Topless protesters and pinstripes cross paths on Wall Street


Hundreds have responded to a call to occupy New York’s financial district, to demonstrate against bailouts. Their colourful presence has bemused some and left others thinking only the rich can afford to take a stand, writes SEAN O'DRISCOLLin New York

IT’S LUNCHTIME in the New York financial district and, across from the Brooks Brothers shop on Liberty Plaza, the Occupy Wall Street protest is gathering. Douglas Robert Glander, a trader who buys and sells coal, has turned up to support his would-be occupiers. “A lot of Wall Street is obnoxious,” he says. “I’m kind of glad I’m working in the stock exchange so I can try to change it. That’s hard to do because it’s so greedy and it’s so tight-knit.”

Amid the didgeridoo players, the middle-aged punks and the teenage anarchists who occupy the grassless Zuccotti Park between Wall Street and the World Trade Center, Glander is a striking figure in his stock-exchange trader’s smock and pin badge with the intertwined flags of the US and the New York Stock Exchange.

About 300 people are on the plaza, in the shadow of the rapidly rising 4 World Trade Center skyscraper, and they vow to stay for months. There is a medical area, a help-yourself library, a kitchen and a “safe nap zone”.

The demonstrators, whether demanding a job or revolution, were drawn here by AdBuster, a stylish leftist magazine that called for an occupation of Wall Street to protest against bailouts, unemployment and corporate control of the political system. The message spread on Twitter and Facebook, and so hundreds are hemmed into a tiny plaza, surrounded by police and curious tourists.

The serious malaise among young Americans is underlined by a Wall Street coal trader supporting an anti-Wall Street protest. He followed his father into commodities – “Coal is down $10 today,” he says – but is tired of endless American consumption that doesn’t deliver jobs.

He is joined in capitalist chagrin by Chelsea Elliott, a 25-year-old graphic designer. “I worked and I worked and I worked at no-pay internships and there was no job at the end,” she says. “We’re tired of this, tired of huge bailouts for Wall Street when we have to struggle. Only rich kids can afford to intern.”

Elliott later made headlines across the US when she and two other women featured in a YouTube video in which they were sprayed with mace by a police officer while already cordoned off from other protesters. The three women are considering legal action against the NYPD.

“There are a lot of angry young people out there,” says Zuni Tikka. “They come out of college in huge debt and there is nothing there for them.” Tikka, who has scribbled “The Naked Truth – Wall Street Is Screwing Us All” on her abdomen, is chatting with Bob Brunning, a steamfitter working on air conditioning for 4 World Trade Center.

“I’m just here having my lunch, but I support them,” he says, after asking Tikka why she doesn’t put on some clothes. Brunning believes too many are blaming unions for the crippling debt of many American cities and that it’s time to fight back. “It’s not pension plans that have this country in a mess, it’s those guys,” he says, pointing towards Wall Street. As time passes, more pinstripe suits appear on the periphery of the park to see what’s going on and, at least one admits, to check out the topless women.

The protesters regroup, undeterred. The police have stopped them using microphones or megaphones, so they use “people mics”, where everyone shouts out the words of the person addressing the crowd.

“I think the protest is a disgrace,” says Richard Buchout, who leans his head sideways, away from the speakers, as if his disgust can barely be contained. Dressed in pinstripes and wearing sunglasses on the top of his head, Buchout calls the protest an insult to the 9/11 dead. “I don’t care what they have to say, it’s the way they are saying it,” he says. “Some people are still mourning down here and they are out here shouting their heads off.”

Some on Wall Street are less direct, recognising that this protest could drag on for months. “I have no opinion and I couldn’t care less,” says Crolo Sanchez, who works in a bank in the Equitable Building, across the road.

Nearby, Brett Powers is sitting on the ground finishing a sketch of Glander, the commodities trader, which he shows to a plain-clothes policeman. Powers says he last worked in the summer of last year, at a low-paying “beach- volleyball restaurant” in Kansas. Before that he worked at Pizza Hut.

He is dressed neatly “because people are shallow and they judge us if we have beards and long hair. It you dress neat, they are less distracted and listen to the message.” What is the message? “I have a college degree,” he says. “I worked really hard at it, and I ended up in Pizza Hut while our government is bailing out Wall Street, who are just making the problems worse. That’s the problem . . . right now – there’s too many people like me. We’re overeducated with little to do.”

Luis Raul Ventidos is on a lunch break from the office on nearby Maiden Lane, where he is a janitor. Originally from Puerto Rico, he is one of many low-paid and middle-earning workers who drop by the protesters to lend support or satisfy their curiosity. “I wish I had the time to protest,” he says.

The class distinction is clear. Most of the demonstrators are white and middle class, and many of the low-paid immigrant workers who support them cannot afford to lose a day’s pay by joining in. The leaders can afford it. There is talk of revolution among the protesters, but it’s often followed with a shrug when it is pointed out that the people in the gleaming offices across the road still have hundreds of billions to counter the revolution.

Jena Gross is a dog walker who comes by every day to lend support. Today she is walking Ollie, owned by a woman who buys and sells businesses. So you are walking dogs for capitalists? “Yes, I guess you could say that,” she says with a grimace. “If the revolution fails, that’s a problem we need to reconsider.”