All three arrived in the early morning at a small park in Lower Manhattan, a concrete square edged by skyscrapers and hot-dog carts that has become a destination for thousands of people who are enraged by unemployment, greed on Wall Street and the increasing wealth gap. What began three weeks ago as a small college protest and then grew into a circus of hippies, misfits and anarchists is now trying to grow into something else: a populist movement for economic change.
The Occupy Wall Street protests have spread from here to hundreds of cities and towns, including Washington, but the epicenter remains in this downtown park. It is the spectacle here that has earned the attention of activists, celebrities, labor organizers and President Obama. It is here where hundreds more disenfranchised people have been arriving each day, hopeful that they might find a voice in the nightly general assemblies that address the future of these protests.
Now, a movement that started with no concrete goals as a simple protest of power must decide what to do with some power of its own. Can a leaderless group that relies on consensus find a way for so many people to agree on what comes next? Can it offer not only objections but also solutions? Can a radical protest evolve into a mainstream movement for change?
Over the weekend, three more people came to New York City to find out.
‘What am I waiting for?’
Brenda Barnes arrived first, from Santa Monica, Calif., and she set down her backpack next to a concrete bench at the entrance to the park. She had just turned 67, and she had not participated in a protest since the end of the Vietnam War. Now her husband is disabled, and she worries about their fixed income of Social Security and retirement savings.
“The government is going broke, and who can trust the stock market?” she said. She and her husband had considered moving to England. “There’s not much left to rely on here,” she said.
She had hoped Obama might bring stability to the economy and better regulate Wall Street, but now she considered him “the greatest disappointment of my life — and I’ve been divorced twice.” She had seen news about the protests building in New York, listened to the protesters’ general assembly meetings on the Internet and then decided she was tired of relying on others to instigate change.
“I’m 67,” she said. “What am I waiting for?” So she bought her first tent, promised her husband that she would stay in close touch and made plans to spend a week on the East Coast.
Now, as she walked around Zuccotti Park to orient herself, she discovered a miniature society of a few thousand people created over the past three weeks. The park was named for a wealthy real estate developer, so the protesters referred to it as Liberty Park instead. On its perimeter stood the fringe groups: Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists, bohemian drummers, anarchists wearing gas masks — all parading to the delight of tourists on double-decker buses en route to nearby Ground Zero.