On way to Wall Street, confronting a protest

By Adam Geller

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 4 2011 4:20 p.m. MDT

A commuter walks through Zuccotti Park in New York's Financial District where Occupy Wall Street protestors are encamped, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. The protests have gathered momentum and gained participants in recent days as news of mass arrests and a coordinated media campaign by the protestors have given rise to similar demonstrations around the country.

Seth Wenig, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

NEW YORK — Almost 90 minutes into his commute from the New Jersey suburbs, Michael Devaney has nearly reached his job on Wall Street. But first he threads through a sea of occupied but stone-still sleeping bags, around bleary-eyed protesters crawling from under blue plastic tarps in search of cigarettes and coffee, and past a sign on a pole protruding from a suitcase.

"Billionaires," it warns, "Your Time is Up!"

It is 7:50 a.m., and another day in the capital of capitalism has begun.

The scene has been repeated now for most of three weeks, as the regular denizens of Wall Street arrive to meet protesters demanding an end to the financial system as we know it. The bankers, lawyers and others climbing from the subways, briefcases in hand, seem largely unperturbed — sympathetic, even — to those who call them the enemy. Mostly, though, watching and listening as the tom-tom beat of the protests spreads from a lower Manhattan park to cities around the country, Wall Streeters sound confused.

What exactly, they ask, do the protesters want?

"They definitely have a right to be here, but they don't seem to have a goal. What is it, to put Wall Street people in jail?" Devaney, who works in information technology at one of the financial district's many banks, asked Tuesday, after crossing narrow Zuccotti Park, on his way to the office.

"There are people who make a whole lot of money, but them making less money? I'm not sure what that's going to do in itself."

In fact, Devaney's uncertainty about the protesters' message is echoed by some of the protesters, themselves. But while the protesters and the protested eyed one another somewhat warily Tuesday, the density that is life in Manhattan occasionally resulted in conversation, and left them wondering aloud what to make of another.

"I'm still trying to figure it out," said Pete McCarthy, a pinstripe-suited lawyer who represents a financial services firm, studying the protesters on his way to work. "What are they saying, 'People Instead of Profits'. What does it mean?"

The Occupy Wall Street protests, which began Sept. 17 in this privately-owned park across the streets from towers housing investment bank Brown Brothers Harriman and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, have spread this week from Los Angeles to Chicago, Portland, Maine and other cities. Protesters have spoken out about the nation's lack of jobs, blaming President Obama and members of Congress. They have criticized corporate lobbyists and employers.

But they have reserved most of their criticism for "Wall Street." On Monday, when protesters dressed as corporate zombies marched past the New York Stock Exchange clutching fistfuls of money, some bystanders shouted, "Get a job!" But others smiled at the street theater.

"It's nice to see that people can come here and say what's on their mind. People can't do that in a lot of countries," said Gary McFelia, a technology consultant from Long Island in the area for business meetings.

Many of those who work in the fabled center of American commerce say they don't take the protests personally. Indeed, some even sympathize.

"It's really incredible to me, the passion and conviction these people have," said Lou Crossin, who works for a company that sells corporate governance research to large investors. "I don't think these are violent people. They're just standing up for their beliefs."

Crossin said the protesters — with their chanting in unison, leafleting and drum circles — reminded him of the lyrics of a song from his youth by Jefferson Airplane: "Look what's happening out in the streets. Got a revolution."

He wasn't the only one to feel that way. Sam Schmidt, a criminal defense attorney who walks by the park every day, said the protests took him back to when he was a college student in 1970 and went to Washington, D.C., to oppose the war in Vietnam.

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