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'Occupy Wall Street' Protests Gain Wider Ground


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, a couple of conversations with people who say they are mad and not going to take it anymore. In a few minutes, we'll hear from our personal finance expert Alvin Hall on those new fees for debit card use at the country's biggest retail bank - Bank of America, and a few others say they are now going to charge their customers. He'll give his take on why this is happening and what consumers can do about it.

But first, we want to talk about those demonstrations in New York that led to the arrest of more than 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge this weekend. They were part of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests. The movement started in New York first as a reaction to what organizers called corporate greed, but has now spread to many cities and other causes. But the central idea is that the needs of the many are being outweighed by the desires of the few.

Here's sound of recent protests in Chicago, Boston, and New York.


MARTIN: We wanted to know more, so we've called upon Arun Venugopal. He is a reporter from member station WNYC who's been covering the protests. And then in a few minutes, we'll hear from Kyle Christopher, a media consultant, freelance journalist, and protestor with Occupy Wall Street.

But, Arun, let's start with you. Well, welcome to you both. And, Arun, let me start with you. Some people are calling these protests the American Autumn comparing them to the Arab Spring. And the reason that people say that is that there's a lot of use of social media to help get people organized and that there are a lot of young people involved. Many of whom are highly educated, but are not able to work at a level, you know, commensurate with their education and desires. Does that analogy sound right? Is that true?

ARUN VENUGOPAL: Yeah, Michel, thanks for having me on. I do think that this phrase American Autumn, I don't know where it's come from, but certainly the comparisons to the Arab Spring are very common amongst these people who are demonstrating in lower Manhattan.

In fact, the square which they have occupied is called Zuccotti Park, but it's old name was, I think, Liberty Plaza. They've renamed it Liberty Plaza in homage to Tahrir Square in Cairo, where all the protests were happening this spring. So, they feel that they are connected to this worldwide movement. Young people who are trying to claim, I guess, a greater voice in what's happening in their own political systems, whether it's in Egypt or in parts of Europe or even in India.

MARTIN: Now, you know, we hear, though, that established groups like MoveOn.org and also some of the labor unions have now started to embrace these protests or at least to support them, at least that's what we're seeing, you know, online. Do you see any evidence of that? And since you've been covering these, which as I said in New York at least it's been going on for a couple of weeks now. Are you starting to see more union members or some evidence of these established groups embracing the movement?

VENUGOPAL: Well, last week, late last week the Transport Workers Union Local 100. These are the 38,000 MTA, subway and bus workers who operate New York City's transit system. Their executive committee passed a resolution embracing this movement. And tomorrow, Wednesday, we're going to have a big march here in New York City, where many of these groups, MoveOn, the Transport Workers Union, Communications Workers of America, United Federation of Teachers, they're all going to be marching together. And they have really been rallying around this message that's been taking place with these demonstrators who are occupying Wall Street.

So, we are starting to see this kind of flirtation happening. They really think that they've been energized. Some of these progressive causes that they've kind of struggling to get across or have failed to in the last few years during the recession, they think that this has kind of changed the game.

MARTIN: Kyle, can we bring you into the conversation? Welcome, thank you for joining us.

KYLE CHRISTOPHER: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: I understand that you have dual role. That you are actually documenting the protests in addition to participating in them? Does that sound right?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, I would say that that's fairly accurate, Michel.

MARTIN: So, how did this start? How did this start overall and how did this start for you?

CHRISTOPHER: Well, for me, I mean, I found it on a social network, of course. I mean, it popped up in one of my feeds that I get from - I'm not sure if it was the Raw Story or Democracy Now. But, yeah, you know, a friend invitation for Occupy Wall Street just kind of popped up one day and I was like: Oh, this looks fantastic. You know, I wanted to be a part of it. And so, you know, of course I looked around for some funding to find my way down here and then of course here I am.

MARTIN: Well, why did you want to be part of it?

CHRISTOPHER: I think it's almost self explanatory at this point. I mean, even the media, you know, the big media outlets really seem to nail that point home. I mean, there are plenty of reasons for each individual that's here to want to be down here. My personal reasons for wanting to be down here (unintelligible) a little more of accountability on the part of big corporations, people that are, for lack of a better term, outsourcing violence to other countries.

MARTIN: Is there some specific thing or policy change or event that would let you know that your message is being heard?

CHRISTOPHER: I'm not sure. And unfortunately, we haven't really seen too much. I don't mean to speak for the movement, but I would say that I haven't really seen too much in a way of accountability that would really, you know, warrant me wanting to go home or to stop being a part of this movement. In fact, I think I'd like to see it grow more.

