TOPICS > Economy

‘Occupy Wall Street’ Protests Give Voice to Anger Over Greed, Corporate Culture

October 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The protests against Wall Street gained new momentum on Wednesday, when union members and students joined the demonstration and marched through the streets of lower Manhattan. Paul Solman visits the budding movement's base camp.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The protests against Wall Street gained new momentum today, with union members and students joining in. A crowd that numbered several thousand or more jammed the rally site, Foley Square. They put up Web video showing signs and chants, as speakers condemned corporate greed and influence. Organizers also called for college students nationwide to walk out of classes as part of the protest.

The NewsHour’s economics correspondent, Paul Solman, went to the protesters’ base camp Tuesday and filed this report on their budding movement and their concerns.

PAUL SOLMAN: A block away from Freedom Tower, which is literally rising from the ashes of Ground Zero, down the street from the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Zuccotti Park, home to the Occupy Wall Street encampment.

We visited to see how its activist denizens were preparing for today’s big rally, though we arrived before many of them were up and about. Those already awake told us they’d come from near and far.

WOMAN: I’m from Tampa Florida. We came up via an underground network of supporters.

WOMAN: I left Colorado Sunday evening.

PAUL SOLMAN: You left Colorado?

WOMAN: Yes. That’s where I live.

PAUL SOLMAN: So how did you get here?

WOMAN: I flew.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you have been here from the beginning?

WOMAN: Yes. I came out here from Oakland, Calif. I have stayed some nights elsewhere. A lot of people have. There’s been a lot of generous people offering their apartments for a night and showers for people here.

PAUL SOLMAN: Nearly three weeks after the occupation began, a surprisingly clean, well-organized and well-stocked community has emerged with its own library of donated books, plentiful supplies of food — this one has been dubbed the “OccuPie” — even blankets and ponchos from well-wishers nationwide, and a housekeeping and security system that impressed even the New York City police, although, of course, only off-camera.

MAN: The main purpose of security is making sure everyone is safe and protected.

PAUL SOLMAN: The goals of the protesters, however, are noticeably less well-organized.

WIL COOK, Oakland, Calif.: For me personally, child labor, international labor issues were a big thing, sweatshops.

PATRICIA WALSH, Denver, Colo.: They shouldn’t be even talking about privatizing Medicare.

RONIT MECHAM, Watertown, N.Y.: I do not want to be groped down in airports. I do not want to be scanned. I do not want to give my children bad water. I do not want to feed my children artificial flavors, artificial colors, pesticide in everything on the shelf. And it goes on and on. I do not want the corporation to really handle my life.

RAS TESFA, New York: Behind the profit motive, there is the big G: greed. And this greed has become a disease across the planet.

CHRIS COBB, activist: What I have gathered by my very careful and insightful interviews with people is that there is no central message.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, says faux FOX News correspondent Chris Cobb, that’s OK.

CHRIS COBB: Groups like the Tea Party are created through messaging, and they’re created by being in a boardroom figuring out how they can finance a political movement and make slogans that are catchy.

This movement is absolutely not like that. That’s why you don’t have everybody on the same page. People came from all over the country to try to figure out something to do. And so their message is, they want to provoke discussion about financial injustice.

PAUL SOLMAN: One frequent theme, though, young people, out of work, even with college degrees, but financed by debt.

This is your transmitter?

TIMOTHY GRANTHAM, Tampa, Fla.: Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Timothy Grantham blogs the demonstration on Facebook while also running an in-house radio station with a broadcast radius about the size of this park.

TIMOTHY GRANTHAM: You know, I went to school and a lot of these people went to school. And now that we’re out for the summer or out completely, there’s no jobs. We can’t pay them — we can’t pay those student loans back. And all we keep hearing from the creditors is we’re lazy. We’re not doing our part. And it’s like, we’re looking for jobs the best we can. We can’t go on unemployment. We’re not the unemployment-able, you know?

PAUL SOLMAN: well, you’re pre-unemployed.

TIMOTHY GRANTHAM: There you go, yes. And so we call up unemployment, they just reject us.

PAUL SOLMAN: A theme heard more frequently from young and old alike: The economic system is being run for the benefit of the few, at the expense of the many.

