Occupy Movement Uses Colder Months To Unite
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Last fall, the Occupy Wall Street movement seized the world's attention by claiming a small slice of land in New York's financial district. The movement rapidly spread to other cities, sparking a national discussion on income inequality and other issues. Things are much quieter in New York now, but the movement still has big plans. Arun Venugopal, of member station WNYC, reports.
ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: Where there were once hundreds of demonstrators and a sea of tents, Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan is practically empty - but not entirely. There's a handful of Occupy-ers who are committed to maintaining a symbolic, 24-7 presence at the park. Ned Merrill does the graveyard shift, sitting through the night, whether the temperature's in the teens or it's pouring rain.
NED MERRILL: That gives you a hint that maybe there's something very important at stake here. And there is. It's liberty.
VENUGOPAL: Ever since November, when the NYPD cleared Zuccotti Park of the Occupy encampment, Occupy Wall Street has pretty much flown under the radar. It continues to hold protests around the city, but unlike in the fall, the movement rarely generates headlines. And it's running low on cash. That worries some protesters. But others say the real impact is being felt elsewhere. Protester Brendan Burke points to the president's State of the Union, last week.
BRENDAN BURKE: President Obama's speech was all our message. It was great. I mean, he didn't mention Occupy Wall Street and he doesn't have to. It's really that the conversation in the culture has changed now, over four months, and it's a blessing.
VENUGOPAL: The continued relevance of the movement can also be seen in countless op-eds and newspaper graphs charting income inequality. And, of course, the inescapable phrase the 99 percent.
And although the protesters in New York haven't received much coverage lately, Occupy-ers elsewhere have. In Oakland, the 400 protesters arrested this weekend were trying to occupy a vacant, city-owned building. The police used force, and some protesters responded by throwing rocks and bottles at officers. In New York, protesters marched in solidarity with the Oakland occupiers, but Brendan Burke says he and others are trying to violent demonstrators out of the movement.
BURKE: We haven't had it bad. We haven't had it in a situation where people are setting things on fire, and going nuts, but we've had situations where people are throwing things, elevating the feeling on the street into more of a riotous and violent level, which puts people in danger.
VENUGOPAL: Although some protesters have stuck it out since the beginning, others have quit. Bill Buster was an impassioned voice of the movement early on, but left, saying it got weighed down by bureaucracy and endless discussions.
BILL BUSTER: I've literally seen people walk away from general assemblies and say I'm never coming back. This has happened time and time again.
VENUGOPAL: At an Occupy event in the SoHo area on Monday, supporters unveiled a lavishly produced booklet, spelling out the movement's principles. But one attendee, union official Marc Beallor, spoke of growing divisions. And said the movement had recruited plenty of students, but had failed to attract people of different classes and ethnicities.
MARK BEALLOR: To represent more of the 99 percent. And unless that happens, I'm afraid that this movement may not succeed.
VENUGOPAL: Organizers say they're using the winter to unite protesters in far-flung cities, and to plan big events in the coming months. Those include protests at the G8 Summit in Chicago and a general strike on May 1st. And at the end of February, organizer Austin Guest says they're planning an event called Shut Down the Corporations.
AUSTIN GUEST: We went and protested in front of banks in the fall and winter. In the spring we're going to shut them down. We're going to cost them money. We're maybe going to make them go bankrupt.
VENUGOPAL: The Occupy movement is also planning to protest outside the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, later this year.
For NPR News, I'm Arun Venugopal in New York.
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