MARTIN: Well, Arun, to that point, this is one of the things that's been kind of hard to get peoples hands around in contrast to the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, which started as being kind of free form, but then quickly became focused on regime change. They wanted, you know, Mubarak to step down in Egypt and in Tunisia they wanted the ruling family to step aside, and they wanted democracy and, you know, and elections and more participation, you know, by citizens. And that quickly became the goal.

Arun, are you seeing any coalescing around any specific objectives here over the course of time that the protests have taken place?

VENUGOPAL: No. And that has been one of the sources of tension and debate within the occupation at least in New York City is are we going to come up with a list of demands that we sort of present to the public and perhaps get our allies to rally around. But, in fact, there hasn't been that much movement on that front.

I think that to some extent they just do want to grow the movement around these general sources of frustration and desperation with some people. And there's not even, say, a policy arm that I know of in this movement here in New York City, although other cities that are developing their own occupations around the country that may be different because these are all autonomous actions happening around the country.

MARTIN: We're talking about the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York that have now spread to a number of other cities around the country. With us are Arun Venugopal. He's a reporter for our member station WNYC, who's been reporting on the protests. That's who was talking just now. Also with us, Kyle Christopher, he's a media consultant and a protestor with Occupy Wall Street.

Kyle, what about that? Do you see any sign of coalescing around some specific demands?

CHRISTOPHER: I mean, being a part of the general assembly, I can say that I've seen a movement towards at least trying to have specific demands, quote, unquote, "laid out" and agreed upon. I've also seen a lot of different working groups that are within the park there trying to have a similar mindset. But I think it's important to note that there are also people that are down there that just don't want to see demands period.

MARTIN: I don't ever expect any demands on my life and I don't respect when others try to impose demands on my life. So, why would I want to impose those on other people.

And I think that that's a really a portion of this event, I think, is not touched upon enough that there is a majority that's there that don't want to have demands and just want to help people and just want to facilitate help to people that can't help themselves. And I think that that's a good thing in so much as that there are the abilities to facilitate those things down in that square right now.

I mean, there is - you know, there's pools of funding that can be drawn from, from the different people that are, you know, all over the world that wanted to be a part of this but couldn't make it down to the park, or just maybe can't make it to their own local movement.

And I feel like, yes, to answer the question directly, there have been movements to go and solidify demand or just to solidify a solidarity between people, at least insomuch as the reasons that we're down there. But again, I want to make sure that it's important to address that there are those that don't want demands and just want to sort of just be good people and try and really help out in any way that they can.

MARTIN: You know, I understand what you're saying, because it's a way of thinking, you know, it's a way - a different narrative, if we could use that term. But I think, you know, a lot of us are used to protest movements with specific objectives, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, right, which was - the purpose of which was to integrate public transportation and more broadly draw attention to just the overall inequalities in society, and then protest movements aimed at, say, achieving of specific goals.

I think that's one reason maybe a lot of people - if I could just speculate - are having trouble kind of wrapping their hands around, like, how will you know if you are succeeding.

CHRISTOPHER: Right. And I can understand that, as well. I mean, I - spoken with somebody yesterday who was in their 40s that, you know, said, oh, you know, I've just lost my job. I would really like to be a part of this movement. But, you know, again, I need some kind of solidification to say, you know, what exactly the message is.

So I can understand that frustration, and I can even identify with it, too, because, I mean, you know, it would be great for me if the movement was just about corporate accountability, or if it was really just an occupation of Wall Street to try and make sure there was some responsibility on the part of people that were, you know, at the top, so to speak, of the buildings.

MARTIN: Well, keep in touch, if you would.

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you.

MARTIN: Arun, final thought from you, if you would. Where does this go next? I mean, you were already telling us that there are places around the country that we're starting to see demonstrations. Tell us a little bit more, if you would, in the minute or so we have left.

VENUGOPAL: That's right. Well, I mean, with the people at least in New York City, they are very excited to see these things happening across the country. Some of them have been in the works for months. The big one, I think, in Washington, D.C., they're going to have a big event Thursday, and that's already, I think, started there.

As I understand it, the people running that one are relatively experienced at activism compared to the people in New York City. In some sense, they may really start, I guess, taking the movement forward. And they're calling it a movement now. They're not calling it, like, little actions across the country. They really feel like they have kind of struck a chord with the public.

I think that these traditional groups like unions and community organizations in New York City for sure - and perhaps in other states, as well - they really feel like this has energized them, and they're going to be able to address issues such as whether they can raise taxes on the wealthy as they've taken, ensure stronger rights for, you know, workers and collective bargaining issues like that.

MARTIN: All right, well, you keep us posted, too. Arun Venugopal is a reporter for member station WNYC. He's been covering the protests in New York. He was with us from their studios. Kyle Christopher was also with us. He's a media consultant and protestor with Occupy Wall Street, and he joined us from our NPR bureau in New York. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking to us.

VENUGOPAL: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.