Wall Street protests: Is a movement taking hold?

Wall Street protests have spread from New York to Boston to San Francisco. Occupy Wall Street activists are getting attention by holding sit-ins and dressing up as zombies, but are they on message?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/CSM
Demonstrators march through the financial district to protest corporate greed in a demonstration in Boston, Massachusetts. A group called Occupy Boston organized the rally. Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests, similar rallies are happening in cities across the country.

In New York, they're dressing up as zombies. In San Francisco, they surrounded a bank. A small, simmering protest that started in Manhattan’s financial district last month has suddenly inspired a rash of protests against Wall Street greed and influence in cities around the United States.

Called Occupy Wall Street, the infant movement is tapping into broad frustration and even anger about big corporate profits, tax breaks for the rich, corporate lobbying in Congress, and bank bailouts at a time when the poor and middle class are losing ground in a generally sour economy.

“It really speaks to everyone getting fed up and tired of these corporations taking every bit of money we’ve worked so hard for,” says Brandon German, a protest organizer with Right to the City, an alliance of community groups that helped organize an Occupy Wall Street rally in Boston on Friday. “People are fed up and mobilizing.”

In all, “Occupy” protests have taken place or are planned in more than 50 cities from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, according to the website occupytogether.org, which is serving as an unofficial organizing hub for the protests. Some are big events. More than 700 people were arrested Saturday when protestors marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. Some are small. In Chicago, about 30 protestors beat drums in the city’s financial district Monday. But by attracting such a broad array of supporters – with a host of different causes – can the protests spark a movement coalesced around a specific message?

Here in Boston, protesters on Monday marched from a tent city on a grassy plot of land across the street from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to the Statehouse to call for an end of corporate control of government, the Associated Press reported. The march followed a Friday event where an estimated 3,000 people took to the streets to stage a sit-in in the downtown offices of Bank of America, whose mortgage foreclosure practices have come under fire from groups around the city.

“Bank of America has more home foreclosures than any other bank in Boston. They have the largest number of foreclosed properties in the country, and the worst record of modifying mortgages,” says Mr. German. “Some of the hardest hit areas in the country are around Boston, including the Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston and, Chelsea” neighborhoods.

One of the protesters, Antonio Ennis of Dorchester, Mass., has been fighting a Bank of America’s foreclosure since 2009. His triple decker, which is home to him, his fiancée, three of his six daughters, and two tenant families, now carries a mortgage loan debt that far outpaces the actual value of his home, in which he has lived for his entire life.

“I’ve been trying to get a loan modification, but right now Bank of America is refusing to lower the principle,” Mr. Ennis says. “My house is unaffordable at the current inflated rate. If they would lower the principle to its real value, I could afford it.”

If evicted, Mr. Ennis isn’t sure where he’ll go. “My family is too big for my mother’s house,” he says.

But among the marchers themselves, his message tends to get a little lost. Ennis was marching with union leaders and socialists – an estimated 35 different community organizations around Boston – with various causes and concerns only loosely connected with foreclosures.

Although Occupy Boston’s official target was Bank of America, with marchers chanting “Bank of America: bad for America!,” the Friday march also made stops at the Hyatt (protesting the hotel chain’s 2009 firings of many of its longtime housekeeping staff) and a Verizon store, chanting “Shame on Verizon!” over the mobile phone company’s union contract disputes earlier this summer.

“If you look at Occupy Wall Street, for example, the demonstrators have been very unfocused in their demands,” says David Meyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, whose studies focus on social movements and political sociology. “But they’ve gotten attention. People hear about stuff, they start thinking of themselves as potential activists. So the Occupy Wall Street frame becomes a holder for all of these other grievances, and other groups are filling the framework with their own ideas.”

If the financial crisis began in earnest three years ago, why has it taken so long for large-scale protests of corporate deeds and influence to take hold? The hesitation may stem from the fact that President Obama is a Democrat.

“We haven’t been seeing it on the left, because it’s hard when your guy is in power,” Dr. Meyer says. “People are more likely to air their grievances to their lawmakers. We saw it earlier on the right with the tea party, but it might be happening on the left now because people feel like they aren’t getting enough from Obama.”

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