David Intrator, who runs his own P.R. firm, has a professional knack for getting attention.

DAVID INTRATOR, New York: As Americans, we’re about fairness and fair play. And that has helped us through these centuries. There’s a sense now that things are not fair, that somehow the system is rigged, that certain people have a leg up unfairly and can win, and many, many, many people are forced to lose or not given a chance to compete. And this is not just an unfairness that the young people suffer from, but something that all people are hurting from.

PAUL SOLMAN: Anthony Mancusi works nearby, stops in most days on his lunch hour.

ANTHONY MANCUSI, New York: I know a lot of people who have generally been out of work for two, three years. And it’s hard to feed their family, make a living. All our jobs are overseas. They — corporations, they go overseas to save money because they’re crying about labor, right? But then, meanwhile, they still charge us $70 or $80 for a pair of sneakers or a pair of pants or a shirt. And they’re paying slave wages over in China or any other country.

PAUL SOLMAN: But are you less prosperous than you used to be?

ANTHONY MANCUSI: Am I less prosperous that I used to be? I was more prosperous three years ago than I am the last two years.

PAUL SOLMAN: But perhaps the most universal theme at Occupy Wall Street, at least on day 18, was one famously articulated a few years ago by comedian George Carlin. The American dream, you have to be asleep to believe it.

Granted, lots of causes here, but we asked unemployed wine retailer Robert Segal:

PAUL SOLMAN: Is one common theme, though, a sense that the American dream is over?

ROBERT SEGAL, New York: Bingo. I think they get to the front of the chow line and put out their plates and somebody says, sorry, sister, there’s nothing here for you, or, brother, take a hike. People are wondering what in the world’s down the pike. It doesn’t seem like much.

PAUL SOLMAN: Steve Flicker, now retired, spent his career on Wall Street.

STEVE FLICKER, New York: My generation and the people just younger than me, first ones whose children aren’t going to have it as good as we had it. My father was an automobile mechanic. He couldn’t go to college. I went to college. I did quite well. I think that’s dissipated, really.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not that we wanted to put words in his mouth, but we felt obliged to pose the question to at least one member of the younger generation.

You can just signal yes or no, but is the main reason that people are here, do you think, that there’s this sense that the American dream has vanished?

ROBERT JAMES CARLSON, New York: That’s a really good question. And it’s not just the American dream. It’s about the world dream, a lot of us who are here aren’t just for America. We’re here because there’s economic issues that are linked throughout the whole entire world.

PAUL SOLMAN: There were other highlights and a celebrity sighting of the ever gung-ho Michael Moore.

MICHAEL MOORE, documentary filmmaker: This is only going to spread. And it’s all kinds of people. It’s the 99 percent who have had a boot on their neck by the 1 percent that occupy these buildings that are surrounding this plaza.

PAUL SOLMAN: A march on behalf of the beleaguered union workers at Verizon.

PROTESTERS: All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!

PAUL SOLMAN: There were drum circles.

MAN: And we need more taxes.

MAN: But we don’t need more taxes.

PAUL SOLMAN: And debate circles.

MAN: We need level taxes that have no loopholes.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, throughout, a festive atmosphere that couldn’t help remind some observers of the last great explosion of American activism during the age of Aquarius.

As for the future of Occupy Wall Street, Rob Segal at least thinks it’s bright.

ROBERT SEGAL: Six thousand and 7,000 is very common in the afternoons. And the big number is on that white board behind you. That 147 different occupation protests across the United States, that was 136 last night. And the night before, it was 117, and before that, the night before, it was 71. It’s accelerating.

PAUL SOLMAN: Veteran economics reporter Lou Uchitelle isn’t so sure.

LOUIS UCHITELLE, journalist: Every time I have seen these before, it hasn’t lasted. Whether it will this time in this country, I have no idea.

PAUL SOLMAN: So we can’t resist closing with this image and observation. Like so much else in life, the future of this occupation, like the future occupations of so many propelling it, is, you could say, in limbo.

JEFFREY BROWN: For now, the demonstrations continue to spread to other cities. Tomorrow, a large protest is being planned for Washington, D.C.