TOPICS > Economy

Wall Street Protests Spread, Channeling Anger at Corporate, Political Forces

October 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement are maintaining a growing campaign against corporate and political forces that they say are fueling economic inequality in America. Judy Woodruff examines who's involved in the protests and what they're seeking with WNYC Radio's Arun Venugopal and DNAinfo.com's Julie Shapiro.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A growing protest movement in the U.S. vowed today to turn up the heat on Wall Street and against other political and corporate forces that they say are fueling inequality. The demonstrations came to a boil over the weekend.

The chants of protesters echoed off Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday in this video taken by New York City police, as members of a group calling itself Occupy Wall Street tried to march across the span. Officers shouted warnings with bullhorns.

MAN: If you refuse to leave this roadway, I am ordering your arrest for disorderly conduct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Things escalated when some of the marchers crossed into the roadway. And 700 were arrested for obstructing traffic. Protester video posted to YouTube showed police securing the hands of some with plastic ties and escorting them away.

WOMAN: Not once. I was never told that if I walked the roadway that I would be arrested.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of those detained had been released by Sunday morning. The previous weekend, police arrested about 100 people in a smaller standoff.

But Sunday’s arrests fueled the anger of those camped in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, a site they have dubbed Liberty Square. They say they are there to protest what they see as Wall Street greed, social inequality and a government more responsive to corporate interests than to ordinary Americans.

MAN: I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, black or white, where you live. Everyone has got a financial inequity system oppressing them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Demonstrations began just two weeks ago with just a few dozen people and no central organizer. But they have grown, largely on social media websites, sometimes drawing in the thousands. Now the protests have their own newspaper and celebrity supporters.

Similar protests are spreading in other cities. In Los Angeles, hundreds marched on City Hall yesterday. Some set up camp in a park across the street.

MAN: Once this — the call for revolutionizing comes, everyone should answer it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They were joined by protesters in Durham, N.C.

MAN: Banks are set up to punish the poor and reward the rich.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there were similar gatherings in Seattle and in Denver.

Back in New York, the Occupy Wall Street movement hopes to gain even more momentum with a labor union rally planned on Wednesday.

For more on the protests and the people behind them, we turn to two journalists who have been covering this story.

Arun Venugopal is a reporter with WNYC Public Radio. And Julie Shapiro is a reporter/producer with DNAinfo.com. That’s a website that closely covers local news in New York.

And we thank you both for being with us.

Arun, to you first. You have been out there among the protesters for several days. Who are they?

ARUN VENUGOPAL, WNYC: Well, it’s a motley group of mostly young people who have come from all over the country.

They have been joined by people who are not so young who have also joined them from — either from New York City. I have met people from Los Angeles, from Boston. They’re joined — I guess what they share is sort of a sense of disenfranchisement, a sense that their voices, what they call the voices of the 99 percent are being muted, being canceled out by the power of structure, I guess, of people — the 1 percent, as they call them.

They feel like corporate interests really take precedence over the voices of the masses. And they’re trying to change that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Julie Shapiro, you also have been out among the protesters. How would you describe who they are. Tell us about some of the people you have talked to.

JULIE SHAPIRO, DNAinfo.com: Sure. I have seen a huge variety of people.

You have people who are squatting in apartments in Brooklyn who have lost their jobs and in danger of being evicted. You have college students from Pennsylvania who are concerned about the war in Iraq and the — America’s dependence on oil. So you have a huge range from one end of the spectrum to the other.

But what they really share is a sense that the political system is not serving their needs. And they’re trying to create a new way of being heard that isn’t through the existing political system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Arun, what exactly are they asking for? Have they made a list of demands?

ARUN VENUGOPAL: No. They have been criticized for not having made this list of demands. And I guess they come off as somewhat vague to people who have been following this movement.

But they, I think, have been avoiding that for a reason. For one, they, I think, are just trying to channel this general sense of frustration, and to some extent I think it has been successful because the moment that they do, I guess, crystallize this into something specific, they could clearly turn off some people, even if they might gain some people.

