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Occupy Wall Street becomes NYC tourist stop

By Verena Dobnik

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 20 2011 7:46 p.m. MDT

In this photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, buttons are on display at the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park in New York. Although donations are welcome, most trinkets are free. Buttons, t-shirt customizations, and body painting are becoming more available as tourists frequent the park to catch a glimpse of the now well-known protests.

John Minchillo, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Shawn Lahey, a ruler factory worker from Poughkeepsie, was watching the show. A dancing man held a pole marked "corporation," attached to a noose marked "financial system" — from which another dancing man was "hanging." Masked drummers provided a thumping soundtrack.

Times Square? Nope. He was all the way down in Manhattan's financial district, where the Occupy Wall Street protesters have camped out for more than a month.

Zuccotti Park has become a hub for more than demonstrators. Visitors, curious to see protest in action, are regular arrivals. Some take photographs of themselves, protesters and their signs in the background. On a typical day they clog the pedestrian traffic in the area, which is often bustling with financial district employees pushing their way through.

"I think it's great — they're trying to make a point," Lahey said, though he added with a wry smile, "... I don't think it'll make any difference. ... The government won't make any changes, because it's all about money."

Jackie Qualizza of Bucyrus, Kansas, challenged protester Art Udeykin, asking him to explain the purpose of the demonstration, which has inspired similar activism in many cities across the nation and around the world.

"Right now, we don't have a goal — except to back away from the system that's not working," replied Udeykin, a 23-year-old Russian-born Iowan. "This is a way to feel free, to feel normal."

Qualizza said she couldn't see herself demonstrating, but added, "I don't disagree with them. The government bailed out everyone, and things are still not working. Something has to change."

The protest against corporate influence in government and wealth inequality has many of the things tourists look for, including photo-worthy moments and even some trinkets. In this case, the T-shirts and buttons offered by protesters are generally free, though they accept donations.

The double-decker buses offering tours of Manhattan pass by on Broadway, with guides pointing out the park site and tourists — in sunny weather — often waving sympathetically at protesters from the top decks.

Wednesday was rainy, but visitors included a group of Chinese tourists accompanied by an interpreter and a guide.

Molly Schwad, a jeweler from Kansas traveling with Qualizza and other friends, said she was surprised by what she saw, compared to the TV coverage of the protest movement.

She saw a rather quiet encampment in the rain, of only about 200 people. At times several hundred people have camped at the park, and some of the demonstrations organized as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement have drawn thousands.

"I thought it was much bigger," Schwad said. "We were afraid there might be violence here."

Marsha Spencer, an unemployed seamstress knitting in the rain at the park Wednesday, gives visitors a view of the protests they may not have expected to see. She returns to her home in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood at night but spends most of each day at the protest.

"When people see a 56-year-old grandmother sitting here, knitting — they pay attention," she said. "... I tell them I'm here because I want things to change for my five grandchildren."

Some visitors echoed her concerns, including Karen Conrad of Johnstown, Pa., who was in New York last week to visit family and stopped by to show her support.

"I'm a middle-class mother and I can't get ahead. If anything, I'm going downward," she said. She said her two children are burdened by debt from college loans and "won't be out of debt until their own children are ready for college probably."

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