Dateline gets to the heart of the Occupy Wall Streetprotest and questions whether the financial worldcan ignore such a hugedemonstration in its midst.
A month ago, a few hundred people gathered in downtown New York to protest corporate greed. Their attempt to occupy Wall Street seemed destined to fizzle out after just a few days. Then, even though there was almost no local news coverage, more people started to drift in and to set up camp. Occupy Wall Street has grown into a protest movement the likes of which America hasn't seen since the sixties. Over a thousand people have been arrested. Celebrities are vying to get involved, and the demonstrations have spread to cities all over the country. Although without apparent leadership or specific goals the protest is being talked about as the start of a left-wing counter-movement to the Tea Party. Aaron Lewis, Dateline's resident New Yorker has been down on Wall Street to see the movement in action.
REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
For the last four weeks, it has been anything but business as usual on Wall Street. To protest the influence of big money in American politics, a group of young people came to camp out in a park in lower Manhattan and refused to leave. That act of defiance sparked a movement.
KYLE CHRISTOPHER, PROTESTOR: I think we got more than 4000 people here right now. This is an Occupy Wall Street Protest. Everyone has their different reasons for wanting to march, but me personally - I'm here to march for corporate accountability and pretty much more awareness.
FEMALE PROTESTOR: I'm 62-years-old. I've lived through a lot of changes in this country and I remember when this was a country of opportunity, and it's clearly not that anymore.
The Occupy Wall Street protest defies definition. There is no one policy change or one social problem that is being attacked, and there are as yet no leaders. Instead, it's a single statistic that unites the crowd. In America today 1% of the population controls more than 50% of the nation's wealth and the overwhelming share of political power. The Occupy Wall Street crowd have come together around the slogan: "We are the 99%"
PROTESTOR: Those at the top 1% are making it impossible for the rest of us to actually live decent dignified lives. Collective action is the only thing that is going to change that.
Kyle Christopher has been protesting since the beginning. His amateur photographs and video of these early days have been shown all over the world.
KYLE CHRISTOPHER: I think what we are doing here is that we are giving a voice to the people that are generally voiceless. I think that the idea of having a large assembly of people that are down in a place - where you can go to it and we've been going for a long time and now I think with some longevity - that you can go to this place and you could air concerns of yours about things that are disappointing, confusing, troublesome, about life in America.
And the movement is attracting allies. Burt Neuborne is the constitutional lawyer who took on many of the most important cases of the civil rights era in New York - where others see kids in a park, Neuborne sees something familiar.
BURT NEUBORNE, LAWYER, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY: I think most people, who look at the demonstration think of it as almost an organic manifestation of a feeling that a lot of us have and that's that the country has tilted so strongly towards corporate power and toward Wall Street - and that the ordinary political processes do not appear to be working. That money dominates so much of American democracy that people are responding to that with almost a kind of desperation.
Each Occupy Wall Street march has grown in size - and while the marches have been overwhelming peaceful, there have still been 1000 arrests in the last month. It has been almost 4 decades since anything like this happened in New York City.
KYLE CHRISTOPHER: This should come as no surprise when unemployment rates go through the roof, or stock markets plunge, or a mother of 3 children can't finance her home any more. I would say to those people it doesn't come as a surprise that there are these protest groups that are opening up around the world, or in this country for that matter. I would say these people for the most part - those involved in it - feel that it's past due.
BURT NEUBORNE: This is a scream. When somebody screams because they are in pain, it doesn't tell you very much and in fact it makes people a little edgy. It's not fun to be near someone in that situation. But the scream is authentic and it reflects something deeper and people will respond to that scream by trying to provide aid and trying to actually fix it. I think this is a political movement that is at the screaming stage. It is at the emotional outpouring stage and it hasn't matured yet to the point where it has the kind of formal political program and backing. But it will. It will.
2011 has been a year defined by global protest - and what is happening in America owes much of its spirit and strategy to the movements in Spain, Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere. The strategies are borrowed and then evolve - social networking sites are used to organize, occupations are staged - and the global media are told where to stand.
