Tuesday, October 4, 2011

NYC's Latest Tourist Attraction: Occupy Wall Street

USA Today: "How many times in life do you get a chance to watch history unfold?" asks a story in The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a free newspaper that debuted this weekend as part of a vague but growing movement against financial and political avarice.

For London visitor Sarah Lewis, that chance is now. Like dozens of other curious bystanders snapping cellphone pictures at the "Occupy Wall Street" encampment in Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, she'd heard about Saturday's arrests of more than 700 marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge - and has made an impromptu detour to the Big Apple's newest tourist attraction.

The draws: Face painting, drum circles and a chance to meet activists like Bill Steyert, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran from Queens. Sporting a tie-dyed T-shirt and peace symbol pendant, he tells Lewis he is "just as angry now as I was back in 1968."

" The country is in economic crisis, " says an increasingly hoarse Steyert, waving a white Veterans for Peace banner. "And the corporations are strangling us to death."

Now entering its third week, what started out as an ad hoc, social media-fueled handful of college student protesters has evolved into a nationwide phenomenon, with solidarity demonstrations in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities.

But the movement's ground zero remains Zuccotti Park, a privately owned, tree-shaded plaza on Liberty Street just a few minutes' walk from the 9/11 Memorial at the former World Trade Center. Rebuilt in 2006 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's now studded with blue tarps, a makeshift library and hospital, and a carpet of hand-lettered cardboard placards proclaiming "Eat the Rich," "Too Big To Fail is Too Big to Allow" and "You Tube is Powerful. Use it!"

The park's carnival atmosphere, complete with balloons and bongos, has sometimes seemed to attract as many media and passers-by as actual protesters. But 24-year-old volunteer Matt Brandi insists his fellow activists "are here for the long haul...people are sending up socks and wool clothes, and we're figuring out how to get through the winter."

Meanwhile, visitor Lewis is entertained - if not convinced - by Occupy Wall Street's message. Interrupting Steyert's harangue comparing the current U.S. movement to recent protests in Cairo, she tells him "you can't equate a dictator who tortured people and shut down democracy with what's happening here."

"They're not very specific in their demands, are they?" Lewis asks with a bemused smile. But on this sunny Sunday in New York, the protesters' earnestness is enough for her.

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