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Familiar refrain: Wall Street protest lacks leaders, clear message

John W. Schoen / msnbc.com

Several hundred protestors have vowed to remain in lower Manhattan

It’s messy. It’s disorganized. At times, the message is all but incoherent.

All of which makes Occupy Wall Street, the loosely organized protest in lower Manhattan now in its second week, a lot like the rest of the current American political discourse.

"It's democracy - real democracy," said Micah Chamberlain, 23, from Columbus, Ohio, who sat behind a makeshift table where organizers maintain a schedule of daily events. “It’s slow and it's tedious and it's complicated, but everyone has a voice. No one’s voice gets marginalized.”

The organizing theme, such as it is, centers on the influence of large corporations in shaping government policy. Many here blame the paralysis in Washington on a campaign finance system run amok. In that sense, the Occupy Wall Street movement seeks to “take back the country” no less than its Tea Party counterparts on the other end of the political spectrum. The two movements (if that's what this is) also share a common sense of despair and disgust with the two-party system now gearing up for another election cycle.  

Like the Tea Party, the origins of Occupy Wall Street are a bit murky. The idea for the protest apparently originated with a Vancouver-based magazine called Adbusters, which in a July 13 blog post called on a handful of unaffiliated groups to “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.”  The purpose of the protest, according to the post, is to end “the influence money has over our representatives in Washington.” 

On Sept. 17, hundreds of protesters heeded the call to Occupy Wall Street, though they've missed the target by a few blocks. Denied permanent access to pavement outside the New York Stock Exchange, the symbolic heart of capitalism at 11 Wall St., the group has fallen back to a space formerly known as Liberty Park. Sitting in the shadow of One World Trade Center, the skyscraper rising at Ground Zero formerly known as Freedom Tower, the three-quarter-acre rectangle of pavement, granite benches and tables is a carefully manicured urban landscape that includes a grove of honey locust trees illuminated nightly by hundreds of in-ground lights.

'Bad for business'

The New York Police Department, meanwhile, has set up a maze of barricades along the sidewalks for several blocks near the stock exchange itself, blocking street access and forcing pedestrians to make long detours. For Swili Rally, a newsstand operator across the street from the exchange, the barricades have killed foot traffic.

“This is usually a very busy time of day, but everything is blocked off,” he said. “These protesters are really bad for business.”

For most of the past ten days, the police made only a handful of arrests. But on Saturday, as protesters marched on nearby Union Square, police tried to corral demonstrators using waist-high lengths of orange plastic netting. Some 80 people were arrested, mostly on charges of blocking traffic, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

By Monday morning, the protester's weekend reinforcements were back at work and the ranks of hard core park occupiers had thinned. As the stock market opened, a parade of protesters, corralled by cops on motorcycles, wound through the barricade maze up Wall Street, waving signs, shouting slogans, blowing horns, banging drums and tambourines while tourists snapped pictures of loved-ones posing in front of the throng. The parade made its way back to the park, which has been transformed into a makeshift staging area, campground and media center where a few occupiers, huddled over laptops, maintain a live video stream of events on the Internet.

John W. Schoen / msnbc.com

Protestors in Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan are streaming coverage of the demonstration live over the Internet.

John W. Schoen / msnbc.com

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators marched in front of the New York Stock Exchange Monday through a tight maze of barricades set up by police.

So who are these people? Some are day-trippers from the suburbs and five boroughs. Others are out-of-towners staying in the relative comfort of a friend or family member's apartment. But many have come from all over the country to live in the park more or less full-time: sleeping on the ground, sharing a buffet of donated food and availing themselves of the facilities at a handful of nearby fast-food restaurant in a city famous for limited access to public rest rooms.

They’ll tell you, almost to a person, that they’re here for “as long as it takes.” But there’s far less consensus about just how they’ll measure the success of their occupation. Or know when it's time to leave.

“We haven’t quite gotten our unified message together,” said Chamberlain, who is taking a quarter off from studying political science at Ohio State University.

While the message may not be unified, there are common themes reflecting the harsh economic realities confronting a generation that came of age during the worst recession since the 1930s. Many of the people here were in middle school during the 2001 recession and entered high school about the time the housing market collapsed. If they made it to college, they were greeted by the Panic of 2008 and the deepest recession - and weakest economic recovery - in generations.

Unemployment is another unifying theme: a lot of people are here because they don’t have a job. While the unemployment rate for all U.S. workers stood at 9.1 percent in August, some 14.8 percent of those aged 20–to 24 were out of work.

“I used to a have great construction job, and (now) I can't find a job for more than $10 a hour,” said Brandon Szalay, 28, from Boulder, Colo. “I can pay my rent, but I can’t buy my groceries and I can’t pay my electric bill. It’s not good. I’ve got all sorts of skills, but they tell me I’m either overqualified or underqualified. “

Some here talk vaguely about the evils of “corporate greed." But most of the issues cited are familiar themes of progressive politics: the need for tighter regulation of the financial services industry; the devastating impact of the recession on middle class and poor households; a need to restore cuts in public services like education; the widening wealth gap; and the government’s apparently inequitable response to support bankers who made ruinous mortgage loans while all but abandoning homeowners facing foreclosure.

John W. Schoen / msnbc.com

The government's bailout of the banking industry is one of the common targets of the protest.

“People are hungry, we’ve got schools and hospitals closing, cops are getting laid off,” said Ed Delgado, 60, a former investigator with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "Our corporations have a stranglehold over government. They are reaping all the benefits and not taking any of the responsibilities.”

Though the protesters are still working to hone their message, it’s apparently getting through to some observers, including Jim Farley, 45, a construction worker enjoying a break in the morning sunshine.

“God Bless them,” he said. "I’ve been a union guy for years. Corporations don’t care about workers like us. That’s the bottom line.”

The occupation of the park, renamed Zucottti Park in 2006, could prove problematic. The property is maintained by Brookfield Properties, a publicly traded corporation with more than $20 billion in assets, whose CEO, Richard Clark, earned $5.1 million last year, according to Forbes.com. Some protesters Monday said they had heard the company was getting ready to ask them to leave or otherwise impose restrictions on their activities.

In response to a request for comment, the company said Monday that the park “is intended for the use and enjoyment of the general public for passive recreation.  We are extremely concerned with the conditions that have been created by those currently occupying the park and are actively working with the city of New York to address these conditions and restore the park to its intended purpose.”

Though the protesters are aware of the need for a more focused agenda, it is, at best, a work in progress. The current vehicle is a series of loosely organized meetings - called General Assemblies – designed to let anyone contribute to a list of the group’s goals, called Working Principals.  But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone here asserting leadership.

It’s a process that professional elected officials in Congress and the White House might find familiar.

“Consensus is a very time-consuming process, and that’s the problem we're working on,” said Jesse Cooper Levy, 24, from Fairlawn, N.J. “It can be discouraging to people."

Outrage is spilling into the streets of New York as part of a protest aimed at shutting down Wall Street. Over the weekend, 80 people were arrested in one day. NBC's Ron Allen reports.