Occupy Wall Street strikes a chord with many

October 16, 2011

Businessman Richard Knittel joined pickets Wednesday evening as part of Lexington's Occupy Wall Street on Main Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

The casually dressed Occupy Wall Street protesters in downtown Lexington last Wednesday evening looked curiously at one another when Richard Knittel approached wearing a suit and tie.

He didn’t want to argue with them. He wanted to join them.

Knittel, 69, of Versailles, explained that he isn’t against capitalism — among other things, he is chairman of a Canadian company that uses environmentally friendly technology to mine metals. But he agreed with the protesters that big money has too much influence in America, especially when it comes to profit-driven disregard for the environment.

“I want people to see that even people with suits on are joining this,” Knittel said before picking up a spare protest sign and waving to passing motorists on Main Street.

Since Occupy Wall Street protests began Sept. 17 in New York’s financial district, similar demonstrations have sprung up in more than 1,300 American cities.

The Lexington protest began Sept. 29 on the sidewalk outside Chase Bank Plaza. Protesters — whose numbers have ranged from two to two dozen — said they have tried to be polite and not make a mess. They have appreciated Lexington police for keeping drunks and troublemakers away. Supporters bring them food, and Gene and Natasha Williams let them use restrooms in their restaurant across the street.

Some people have cast Occupy Wall Street as liberals’ answer to the conservative Tea Party. Both movements include average, passionate people waving protest signs and American flags. Both also have their share of crackpots, are fuzzy about their goals and solutions and are easy for critics to lampoon.

Still, both movements have struck chords with the public because, for so many people, the American dream seems to be slipping away. People on the left, right and in the middle think the system has been rigged against them.

I visited Lexington’s Occupy Wall Street protesters several times last week. Most were 20-something students and low-wage workers, although the group included teachers, retirees, a veteran, a local food activist, an unemployed computer programmer and a man who said he is homeless. Some talked idealistically, but most just seemed worried about the future.

The protesters said they are concerned about economic injustice and political corruption. They aren’t against capitalism, just the crony capitalism and greed that they blame for the financial crisis and widening economic disparity.

Among common themes: The rich have gotten exponentially richer while middle-class workers have lost economic ground for three decades. Financial speculators, who largely caused the 2008 crash and were bailed out by taxpayers, haven’t been brought to justice. Politicians of both parties receive so much corporate cash that they are only looking out for business interests.

“This is about shaping the national discourse so it is more people-based than profit-based,” said Robert Wilhelm, 24, a University of Kentucky student. “People who were part of the Tea Party before it got corporate sponsorship have even come by and said they agree the system is broken.”

Janet Tucker, 64, a retired nurse, said she thought it was important to come out and protest. “But I don’t spend the night here; I leave that to the younger folks,” she said.

“We’re spending trillions on wars overseas, and we can’t afford to deal with all the problems we have here,” Tucker said. “It’s not that there isn’t money; it’s where it is. We need to look at our priorities as a nation.”

Protesters said they have been encouraged because, for every obscene gesture or shout of “get a job” they receive from a passerby, they get 10 thumbs-up or honks of support.

“A lot of folks are struggling, and I think they’re making these connections,” said Greg Capillo, 23, a college graduate who works in a coffee shop. “The ultimate issue is corporate involvement in democracy, because it speaks to the structural elements of democracy itself.”

It is hard to predict the future of Occupy Wall Street. The demonstrations will surely wane as winter comes. Protesters say they don’t want to be co-opted by the Democratic Party the way the Tea Party movement has been by the Republican Party.

The significance of protest movements is never the movements themselves, but how they shape public opinion over time. A national poll last week by Time magazine found that 54 percent of respondents viewed Occupy Wall Street favorably. That compared to 27 percent who viewed the Tea Party favorably, down from 41 percent in December 2009.

Comparing Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party might not be the best analogy. Better ones might be the Bonus Army veterans who occupied Washington during the worst of the Depression, or even the civil rights movement of a generation ago.

Throughout history, this nation has been forced to address obvious injustice and inequity when enough people objected. The protesters on Wall Street — and on Main Streets across America — seem to be hoping that this time will be no different.