NEW YORK -- An anticorporate movement that began quietly three weeks ago in New York City is beginning to spread to other U.S. cities, as Americans from Boston to Los Angeles seize the chance to protest the widening gap between rich and poor.
The movement was spawned on September 17 when a loosely organized group of activists calling themselves "Occupy Wall Street" set up a makeshift camp in a park in Manhattan's financial district. Despite lacking official permits, they began holding daily demonstrations in the surrounding streets, carrying signs with slogans like, "People not profits" and "Make jobs, not war."
Since then the crowd has swelled in number and grown in diversity. It now includes 20-somethings and pensioners, students, workers, the unemployed, and the retired. All are angry at a system they believe only benefits the rich and powerful.
Kathy Jones, a social worker from New York, joined the demonstration this week and brought along her 2 1/2-year-old daughter. She said that although she has a job and shares a household with her boyfriend, a computer programmer, they still cannot afford health insurance.
"I am hoping that this is a protest that spreads," Jones said. "I think the economic inequality in this country has gotten to a place that's untenable. I think that the corporate tax cuts for example, the tax breaks for the corporations rather than for general workers, need to be abolished. [Corporations] pay less taxes than the average worker does."
Anger Of The '99 Percent'
Occupy Wall Street's website describes itself as a "leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders, and political persuasions." The one thing members have in common, according to the website, is that they claim to be the "99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent."
Organizers say they drew inspiration from popular uprisings in the Arab world and European antiausterity protests.
The Wall Street protests garnered little media attention during their first two weeks and were largely unknown outside New York. But that all changed on October 1, when several thousand activists marched to the Brooklyn Bridge and occupied the roadway in defiance of police warnings.
Some 700 activists were arrested and given minor fines. All but a handful were released a few hours later.
The mass arrests and subsequent Internet-fueled controversy over whether police had trapped activists on the bridge brought a flood of media attention. On October 3, hundreds of Occupy Wall Street activists capitalized on the attention by dressing as "corporate zombies." They painted their faces white and blood red and lurched past the New York Stock Exchange with fistfuls of fake money.
Media coverage of the bridge arrests and zombie march has had a powerful effect on like-minded Americans across the country. On October 4, there were spontaneous, copy-cat protests in front of Federal Reserve banks in several cities.
In Chicago, demonstrators pounded drums in the city's financial district. In Boston, they marched to the statehouse with signs that read, "Fight the rich, not their wars" and "Human need, not corporate greed." In St. Louis, Kansas City, and Los Angeles, demonstrators waved protest signs at passing cars.
Organizers in more than 50 U.S. cities are now planning to hold their own versions of Occupy Wall Street rallies. Websites and Facebook pages with names like "Occupy Boston" and "Occupy Philadelphia" have sprung up.
Driving the widespread anger is the largest economic disparity in America in decades. The United States now has the biggest gap between rich and poor among Western industrialized nations.
The numbers paint a stark picture: Today the richest 1 percent of Americans owns nearly one-quarter of U.S. wealth, while the bottom 40 percent owns just 0.3 percent.
In 2010, the top 20 percent of Americans took home 50 percent of all income, while the bottom 20 percent received just 3 percent.
The trend has been growing steadily for the past 30 years. Nobel Prize-winning American economist Paul Krugman calls it "the great divergence," noting that between 1979 and 2005 the real income of the median household rose by13 percent, while the income of the richest 0.1 percent of Americans rose 296 percent.
Many ordinary Americans are feeling left behind, and their legendary optimism is giving way to hopelessness.
Marvin Knight, a 68-year-old pensioner who lives in Brooklyn, joined the Wall Street protests on October 3. Holding a large, handmade poster that read, "Jesus is not for corporate greed," he said he lives on Social Security retirement benefits of less than $800 a month.
"I am here to protest this capitalist system we have here, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and there's no end in sight," Knight said.
Many Americans are boiling over the government's decision to use taxpayer money to bail out heavily leveraged banks on the brink of failure. Those same banks are now turning huge profits, and foreclosing on millions of Americans' homes.
Michael Doe, a 26-year-old medical student from North Dakota and a military veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq, said he bought a plane ticket and came to New York to join the protests because "money's really powerful [but] our voices are just as powerful."
He spoke to RFE/RL after spending two nights camping out and said he hoped to "help wake people up and tell them that things can be better than they are."
"This is a really important movement," Doe said. "People need to realize that this is not going to go away unless we do something about it. So I am here just helping out, just be present, to occupy some space and let people know that there's all kinds of people from all kinds of life that are affected by corporate greed and the decisions that are made by our government."
In September, President Barack Obama proposed a minimum tax on millionaires, saying that "things have gotten out of whack" because tax loopholes allow many wealthy Americans to pay less in taxes than working-class Americans do.
Opposition Republicans accused him of waging "class warfare."
But levying higher taxes on the super-wealthy has at least two important supporters: billionaire hedge-fund manager Warren Buffet and billionaire financier George Soros.
Buffet even wrote an editorial for "The New York Times" last month titled "Stop Coddling The Super-Rich," while on October 3 Soros said he could "sympathize with the protester's grievances."
Meanwhile, the number of people with grievances is growing. In New York, a large rally was planned for October 5 at which major labor unions were expected to join the movement.