Nearly two weeks into a sit-in at a park in Manhattan's financial district, the “leaderless resistance movement” calling itself Occupy Wall Street is at a crossroads. The number of protesters on scene so far tops out at a few hundred, tiny by Athens or Cairo standards. But the traction they have gained from run-ins with police, a live feed from their encampment and celebrity visits is upping expectations. How about some specific demands, a long-term strategy, maybe even … office space?
So far the group, which generally defines itself as anti-greed, has none of those.
“At a certain point, there's a valid criticism in people asking, 'What are you doing here?'” protester Chris Biemer, 23, said on Wednesday, Day 11 of the demonstration. In an exchange that illuminated one of the dilemmas that any movement for change faces in trying to sustain momentum, Biemer and protester Victoria Sobel made it clear they had different visions for Occupy Wall Street.
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Biemer, who recently moved to New York from Florida with a degree in business administration, says that ideally the group should team up with a nonprofit organization and get office space.
“It's possible to stay here for months or longer, but at some point we're going to become a fixture,” he said of their home in Zuccotti Park, a privately owned, publicly accessible plaza dotted with trees and flower beds about midway between the Stock Exchange and the former World Trade Center site.
Sobel, who like Biemer serves on Occupy Wall Street's finance committee, disagrees and said the group's strength lies in its ability to remain highly visible and in a place where anyone can visit and participate. The 21-year-old New York University student happily reported Wednesday that bookshelves had been delivered to the UPS store where the group receives mail. They'll sit beneath a tarp in the park, all part of Sobel's vision to solidify the group's foothold.
“It's a moment of clarifying for us,” Sobel said, confident that as autumn's chill turns to winter's subfreezing temperatures, Occupy Wall Street will stay put. “We'll layer,” she said with a laugh, when asked how they'll manage the cold.
The protest, which evolved from a network of individuals and groups galvanized by the demonstrations in Egypt last winter, has moved far beyond what it was on Sept. 17, when police barricaded the streets outside the Stock Exchange to prevent a march there to protest corporate greed. A map in Zuccotti Park pinpoints scores of other cities with Occupy Wall Street events either underway or planned, including sit-ins planned for Los Angeles on Saturday and Washington on Oct. 6.
But its proximity to the real Wall Street and its series of high-profile visitors have made the New York protest the focal point. So have inflammatory videos posted online that show a New York police officer using pepper spray on some protesters last Saturday.
Now, its settlement has gelled into an organized community that hums along almost Zen-like, coexisting with the city that rages around it and ignored by many either too busy or too uninterested to stop. Harried commuters seem to barely notice the mishmash of humanity a few feet away as they rush down the sidewalks skirting the park.
Tourists stroll in to snap pictures and read the protest signs scattered across the ground, then wander off to their next sightseeing stop. Executives drop in on lunch breaks to talk politics and economics. Police hang back on the sidewalks, and follow along when groups of protesters stage marches.
Protest numbers vary as people drift in and out of the park. Some live in the area and come by for a few hours each day or week. Others stay there around the clock, their sleeping bags, guitars and clothing bundles spread on the ground. On Wednesday, they included a sleepy-eyed young man in a rumpled T-shirt cuddling a pet rat, and a woman who pranced about in her underwear.
There are committees, including one for finance, food and comfort, which ensures that anyone who needs blankets, dry clothing or perhaps a hug gets it. There are twice-daily meetings called general assemblies, where anyone can make a brief announcement. The assemblies draw everyone together in a tight huddle. To avoid violating a ban on bullhorns, the crowd obediently repeats in unison every phrase uttered by the main speaker, to ensure everyone hears.
Each morning, protesters stage a “morning bell march” through the neighborhood, to coincide with the clanging at 9:30 a.m. of the bell that marks the start of trading at the Stock Exchange. Most days, a “closing bell” march also takes place in the afternoon.
On its website, Occupy Wall Street describes itself as a “leaderless resistance movement” drawn from people of all backgrounds and political persuasions.
“The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent,” the website says. The posters in Zuccotti Park speak to the lack of a narrow platform: “End financial aid to Israel“; “End greed, end poverty, end war”; “No death penalty”; “Tired of racism.”
Some supporters of the premise wonder how far Occupy Wall Street can go in galvanizing others if it does not translate its anger into specific demands.
“I see something beautiful here. I've never had a more interesting political debate,” said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who resigned in protest over the invasion of Iraq, and who now owns a consulting business in New York. But Ross, who stops by regularly to advise Occupy Wall Street, said it needs “far broader outreach” and a narrower message.
“They need to get a message to people who can't be here,” Ross said.
“I'd prefer to see a list of demands,” one fan wrote on the Occupation Wall Street Facebook page, echoing the concerns of a woman who tweeted something similar to Moore as he did his MSNBC interview. She asked for “some specific, tangible goals.”
Michael T. Heaney, a University of Michigan political science professor who has studied social protest movements, said such groups often bump up against pressure to become more focused and to either build or join institutions that can support them.
“What you're talking about is a degree of buying into a political system,” Heaney said. “But the more you use tactics that we recognize as getting you influence, the more you buy into the system, and the more you buy into the system, the more you open yourself up to compromise.”
In Occupy Wall Street's case, Heaney said demands could be as vague as simply calling for financial bailout programs to apply to individuals rather than banks.
Most of those in Zuccotti Park, though, don't see the need for a change in tactics. At least not yet.
“There isn't a consolidated message, and I don't think there needs to be,” said Andrew Lynn, 34, who drove the three hours from his home in Troy, N.Y., to help the demonstrators' media team.
On Wednesday, he hunched over a laptop sheltered from the clammy air by an umbrella. A generator rumbled beside him, ensuring the group's activities continued to stream live to audiences.
Added Kobi Skolnick, a young Israeli American who by Wednesday was in his ninth day of participating in the protest: “I think the main thing we're doing is knocking on the walls of ignorance in this country so people wake up.”