What started as a small demonstration in a New York City park to protest corporate influence over public policy and demand accountability from Wall Street bankers may now be close to becoming a national movement. In late September, as the quixotic effort seemed to be on the verge of dissipating, a video of a New York police inspector pepper-spraying peaceful protestors went viral, rejuvenating the Occupy Wall Street effort and inspiring parallel demonstrations around the nation. Occupy demonstrations were quickly organized in Boston, Atlanta, Denver, Chicago and other cities. These new protests were conducted for the most part without incident, but in Boston more than 100 people were arrested in the early hours of Oct. 11 as police cleared an encampment of protesters.
The movement began as an emulation of Egypt’s Tahrir Square occupation. This U.S. version of people power was intended explicitly to protest the role of corporate power and money in American politics. That theme remains consistent as the demonstrations have continued, but the effort has been by definition leaderless. As a result, a wide variety of issues have been raised at the national gatherings. But most protests remain consistent with an overarching concern with the role of money in public policy, the lack of accountability for Wall Street missteps leading up the to nation’s 2008 economic collapse and the continuing inattention to job creation in Washington.
On Oct. 6 “occupiers” landed in Washington with multiple events, including a demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol and separate encampments at downtown sites.
Helma Lanyi of suburban Bethesda, Md., is convener of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship’s Washington chapter. A native of Germany, she said she was concerned that U.S. democracy was at risk. “What has happened in our country over the last 30-40 years is that the emphasis has shifted from the human person to corporate greed,” she said. “Polls have shown that the public is not behind the policies of the government,” adding that from her experience in Germany she has “seen what happens when democracies are undermined.”
In New York, where the protests began, Catholic religious who are active in calling Wall Street to account voiced admiration for the campaign. The protest puts into words and pictures “the extent of the pain and suffering that Wall Street has visited upon thousands of people by their reckless betrayal of the public trust, their sustained lack of remorse, their cozy relationship with Washington leaders and regulators and the inability and unwillingness of both sectors to keep people in their homes and create jobs,” said Seamus Finn, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Father Finn is on the board of directors of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility.
Less enthusiastic was Father Robert Sirico, founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. “The ethos of this all is the rage against wealth for wealth’s sake,” he said. “But how do you alleviate poverty without creating wealth?” Father Sirico said he could find common cause with the protesters on one condition: “If they want to define what they’re protesting, and they want to say we’re protesting the bailouts, I say fine, sign me up.”