Last week, crowds of 300 to 400 protesters gathered to camp out in New York City's Zuccotti Park, between Wall Street and Ground Zero. Even at night they were surrounded by police and TV broadcast vans. During the day, they played drums and tweeted. Mobile offices sprang up, laptops glowing from atop boxes and folding tables. Mobile kitchens arrived to feed the tired activists, who organized discussion sessions and took part in Tibetan meditation. Demonstrators wore amusing masks and carried signs bearing pointed messages: "Jail time for financial criminals," "Nationalize banks now," "The American Dream is dead" and "The Wall must fall." Something is happening on the southern tip of Manhattan.
Protesters have been meeting since September 17 on the canyon-like streets of the financial district, darkened by skyscrapers even during the day. They are students and bankrupt homeowners, small business owners and union members, along with a few colorful urban characters and nutcases. At first, only a few people heeded the call from various websites, foremost among them adbusters.org. Then the group made a splash with its occupation of the Brooklyn Bridge, and last week a steady flow of people came to join the group in Zuccotti Park.
Their slogan is "Occupy Wall Street" and the movement is varied but vocal. It's directed at the greed of the financial markets, at the power of the banks and at the "fat cats" in the boardrooms who line their pockets while the majority of Americans grow measurably poorer.
Less than three blocks away from the stock market and the headquarters of banks that drive global commerce, these are poisonous messages, and unusual for the United States. Here, unlike in Europe, fundamental criticism of the system remains rare. Those who do raise critical voices have long been dismissed as naïve or even "un-American," but this mindset could be changing.
Living in Fear
In these times of chronic crisis, and after the intense experiences of the Arab Spring, it remains uncertain whether scenes like this represent part of a short comedy or a long drama, a snippet from a familiar old film or perhaps the start of an American revolution.
After the right-wing Tea Party movement has long since forgotten its initial rage against America's bankers, and is now battling only the chimeras of a supposed socialist threat, it seems a left-wing populist movement is forming.
"Turn Wall Street into Tahrir Square" read one sign last Thursday, and the slogan was only half joking. This small band of activists in New York could now call itself the vanguard of a mass of discontented Americans, people who have been growing angrier since, at the latest, the 2008 financial crash and the billions of dollars in bailouts given to banks and insurance companies.
Many Americans have come to suspect politics in Washington of complicity with the markets, a problem Barack Obama's arrival in the White House failed to fix. The president even expressed sympathy with the protests on Thursday, describing the people as "frustrated." The president's public mention of the small, new movement is their biggest success yet.
But the country's chronic social problems have grown even worse during Obama's term. Left-wing magazine The Nation sums up the facts and figures in its current issue: The average American salary in some areas has dropped considerably in the last 40 years; more than 46 million citizens are officially categorized as poor, the highest figure since data collection began 52 years ago; one in four homeowners can no longer pay off loans; the cost of health care has risen drastically, a problem only exacerbated by the fact that 50 million Americans are still without health care; and half of all Americans don't have any kind of pension plan. On top of that, there are still 25 million unemployed -- in a country that lives in fear of entering a new recession with each new month.
In their live television interviews the Wall Street occupiers often say that the moment has come for "the 99 percent to rise up against the 1 percent."
"We are the 99 percent" is also the name of a blog on which thousands of Americans describe their desperate financial straits. "I couldn't pay back my student loans," it reads, "I'm not getting unemployment benefits anymore," and "I have to choose between college and a knee operation." The blog has contributed significantly to spreading the protest movement beyond New York, because its messages are ones easily understood all across a country in which the wealthiest 1 percent of the population controls 40 percent of available assets.
Such figures are no longer statistics bandied about only within left-wing circles. Even former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has said: "This is not the type of thing which a democratic society -- a capitalist democratic society -- can really accept without addressing." Social inequality also informed last week's cover story for Time Magazine, whose authors wrote that America had become a society "divided between rich and poor," in which "the poor and working classes are squeezed."
The idea of these weary working classes now rising up and taking down the entire system is the dream of many in Zuccotti Park. An informational board in the middle of the park announces that 291 cities so far have joined in the movement.
That may sound impressive, but in all likelihood most of these 291 cities have hardly noticed the demonstrations taking place. Still, pictures of protests emerged from many major North American cities last week, from Miami to Anchorage and from Los Angeles to Chicago.
One particularly striking feature of the outrage expressed by this new generation of demonstrators is their target. In the not too distant past, American protests were often directed at Washington, in the hope that the president and Congress would put demonstrators' desires into practice. This time around, demonstrators gathered in front of the White House as well, but far more came together in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, in the park in front of City Hall in Los Angeles, in the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston and in tents in front of the Federal Reserve Bank branch in Chicago.
At all of these sites, politicians are not the main target of the angry demonstrations. Far more, in the shadow of skyscrapers all across the country, the target is capitalism itself.