Sunday, October 16, 2011

At Occupy Wall Streets Protests, Calls for Change


New York – Standing on the doorstep of a smart restaurant with a gleaming diamond ring and a glass of wine in her hand, businesswoman Kim Russo was yelling at a group of anti-corporate protesters passing through New York’s Brad Street last week. “Go volunteer,” she shouted upon them. “Go help other people… You’re voiceless.”

Ms. Russo is the chief executive of the multi-million dollar Global Design Network, which makes miniature toys celebrating corporate mergers.

While she agrees with the Occupy Wall Street protesters that the American economy is struggling, she said the protest will only disrupt the market further.

“The economy is awful,” said Ms. Russo. “In lieu of screaming and causing chaos, offer an intelligent solution in a productive way that actually makes sense.”

“I am also part of the 99 percent,” she said, using a common slogan chanted by American protesters here calling for the end of what they see as an unfair and corrupt financial system dominated by one percent of the population.

Given her apparent wealth, however, Ms. Russo is living a life far more luxurious than most Americans.

Many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, who have grown bigger in number and influence, say they are unemployed or underemployed.

In the US, the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, the second highest since 1982 and nearly double that in the final years of the George W. Bush Administration in 2007-08. It is also higher than some European countries including the UK and Germany.

Although employers added 103,000 jobs in September, easing fears that the world’s largest economy was falling into recession, estimates say 125,000 people need to be hired every month in order to keep up with population growth.

On Thursday, protests blocked off major streets in New York’s financial district and were closely watched by police. On Friday, police could not expel them from a park where they have been camped out in lower Manhattan. They moved to Times Square over the weekend, one of the most prominent locations in the city.

The protests are perhaps the biggest challenge facing Barack Obama, the first African-American president who is ending his first term as the leader of an economically troubled country hurt by its involvement in three wars in an increasingly tumultuous region.

Despite aggressive initiatives, the president has so far failed to convince Congress to pass a $447 billion jobs plan, a project whose passage could boost his chances of winning re-election next year. The Republicans do not support the plan, criticizing the president for employing a failed economic policy.

Surrounded by corporations and banks, New York protesters have camped out for weeks in Zuccotti Park. It lies on the same street as the World Trade Center, the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

However, protesters – ranging from young students to teachers, workers to musicians – do not have a clear-cut set of goals.

Some have criticized them as an anti-capitalism movement inspired by ideas of thinkers such as Karl Marx. Some of their demands such as levying a heavier tax on corporations, however, have gained the empathy of the Democrats including Obama.

“The American people understand that not everybody is following the rules. Wall Street is an example of that,” Obama told reporters at the White House earlier this month.

Students, meanwhile, complained about education costs.

“Too many students are taking a lot of student loans,” said Michael Romero, a university student. “It’s very disheartening.”

Unlike in the Middle East the police have not shot protesters here, but hundreds have been pepper-sprayed and arrested. While in the Arab world protesters demanded democracy, leaderless American protesters want more than that: a kind of society that no one has been able to conceptualize.

With an Egyptian flag draped around his shoulders, an American-Egyptian was one of the protesters hoping to help topple what he called a “disguised” ruler.

“In Egypt, everyone knew Mubarak was a criminal,” said Ahmed Eltouny, who returned to Egypt last spring to participate in his country’s pro-democracy protest. “Here in America it’s disguised.”

“There is little difference between Obama and Bush. We don’t vote for either, we vote for Exxon-Mobil,” he added, referring to one of the world’s largest oil and gas corporations in America.

Another major concern here is healthcare. Many seem to be in favor of a single payer system that covers all Americans and subsidizes costs, similar to that in the UK or Canada. In the US, only people with disabilities, the poor and citizens 65 and older are currently entitled to government-managed healthcare.

“You need to bring the age down to zero,” said Stan Rogouski, a 37-year-old jobless protester.

Despite their fluctuating numbers, American protesters have so far been steadfast and the protests have grown to many US cities and even globally. On Friday, protesters called themselves a “winner” when the company that owns Zuccotti Park canceled its plans to clean the park, which would have forced out the demonstrators. It remains unclear, however, how committed the Occupy Wall Street protesters will remain in the face of an approaching snowy winter.

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