PROTESTOR: This actually started in response to Tahrir Square. It's taking a lot of pages out of their notes, and trying to emulate that in a way. It's a hopeful attitude - to see that if they can do it maybe we can too.
When the group isn't marching - there is a joyful, carnival atmosphere to Zuccotti Park - which the group has renamed "Liberty Square". Naked Cowboy sings his song and a surprising amount of organization takes place everyday and night. Sleeping bags and tarps have been donated for anyone who wants to camp out with the protestors. Volunteers clean up the trash - others prepare donated food.
KYLE CHRISTOPHER: This is definitely unique and awesome - to see how well this has been coming together.
Medics are on hand for minor health problems and there's even a library of donated books.
FEMALE PROTESTOR: You know anyone that is here feels it. Feels it deeply in here - that something needs to be done. So you start on a level that you don't start on with your family or your friends necessarily - the commonality that we believe that something needs to be done and we believe that we are going to do it.
PROTESTOR: I don't have all the answers, but I think we should have an open forum to discuss the changes we want to see.
All day people air their views by having the crowd echo their words so that the listeners further back can hear because they are not allowed a PA system in the park. Today, world reknown economist Jeffrey Sachs is taking his turn to talk to the crowd, he's one of many notables who have come to visit.
JEFFREY SACHS, ECONOMIST: They figured if they cut taxes for the rich that the rich would give them campaign contributions and they could all live happily ever after. THEY could all live happily ever after. Not us. They are the 1%. We are the 99%. This isn't just a game. This is the future of this country. And it's actually the future of the world. And if it's decided by the Koch brothers or Exxon Mobil and others, we're really in a hell of a lot of trouble.
Filmmaker Michael Moore was on hand - as was economics professor and author Moshe Adler.
PROFESSOR MOSHE ADLER, ECONOMIST, EMPIRE STATE COLLEGE: We have to recognize all levels of government serve executives. That includes the legislator, which is congress, that includes the president, and that includes the courts. So what do we mean by Occupy Wall Street? It is a cry for economic democracy but it is not concrete enough yet.
The movement is today being discussed in many corners, including Professor Adler's labour class at Empire State College. These men are all labourers on scholarship and have returned from visiting the protests.
LABOURER: I've been unemployed for two years but I don't agree with a lot of the protests. I feel like the middle class and everybody who is out there is really just jumping on the bandwagon.
LABOURER 2: Every senator probably came from some line of family that was in some echelon of higher education. They didn't come from down there.
Occupy Wall Street's biggest impact to date may have been in sparking debates like this one.
LABOURER 3: What programs are being cut all the time? All these social work programs, city workers, that are extremely important for protecting or providing important services to our people and the most important one is education.
The constant criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that they cannot or will not articulate exactly what changes they want to see.
PROFESSOR MOSHE ADLER: The only thing is that this resistance has not had leadership. But it is providing a kernel around which a movement to call for change can coalesce.
BURT NEUBORNE: Throughout history the speech of the poor and the weak has been street speech, has been speech using their bodies as the mechanism for expressing their needs and concerns and that's what we're seeing now.
Every day new support seems to come their way - now major unions, the American clergy, and even house democrats have got behind these kids in the park. Patrick Bruner is one of those most responsible for the movement's media campaign. He's been here since the very beginning.
PATRICK BRUNER: Everyone here is sick of the current economic and political climate. We're sick of people telling us we're broke when we're the richest country that ever existed. We know that people need value the social contract that America was built upon. Half the signs you see out here say "Save The American Dream" and that's what we're fighting for - the American Dream.
BURT NEUBORNE: The story of the 1960s and 1970s demonstrations is a happy story. Frustration followed by genuine political reform and genuine change in the society. I don't see necessarily the opening to a happy ending for these demonstrations. What I see is a collision with corporate power and the police that may not be as happy.
This young movement continues to gain momentum by the day, while at the same time it struggles to define itself. Meanwhile, the entire world is watching.
MARK DAVIS: Aaron Lewis reporting there. Our website has more coverage of the protests, including an extensive photo gallery and updates of what's happening there now. And you can give us your views there, at sbs.com.au/dateline.
Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen
16th October 2011