said the demonstrators undermined their credibility by carrying iPhones and iPads made by Apple Inc., which is valued at $350 billion.
Sea of Tarps
Since Sept. 17, thousands of protesters have transformed New York’s Zuccotti Park, near the site of the World Trade Center, into a sea of blue tarps, sleeping bags and tables offering free medical care, food and library books. Their signs and slogans oppose everything from bank bailouts and corporate influence in politics to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and insufficient job prospects.
New York police arrested 23 people yesterday, mainly for disorderly conduct, said Paul Browne, deputy police commissioner. Last weekend, police halted a march over the Brooklyn Bridge and took about 700 activists into custody.
In San Francisco, demonstrators set up a camp of tents on a half-block stretch of Market Street outside the Federal Reserve building, where some have been meditating and playing guitars.
Mark Schwetz, 36, a carpenter from Berkeley who lost his home in Petaluma, California, to foreclosure in 2009, held a sign reading, “We’re not leaving!”
“I’ve been waiting for this moment, for this day for a long time now,” Schwetz said. “I worked really hard for my whole life for my home and it was just taken away from me.”
According to an Occupation Status Board at Zuccotti Park, the movement has spread to at least 147 cities in the U.S. and 28 overseas, and netted $35,000 in donations. The website www.occupytogether.org listed events planned in more than 45 states and in cities including Boston, Chicago, Denver and Seattle.
The Occupy Wall Street coalition has the potential to become the “Tea Party of the Left” if the protesters can transform their disparate list of grievances into targeted policy prescriptions, said Brayden King, who’s written on social and political movements at Northwestern University.
“They have to figure out what it is they are about, in order to become the force of change in the Democratic Party, like the Tea Party has been in the Republican Party,” King, an assistant professor of management at the Kellogg School of Management, said by telephone from Evanston, Illinois.
The Tea Party is a loosely organized movement opposed to the growing size of government and rising federal spending. Sixty of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives now identify themselves as Tea Party supporters.
“You’re seeing possibly the roots of what may turn into a political party or at least a political movement that has a voice,” Eric Nielson, 34, a self-described healer, said in an interview yesterday during the march toward San Francisco’s Civic Center.
The protesters stopped at an office building in the Financial District whose tenants include Bank of America, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, to chant, “We are the 99 percent!” and “This is what democracy looks like!”
Anonymous, a group of self-styled hacker-activists behind attacks on corporate and government websites, vowed to support the protests by erasing the New York Stock Exchange “from the Internet” on Oct. 10.
Stock Exchange Threat
The group posted a video message on YouTube declaring war on the stock exchange in retaliation for the arrests of Wall Street protesters. The message didn’t elaborate on the threat or whether it referred only to an attack on the Big Board website, which would have no effect on trading.
Occupy DC, which has an encampment in Washington’s McPherson Square, a few blocks north of the White House, is planning a rally today, according to its Twitter feed.
Celebrity supporters include activist and filmmaker Michael Moore, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and musician Peter Yarrow of the 1960s-era folk group Peter Paul and Mary.
Sit-ins are planned in at least four cities in Colorado in the coming weeks, according to an Occupy Denver organizer. The group, which hopes to attract 1,000 people for a march Oct. 8, started camping out in front of the state Capitol 11 days ago. Discussion topics among the crowd gathered in Denver last weekend included currency devaluation and the 1913 Federal Reserve Act.