Politics & Policy

Protesting Wall Street

Inside the Left's answer to tea parties.

New York – It’s 2:20 p.m. at the corner of Broadway and Barclay Street. Under skyscraper shadows, city-hall bureaucrats munch tuna-fish sandwiches in City Hall Park. Talk of the upcoming weekend and the Yankees fills the air. With few clouds and a warm, late-April breeze, lower Manhattanites are lingering outside, savoring the first smack of summer. It’s a serene scene — for New York, at least — but Dylan Ratigan doesn’t seem to notice.

Ratigan, the host of an eponymous afternoon talk show on MSNBC, is hustling. His suit-clad, purple-tied figure moves back and forth down the block along the park, directing production assistants and cameramen, showing them who’s boss. In a couple hours, he’ll be broadcasting live from this spot, a man in the middle of left-wing activists and union members. Thousands are soon expected to arrive to protest, in the vaguest sense, “Wall Street.”

MSNBC, you see, is taking this march, led by the presidents of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor group, very seriously. They’ve parked their truck and trailer alongside the unions’ jumbotron, which hovers over the sidewalk. Ratigan tells me he’s here because the rally is “a small part of a growing story” that could shape the sweeping financial regulations currently being debated in the Senate.

Today’s frustration from the left toward Wall Street, Ratigan reckons, is not so different from tea parties’ rallying against big government. “Both share similar value systems,” he says. “Wall Street’s problems are symptomatic of the government’s problems. It’s a rigged game, and the government sits as game-rigger-in-chief for both parties.” The tea-party movement, he believes, has been “co-opted” by “corrupt leaders” who “use the tea parties.

By now it’s 3 p.m., and as Ratigan continues to tinker with his set, union members begin to arrive in clusters of five or six, packs of bright, multi-colored T-shirts. The jumbotron cranks on, running a prerecorded AFL-CIO video of folks complaining about banks. Then the big-box speakers start to blast a mix of cheesy Top 40 pop and Sixties-era protest songs. Despite the loud noise and Nineteen Eighty-Four–style video presentations, the corner is still pretty peaceable. The assembling protestors are relaxing, talking about their own lives, about how happy they are to not be at work, and hamming it up for the press out of boredom.

Photographers scurry toward a gray-bearded man in a suit and sunglasses, who’s pretending to puff a pretzel-rod cigar and standing beside a papier-mâché pig head with “CEO” scrawled on its topper. The man grins for the mob, which soon moves on to another spectacle. The gentleman, it turns out, is from Buffalo, and he tells me he’s quite the protest veteran.

“I’m a mechanical engineer,” says Eric Gallion, 64. “I’ve long been involved, from the anti-war movement to social-justice organizations.” The pig, he says, always gets attention. “It’s reusable. I’ve brought it to other events.” Why is he here? “I want to see the people responsible for subprime mortgages go to jail. The pig symbolizes the arrogance and greed of Wall Street.” Does he think President Obama has the answer? “I’m technically a Democrat, and voted for Obama, but the verdict is still out on him.”

Gallion points out that the bus from Buffalo arrived “way early,” so for at least an hour, it was only Bills fans that were milling about. The Buffalo protestors, all union members or advocates for public employees, also seemed to be the only ones who took the time to make costumes — a girl as an ATM box, some friends in prison stripes with metal balls and chains, placards of bank names around their necks. One of the jail birds, Andy Reynolds, 33, a self-described “organizer,” says he’s pushing for “systemic change.”

“Buffalo rocks,” says Rose Ihrig, 24, a non-costumed employee of the New York State Teachers United, around 3:30 p.m. “We’re here, but no one else is.” For now that is the case, though more and more are starting to funnel in from surrounding streets. Ihrig, a former Obama campaign volunteer, is here to support public schools and teachers. She and her coworker Debbie Lauria say they’ve traveled to the city to fight for “working-class people.” They admit that the protest’s aims are quite broad.

I spy a man in a Gadsden-flag T-shirt, with its famous rattlesnake and “Don’t Tread on Me” text. The man, “Rich from Greenpoint, Brooklyn,” won’t give me his last name, but he will tell me why he’s attending: “to hear Richard Thunder’ Trumka,” the president of the AFL-CIO, speak.

“I’m claiming this flag back from the tea partiers,” Rich, a union member, tells me as he points to his shirt. “The banks have got to quit stepping on us.” His son, Daniel, 23, an electrical apprentice in lower Manhattan, agrees. “This rally represents a lot of people in my position,” he says. “We need commonsense solutions to fix our financial system. People are struggling. I can’t afford to go and get a master’s degree, which would really help me in my field.”

Hoping to stoke up the quiet crowd, the AFL-CIO organizers turn up the volume on the speakers, which reach a near-violent volume. Some union members, expecting this, have ear plugs ready. The introductory stomps and claps of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” are heard and then, out of nowhere, Trumka makes an appearance, to cheers, beside the stage. Heavyset and mustachioed, Trumka pounds his fist into the air with the beat. “Wall Street stole my innocence!” shouts a teenage protester. Trumka smiles.

