By: Douglas Belkin in Chicago, Tamara Audi in Los Angeles and Danny Yadron in Washington, D.C
Posted: Oct. 25, 2011
The dozens of protesters arrested in Chicago this past weekend and a looming showdown with demonstrators in Providence, R.I., are the latest red flags for Democrats as they weigh whether to embrace the five-week-old Occupy Wall Street movement.
When Democrats talk about harnessing the anger and energy of the protesters, they hope the face of the movement will be people like Jason Dean: a clean-cut, bespectacled, 32-year-old freelance Web designer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who said he goes to Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in his free time to join the demonstrators. “We need to get our country back on track ourselves because our politicians have totally failed us,” he said Monday.
But across the country near Los Angeles City Hall was Melissa Balin. Dressed on Sunday in a camouflage bikini and tutu, Ms. Balin, a veteran of the marijuana-legalization movement, lay on the lawn while a graffiti artist painted a mural on her body that included the message “Prosecute Wall Street” and a green cannabis leaf.
“We’re expressing our freedom of expression, and an extension of that is public art,” Ms. Balin said Monday.
As politicians decide whether to embrace the movement or distance themselves from it, their calculus revolves in large part around two central questions: Who are the protesters and what do they want? To try to figure that out, The Wall Street Journal dispatched reporters in five cities to interview more than 100 protesters.
The picture that emerged is a motley conglomeration of people with widely varying goals—and some with no clear-cut goals at all other than to denounce greed. The movement is centered on unemployed or underemployed college students and college dropouts whose refrain is that their American inheritance has been squandered and their prospects are bleak. But there also is a tolerance—and, sometimes, sympathy—for causes well outside of the mainstream.
“We have to detox from this corporate system that so many of us have been forced to live under,” said Jimmy Hatt, 24, a student at Berkeley City College in Berkeley, Calif., who joined Occupy Oakland in nearby Oakland last week. “People around the world—working class, middle class—are really fed up with what’s going on. [There is] a very acute awareness that they are getting the short end of the stick.”
Of the protesters interviewed by Journal reporters at random in New York, Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, about a third said they are unemployed and nearly three quarters said they have college degrees or are pursuing them. About a quarter identified themselves as Democrats. Most called themselves independent or unaffiliated. The median age was 26.
Chris Wilson, a 23-year-old from Omaha, Neb., sat shirtless in front of his tent in Washington, D.C., while listening to the Rolling Stones, and presented his personal view that capitalism itself isn’t broken. “You just had a corrupt few who exploited it for personal gain,” he said. One of his goals is to end the Federal Reserve System.
Questions abound as to whether this protest, which popped up about five weeks ago in lower Manhattan near the storied houses of American finance and spread to many cities around the world, can evolve into a true and effective political force. If it does, it’s unclear how that will play out and how it will be viewed by the American electorate.
According to a USA Today/Gallup poll taken Oct. 15-16, 22% of respondents approved of the movement’s goals, 15% disapproved and 63% said they did not know enough to say.
Right now, many Democrats are gambling that the demonstrators are just the visible edge of a broad swath of American frustration that they can tap into for political gain in 2012.
An official with President Barack Obama’s campaign said its strategy is to stress common ground with the movement without overtly embracing the protests. “I think some pieces of our vision will fit with what these folks are looking for,” said the official, who didn’t want to be identified.
Inside the demonstrations, there is broad acceptance of a wide range of opinions and agendas—even those that occasionally border on the absurd. In Washington’s McPherson Square, Kyle Szlosek declined to be interviewed until a reporter reached into a pouch Mr. Szlosek held and pulled out a stone. That stone is the only thing that matters in life, said the 21-year-old, who holds an associate’s degree in liberal arts. If he could change something through the movement, he said, he would “get rid of money.”
Some of the encampments have become magnets for the homeless and mentally ill to grab a free meal or find a safe place to sleep. In Los Angeles, brief shouting matches over politics—or something mundane like a missing razor—occasionally break out in the camp. Anarchists within the group agreed to help with security but refused to officially be part of any committee. Last week, a woman demonstrating in Los Angeles began yelling an anti-Semitic rant.
Read More: WSJ.com