Almost 90 minutes into his commute from the New Jersey suburbs, Michael Devaney has nearly reached his job on Wall Street. But first he threads through a sea of occupied but stone-still sleeping bags, around bleary-eyed protesters crawling from under blue plastic tarps in search of cigarettes and coffee, and past a sign on a pole protruding from a suitcase.
“Billionaires,” it warns, “Your Time is Up!”
It is 7:50 a.m., and another day in the capital of capitalism has begun.
The scene has been repeated now for most of three weeks, as the regular denizens of Wall Street arrive to meet protesters demanding an end to the financial system as we know it. The bankers, lawyers and others climbing from the subways, briefcases in hand, seem largely unperturbed — sympathetic, even — to those who call them the enemy. Mostly, though, watching and listening as the tom-tom beat of the protests spreads from a lower Manhattan park to cities around the country, Wall Streeters sound confused.
What exactly, they ask, do the protesters want?
“They definitely have a right to be here, but they don’t seem to have a goal. What is it, to put Wall Street people in jail?” Devaney, who works in information technology at one of the financial district’s many banks, asked Tuesday, after crossing narrow Zuccotti Park, on his way to the office.
“There are people who make a whole lot of money, but them making less money? I’m not sure what that’s going to do in itself.”
In fact, Devaney’s uncertainty about the protesters’ message is echoed by some of the protesters, themselves. But while the protesters and the protested eyed one another somewhat warily Tuesday, the density that is life in Manhattan occasionally resulted in conversation, and left them wondering aloud what to make of another.
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” said Pete McCarthy, a pinstripe-suited lawyer who represents a financial services firm, studying the protesters on his way to work. “What are they saying, ‘People Instead of Profits’. What does it mean?”
The Occupy Wall Street protests, which began Sept. 17 in this privately-owned park across the streets from towers housing investment bank Brown Brothers Harriman and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, have spread this week from Los Angeles to Chicago, Portland, Maine and other cities. Protesters have spoken out about the nation’s lack of jobs, blaming President Obama and members of Congress. They have criticized corporate lobbyists and employers.
But they have reserved most of their criticism for “Wall Street.” On Monday, when protesters dressed as corporate zombies marched past the New York Stock Exchange clutching fistfuls of money, some bystanders shouted, “Get a job!” But others smiled at the street theater.
“It’s nice to see that people can come here and say what’s on their mind. People can’t do that in a lot of countries,” said Gary McFelia, a technology consultant from Long Island in the area for business meetings.
Many of those who work in the fabled center of American commerce say they don’t take the protests personally. Indeed, some even sympathize.
“It’s really incredible to me, the passion and conviction these people have,” said Lou Crossin, who works for a company that sells corporate governance research to large investors. “I don’t think these are violent people. They’re just standing up for their beliefs.”
Crossin said the protesters — with their chanting in unison, leafleting and drum circles — reminded him of the lyrics of a song from his youth by Jefferson Airplane: “Look what’s happening out in the streets. Got a revolution.”
He wasn’t the only one to feel that way. Sam Schmidt, a criminal defense attorney who walks by the park every day, said the protests took him back to when he was a college student in 1970 and went to Washington, D.C., to oppose the war in Vietnam.
“I’m 60 years old. I lived through the ’60s and the ’70s, and this is nothing. I think it is well-behaved. We’ve got a few crazies, but we have a few crazies here (in New York) anyway,” he said. “It’s just reminiscent of my youth.”
Others, though, say the protestors are misguided.
Talley Leger, a former strategist at Barclays Capital, says he understands people’s anger. But by lashing out at Wall Street as if it were a monolith, people are oversimplifying things.
“I’m not defending bankers — I got laid off from one. But bankers have been wearing scarlet letters, and there’s plenty of blame to go around,” Leger says. “Why did people take on so much (mortgage and credit card) debt when they knew they weren’t going to be able to pay it back?”
A banker who stepped to the curb overlooking the park Tuesday for a cigarette break said protesters were quick to call for an end to the financial system without thinking about what that meant. Without banks to finance companies, protesters wouldn’t have their laptops, cell phones and backpacks widely in use throughout the park, he said.
“They’re all on their iPads, on their iTouches. Where did that all come from? It didn’t come from dancing circles,” said the man, who would not give his name.
Just 30 feet away, protester Tammy Bick stood atop a stone planter, wearing a sign around her neck. “My generation will never be able to retire,” it read. “All of our 401(k) funds were stolen from us by Wall Street & their manipulations.”
But Bick, a 49-year-old from Hamden, Conn., who said she was fired from her job last November as a secretary at an HIV clinic, smiled warmly as people slowed to read her sign, working to make eye contact. The protests have provided a platform for an exchange of ideas, she said.
“They still don’t take us seriously. I think they think it’s just a little movement that’s going to go away,” said Bick, who plans to help launch protests near home, in New Haven and Hartford. “The only way to do it is to show them, to make them open their eyes.”
There are many Wall Streeters who say it is the protesters who need to open their eyes. But if there’s anything they agree on, it’s that an exchange of ideas and information across the divide might be a good thing.
On Sunday, Jennifer Berg, a former senior executive at the investment banks Morgan Stanley and UBS, boarded a subway heading downtown and took a seat across from three protesters holding signs. “American Spring,” one sign proclaimed. “Down with Wall Street,” read another.
The veteran Wall Streeter figured she might as well introduce herself. “I just said what exactly are you protesting?”
One of the protesters told her he was upset with the marketing of subprime mortgages. Berg countered by asking if homebuyers who took on too much debt shouldn’t share some of the responsibility. Another explained that she wanted more control over the economy. Berg said she told them that if they tried to close down Wall Street, it would choke the flow of money that sustains the world economy.
“We had a really decent chat. These guys were disgruntled. I think they were unemployed. They felt like they were making a difference,” Berg says. “They listened to what I had to say and then they shook my hand. They said it was a great pleasure to have this conversation.”
AP writers Bernard Condon and Karen Matthews contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.