As Protests Continue, Politicians Weigh in on Wall Street

Within a month the anti-Wall Street protests have gone from novelty status to the subject of serious debate — with even President Barack Obama weighing in and Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressing sympathy for their cause.

As unions and other outside groups have continued to join on to the month-long protest that has garnered international attention, politicians — both Democrats and Republicans — have been forced to weigh in on what’s going on inside Zuccotti Park, the protesters’ makeshift headquarters.

“I think people are frustrated and the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” Obama said earlier this month.

On the same day, Bloomberg said people are "very frustrated" with the economy and the government.

"People are upset," he said. "They don't quite know where to go."

Republican strategist Karen Hanretty argued that the protesters themselves would never be "mainstream," but says they've profoundly altered the political landscape.

"In debates, and in media interviews, and increasingly voters are going to ask, 'Do you support the bailouts? Do you support Wall Street? How much money are you taking from Wall Street? And what is the influence of Wall Street?'” Hanretty said.

Even Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who had two weeks ago said protesters were waging “class warfare,” changed course.  

"I worry about the 99 percent in America," Romney said, adding "I look at what's happening on Wall Street, and my own view is, ‘Boy, I understand how those people feel.’"

An Altered Landscape

Recently, former Democratic State assemblyman Richard Brodsky was at Zuccotti taking notes and occasionally nodding in approval at the signs he read. Forty years ago, Brodsky was an antiwar activist, and he now thinks something historic is happening.

"This is how the abolitionist movement started,” he said. “This is how the civil rights movement started, the women's movement. You're in a formative stage of something that's universally important, and it's just a thrill to be here."

Van Jones, a former aide to Obama who heads the progressive group Rebuild the Dream, said the ideas of progressive activists such as himself are finally being heard.

"If you noticed, last summer, it was all about austerity, austerity, cut, cut, cut," Jones said. "And now the conversation has flipped back over to inequality, jobs, making sure that the corporate sector is more responsible. That's a huge sea shift."
 
Jones rejects the notion that the protesters need to propose clear demands, or solutions. He says there are already enough like-minded experts, and that if the protests continue to grow, their proposals will gain traction.

Articulating Demands

Thea Lee, the deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO, already has a wish list, which includes foreclosure assistance, requiring banks and other corporations to hire more workers, and enactment of a financial transaction tax. AFL-CIO is one of the unions that joined the protests

"If you put a tiny, tiny little tax on every financial transaction, you could actually raise tens, maybe hundreds of billions of dollars and that would be money that could be used to create jobs, to fund infrastructure, to fund social services and so on," Lee said.

Political consultant George Arzt said that demonstrators have seized attention but the public could tire of the blocked traffic, noise and consumption of public resources without a clear objective.

"I think now is their moment when they have to come up with something," he said. "If they continue just to parade around without anything to say about reforms, then they're going to have a problem. Messaging is all important for them."

Correction: The original article identified Richard Brodsky as Democratic State assemblyman. He is no longer in office. WNYC regrets the error.