It’s now past 4:30 p.m., and the crowd, numbering about 3,000 — the police would later estimate the crowd at 4,000 to 7,500 people, less than the 10,000 the AFL-CIO sought — is getting antsy. Way-too-loud music, looped video, and an enclosed space permeated by B.O. isn’t exactly a recipe for fun. The program, to the crowd’s relief, begins.

“Are there workers in the house?” shouts Michael Mulgrew, the president of the trade union of teachers in New York City, to a roar. He asks the crowd to yell more, loud enough that “they hear it in D.C.” The next speaker, Jack Ahern, the head of the New York City Labor Council, does the same. Let’s get pumped, “brothers and sisters,” he bellows.

But this day is about more than unions. It’s also about God, explains Ellen Lippmann, a liberal rabbi, and the next speaker at the podium. “The reason the poor are poor is because the rich are rich,” she says to applause. “God will rotate the universe, so the star on top sinks to the bottom.” Others follow up on the anti-capitalist theme. A MoveOn.org rep says it’s “time to rewrite the rules” and to “link arms with our brothers and sisters in labor.” A Brooklyn public-school teacher rails against banks and blames them for poorly funded schools. Adolfo Abreau, a 17-year-old student, generates buzz when he yells into the mic about how he is not able to “pursue my happiness” thanks to Wall Street.

Benjamin Jealous, the young president of the NAACP, caps off the round of pre-Trumka bromides. He praises former Obama volunteers like Ihrig, who “were baptized” during the 2008 campaign. “2010 is the year we make clear that we run this country,” he says. “The NAACP and La Raza run this country,” so “make Wall Street pay. Amen.”

The merry-go-round of shrill leftists finished, Trumka takes the stage. He says he speaks for “13 generations of American history,” and claims to represent the spirit of Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt — the “people’s presidents.” Urging the crowd to join him in a chant, he says, over and over, this gem: “Wall Street — fix the mess that you made! Fix the mess that you made!” Trumka also proposes a “different kind” of economy in which “Wall Street is the servant, not the master of Main Street. . . . We either all rise up or fall down together.”

Trumka says the 11 million members of his labor federation should urge Congress to impose a transaction tax on securities trading to help cover the $900 billion cost for a new government jobs program. Bloomberg News reports that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said he opposes the transaction tax, though Trumka believes the idea is picking up interest, with the conversation “getting better and more analytical.”

After Trumka wraps, the march down Broadway toward Wall Street begins. Of course, since the longwinded program began at 4:30 — just as the bell was ringing to signal the market’s close — many in the crowd realize that the bankers they want to protest probably left long ago. Nevertheless, Trumka and Jealous begin to lead the way, down past the World Trade Center site and Alexander Hamilton’s grave at Trinity Church.

I’m pleasantly surprised to come upon a cheeky counter-protestor as I get carried along with the masses on Broadway. Chris Bedford, a recent graduate of American University, is getting booed for holding a sign that reads: “YAF demands the immediate release of the free market.” Bedford, the executive editor of the Young America’s Foundation New Guard magazine, tells me “it’s been a good day,” since he “hasn’t been beaten up, yet.”

Tensions mount, however, as the thousands stream down Broadway. One man in a suit, trying to get past the crowd and onto the subway, screams at the marchers. “This is my [expletive] commute! I’m trying to get home,” he says. “Get out of my [expletive] way!” Two union members beside me look at each other and smirk. “He’s so Wall Street,” one laughs. A block down, another man in an expensive suit is watching from the police barrier. “Just another day on Wall Street,” he tells me, rolling his eyes. “They’re really all commies,” adds his colleague, looking on.

In front of the Chase building near the famous Merrill Lynch bull, employees watch, and wave at, the marchers from their windows. On the steps, a group of twentysomthings in suits hold up a large banner that read “F**k Main Street.” People passing by become enraged when they see it, then soon realize it’s probably a crass joke of some sort.

The sign holders won’t share their names, or their organization. “We’re billionaires for wealth care,” one of the girls tells me, “Maura Lee Bankrupt,” and is then shushed by her friends. They are promptly shooed away by police for making a scene. I’d guess they were local, underemployed actors, since they put a lot of flair into the performance.

Jumping through the police barrier, I sat and watched as the rest of the crowd strolled by. The whole hodgepodge of the Left was here: Veterans for Peace, the Writers Guild of America, socialists, “raging grannies.” The latter, nice ladies from Manhattan and Brooklyn, told me that they’ve been marching “since high school.”

With Wall Street cordoned off, the marchers wound up at the end of Manhattan, near the Bowling Green subway station. There, next to a Chipotle Mexican Grill, union members huddled, left their signs on the ground, and started to make their way back home. Before they journeyed back, they were met by a handful of representatives from the International Socialist Organization. There, a few feet from the heart of American capitalism, socialist activists peddled their lines, handed out pamphlets, and talked casually about “overthrowing the system.”

Turns out that most of the socialist activists at the march were public-school teachers from New York City who took the day off to campaign “for the cause.” “We need to have workers running society,” one of them tells me. “Would you like to come to a meeting?”

No thanks, I say, but after four hours of this, I could use some tea.

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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