Nearly two weeks into a sit-in at a park in Manhattan's financial district, the "leaderless resistance movement" Occupy Wall Street is at a crossroads
NEW YORK — Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon have dropped in. A seasoned diplomat dispenses free advice. Supporters send everything from boxes of food and clothes to Whole Foods gift cards.
There is even an app, for the legions of followers on iPhones and Androids.
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 at the scene tops out at a few hundred, tiny by Athens or Cairo standards.
The stalwarts seem to range from a relatively modest 100 to 300 people, although the ranks swelled to more than 2,000 Friday as the protest has begun to attract mainstream attention from those disaffected with the weak economy and to enlist support from well-known liberals.
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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 office space?
The group has none of those.
“At a certain point, there’s a valid criticism in people asking, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” said protester Chris Biemer, 23.
The answer isn’t clear as the demonstration wraps up its second week. The group generally defines itself as anti-greed but also weighs in on a broad range of social issues.
An illustration of the group’s loose organization happened Friday. The Internet buzzed with reports that British band Radiohead would perform for the protesters. Many major news outlets ran with the story, and OccupyWallstreet.org — the movement’s official website — posted a note that Radiohead would perform at 4 p.m.
Radiohead’s management quickly denied the band would perform, and it did not.
In an exchange that illuminated one of the dilemmas that any movement for change faces, Biemer and protester Victoria Sobel made it clear they had different visions for Occupy Wall Street.
Biemer, who recently moved to New York from Florida with a degree in business administration, says the group should team up with a nonprofit and find 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 the group’s 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 reported Wednesday that bookshelves had been delivered to the UPS store where the group receives mail. They will 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,” said Sobel, confident that Occupy Wall Street will stay put as autumn’s chill turns to winter’s cold. “We’ll layer,” she said when asked how they’ll manage.
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 Sept. 17, when police barricaded 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 under way or planned, including sit-ins for Seattle and Los Angeles on Saturday and Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
But the New York protest’s proximity to the real Wall Street and its series of high-profile visitors have made it the focal point. So have inflammatory online videos that show a police officer using pepper spray on some protesters last Saturday.
On Friday night, many marched to Police Headquarters to criticize what they described as the improper tactics police used. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has defended the police actions but said they will be reviewed.
Its settlement has jelled into an organized community that hums along almost Zenlike, coexisting with the city that rages around it.
Tourists stroll in to snap pictures and read protest signs, then wander off to their next sightseeing stop. Executives drop in on lunch breaks to talk politics and economics. Police hang back and follow along when groups of protesters stage marches.
Protest numbers vary as people drift in and out of the park. Some people live in the area and come by for a few hours each day or week. Others stay around the clock, their sleeping bags, guitars and clothing bundles spread on the ground. This week, they included a sleepy-eyed 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 where anyone can make a brief announcement. 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. A “closing bell” march takes place most afternoons.
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 the group 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. But Ross, who stops by regularly to advise Occupy Wall Street, said it needed “far broader outreach” and a narrower message.
“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 Michael Moore as he did an MSNBC interview. She asked for “some specific, tangible goals.”
Most of those in Zuccotti Park 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 three hours from his home in Troy, N.Y., to help the demonstrators’ media team.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.