Right now, they said they have been avoiding creating something like a policy arm and that might actually bring these down into a specific list of demands. But, again, they come back to certain things that they think are wrong with this country, the control that they say corporate America has over the political process, things like environmental damage to the country. They want more rights for workers for the labor movement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And back to you, Julie. What do you hear from them? Do you get a sense of a consistent message?

JULIE SHAPIRO: I think that the most consistent message is just they’re not being heard through the current channels and that they feel that the wealth of the country is not being distributed equitably.

And they’re trying to change that in a dramatic way. But, like Arun said, there are so many different factions there and people who want so many different things that if they were to really break down a granular platform, I think it would be easy to disenfranchise some people and they’re really trying to avoid that and to be welcoming and to say that this 99 percent, as they call themselves, they’re here for all of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about choosing a leader, Arun? What I have been reading and hearing today is that they seem to be well-organized, but, as one of you has just said, they don’t seem to want to anoint someone as their public, at least, acknowledged leader.

ARUN VENUGOPAL: Right. For them, this is really about a process of trying to be inclusive, as Julie said. They are very clear that they do not want to anoint a leader, for several reasons. One, they think that that would create a hierarchy that would be antithetical to what they stand for, which is this inclusiveness.

Second, they feel that if there are people who become sort of the — I guess the go-to people, the leaders of this movement, they feel that could easily be, I guess, brought by the police, targeted by various interests, or, for instance, they could be bought off by various interests. And they’re trying to avoid all these things.

In some senses, as you said, it is organized. At other times, though as a journalist trying to understand what it is all about, it can be a little difficult because you have different people to go to, and you hear different things. It can be a little chaotic. And they’re trying to make it a little easier on themselves as well as for others, people who are observing this, to understand exactly where they’re going with all of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Julie, what about — when you talk to them, do you get a sense of where they want to take this movement? Is it just out in the streets expressing their anger and frustration? What’s your sense of that?

JULIE SHAPIRO: Sure.

As — every time I have asked someone how long they’re going to be in Zuccotti Park, they say as long as it takes. So I think that they’re there for the long haul. They don’t have a specific endgame, a goal of, if X happens, then we will all go home. I think they’re trying to transform the political system of the country, which they recognize is going to take time, and that it serves them to be there and to be gaining attention and to have more people be aware of their goals. And so they’re really achieving their goals every day that they’re there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Arun, how are they communicating with each other and with the news media? And do you have a sense of how the word is spreading to different cities? I mean, we are seeing something like 12, 15 different cities expecting big gatherings this week, the one in New York on Wednesday with labor unions. And we’re expecting something in Washington later this week.

ARUN VENUGOPAL: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you hearing?

ARUN VENUGOPAL: Well, yes, there is — I think this is where a lot of the momentum is going, is in the creation of all these different occupations across the country.

And, for them, the people of New York, I think it is very exciting to see that happen. This has been sort of a ramshackle process for the people in New York. Many of them are very young. And one thing you take away from speaking to them is that the people in some of the other cities such as Washington, D.C., they’re actually much more sophisticated at organizing. They have been doing this for a year, some of them, the organizers there.

They have raised a lot more money than the people in New York had and I think they’re much deeper in the activist process. And they have a lot of years of experience on them.

I think where this is heading is, as you said, there is this big march on Wednesday. What some of the people in New York say is that they — they’re hoping that there will be this leap that takes place in the next couple weeks, where the general public and, I think, traditional activists start seeing this as a movement that is integrated between the people occupying Wall Street and progressive causes, unions and community groups.

And they’re going to start pushing a little harder on certain traditional progressive causes, things like maybe higher taxes, strength in terms of collective bargaining rights and other issues like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we are going to leave it there.

Arun Venugopal and Julie Shapiro, we thank you both.

ARUN VENUGOPAL: Thank you.

JULIE SHAPIRO: Thank you.