New York, Oct 17: The Occupy Wall Street movement has close to $300,000, as well as storage space loaded with donated supplies in lower Manhattan. It stared down city officials to hang on to its makeshift headquarters, showed its muscle Saturday with a big Times Square demonstration and found legions of activists demonstrating in solidarity across the country and around the world.
Could this be the peak for loosely organized protesters, united less by a common cause than by revulsion to what they consider unbridled corporate greed? Or are they just getting started?
There are signs of confidence, but also signs of tension among the demonstrators at Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the movement that began a month ago Monday. They have trouble agreeing on things like whether someone can bring in a sleeping bag, and show little sign of uniting on any policy issues. Some protesters eventually want the movement to rally around a goal, while others insist that isn't the point.
“We're moving fast, without a hierarchical structure and lots of gears turning,” said Justin Strekal, a college student and political organizer who traveled from Cleveland to New York to help. “... Egos are clashing, but this is participatory democracy in a little park.”
Even if the protesters were barred from camping in Zuccotti Park, as the property owner and the city briefly threatened to do last week, the movement would continue, Strekal said. He said activists were working with legal experts to identify alternate sites where the risk of getting kicked out would be relatively low.
Wall Street protesters are intent on hanging on to the momentum they gained from Saturday's worldwide demonstrations, which drew hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in the U.S. and Europe. They're filling a cavernous space a block from Wall Street with donated goods to help sustain their nearly month-long occupation of a private park nearby.
They've amassed mounds of blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, cans of food, medical and hygienic supplies—even oddities like a box of knitting wool and 20 pairs of swimming goggles (to shield protesters from pepper-spray attacks). Supporters are shipping about 300 boxes a day, Strekal said.
The space was donated by the United Federation of Teachers, which has offices in the building.
Close to $300,000 in cash also has been donated, through the movement's website and by people who give money in person at the park, said Bill Dobbs, a press liaison for the movement. The movement has an account at Amalgamated Bank, which bills itself as “the only 100 percent union-owned bank in the United States.”
Strekal said the donated goods are being stored “for a long-term occupation.”
“We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” Kara Segal and other volunteers chanted in the building lobby as they arrived to help unpack and sort items, preparing them to be rolled out to the park.
While on the streets, moments of madness occasionally erupt in the protest crowd—accompanied by whiffs of marijuana, grungy clothing and disarray—order prevails at the storage site.
It doubles as a sort of Occupy Wall Street central command post, with strategic meetings that are separate from the “general assembly” free-for-alls in the park. One subject Sunday was data entry: protesters are working to get the names and addresses of donors into a databank.
The movement has become an issue in the Republican presidential primary race and beyond, with politicians from both parties under pressure to weigh in.
President Barack Obama referred to the protests at Sunday's dedication of a monument for Martin Luther King Jr., saying the civil rights leader “would want us to challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing those who work there.”
Many of the largest of Saturday's protests were in Europe, where protesters involved in long-running demonstrations against austerity measures declared common cause with the Occupy Wall Street movement. In Rome, hundreds of rioters infiltrated a march by tens of thousands of demonstrators, causing what the mayor estimated was at least ¤1 million ($1.4 million) in damage to city property.
U.S. cities large and small were “occupied” over the weekend: Washington, D.C., Fairbanks, Alaska, Burlington, Vermont, Rapid City, South Dakota, and Cheyenne, Wyoming were just a few. In Cincinnati, protesters moved their demonstration out of a park after hearing that a couple was getting their wedding photos taken there—but the bride and groom ended up seeking them out for pictures.
More than 70 New York protesters were arrested Saturday, more than 40 of them in Times Square. About 175 people were arrested in Chicago after they refused to leave a park where they were camped late Saturday, and there were about 100 arrests in Arizona -- 53 in Tucson and 46 in Phoenix—after protesters refused police orders to disperse. About two dozen people were arrested in Denver, and in Sacramento, California, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan was among about 20 people arrested after failing to follow police orders to disperse.
Activists around the country said they felt that Saturday's protests energized their movement.
“It's an upward trajectory,” said John St. Lawrence, a Florida real estate lawyer who took part in Saturday's Occupy Orlando protest, which drew more than 1,500 people. “It's catching people's imagination and also, knock on wood, nothing sort of negative or discrediting has happened.”
St. Lawrence is among those unconcerned that the movement has not rallied around any particular proposal, saying “policy is for leaders to come up with.”
“I don't think the underlying theme is a mystery,” he said. “We saw what the banks and financial institutions did to the economy. We bailed them out. And then they went about evicting people from their homes,” he said. He added that although he is not in debt and owns his own home, other people in his neighborhood are suffering and “everyone's interests are interconnected.”
In Richmond, Virginia, about 75 people gathered Sunday for one of the “general assembly” meetings that are a key part of the movement's consensus-building process. Protester Whitney Whiting, a video editor, said the process has helped “gather voices” about Americans discontent, and that she expects it will eventually take the movement a step further.
“In regards to a singular issue or a singular focus, I think that will come eventually. But right now we have to set up a space for that to happen,” Whiting said.
Some U.S. protesters, like those in Europe, have their own causes. Unions that have joined forces with the movement have demands of their own, and on Sunday members of the newly formed Occupy Pittsburgh group demanded that Bank of New York Mellon Corp. pay back money they allege it overcharged public pension funds around the country.
New York's attorney general and New York City sued BNY Mellon this month, accusing it of defrauding clients in foreign currency exchange transactions that generated nearly $2 billion over 10 years. The company has vowed to fight the lawsuit and had no comment about the protesters' allegation about pensions.
Lisa Deaton, a tea party leader from southern Indiana, said she sees some similarities between how the tea party movement and the Wall Street protests began: “We got up and we wanted to vent.”
But the critical step, she said, was taking that emotion and focusing it toward changing government.
The first rally she organized drew more than 2,500 people, but afterward, “it was like, ‘What do we do?”' she said. “You can't have a concert every weekend.”
The Wall Street protesters' lack of leadership and focus on consensus-building has help bring together people with different perspectives, but it's also created some tension.
“Issues are arising—like who is bringing in sleeping bags without permission,” said Laurie Dobson, who's been helping a self-governed “working group” called “SIS”—for Shipping, Inventory and Supplies.
Sleeping bags were among items cited by Zuccotti Park's owner, Brookfield Properties, as not allowed on the premises—along with tents, tarps and other essentials for the encampment. By Sunday, all those items were back.
Strekal didn't see that as a problem. Protesters could do it, he said, “because we're winning the PR war.”