“I think a good deal of the bankers should be in jail.”
That is what Andrew Cole, an unemployed 24-year-old graduate of Bucknell University, told me Monday morning in Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Mr. Cole, an articulate young man dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt and with a blue wool beanie on his head, had just arrived by bus from Madison, Wis., where he recently lost his job.
There was nothing particularly menacing or dangerous about Mr. Cole. He said he had come to participate in Occupy Wall Street because he believed in its “anticapitalist” message. “I see Wall Street as responsible for the mess we’re in.”
I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the C.E.O. asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”
As I wandered around the park, it was clear to me that most bankers probably don’t have to worry about being in imminent personal danger. This didn’t seem like a brutal group — at least not yet.
But the underlying message of Occupy Wall Street — which spread to Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles on Monday — is something the big banks and corporate America may finally have to grapple with before it actually does become dangerous.
What’s the message?
At times it can be hard to discern, but, at least to me, the message was clear: the demonstrators are seeking accountability for Wall Street and corporate America for the financial crisis and the growing economic inequality gap.
And that message is a warning shot about the kind of civil unrest that may emerge — as we’ve seen in some European countries — if our economy continues to struggle.
“Ultimately this is about power and greed, unchecked,” said Jodie Evans, the co-founder of Code Pink. She, too, said she wanted to see Wall Street executives go to jail.
Consider the protests a delayed reaction to the financial crisis that has now reached a fever pitch as the public’s lust for scalp has gone unfulfilled. In Chicago on Monday, one sign read: “If corporations are people, why can’t we put them in jail?”
In Zuccotti Park, several protesters were gathered around a laptop watching an online video that had just gone viral of Rosanne Barr, the comedian, recently interviewed by a newscaster.
“I am in favor of the return of the guillotine,” she told a newscaster, in reference to bankers, with a straight face. “I first would allow the guilty bankers to pay, you know, the ability to pay back anything over $100 million,” she said, before adding that they should go to “re-education camps and if that doesn’t help, then being beheaded.” She made the comments without a hint of laughter, yet the group watching around the laptop seemed to be quite amused.
Some people have suggested the Occupy Wall Street protest is a mere form of street theater, that the protesters have a myriad of grievances with no particular agenda. All of that may be true.
Edward Heath, 36, of Chicago, who is unemployed, said he was participating in the protest, in part, to ensure a more fair tax regime. When I asked about his views on Warren Buffett’s “Buffett Rule,” he replied: “I really can’t comment because I haven’t heard of him.” But this group may be worth paying attention to if for no other reason than they are organized and growing in ranks. (They are beginning to link up with union organizations.) Later this week, more protests are expected to be staged around the country with the number of protesters swelling. And they are beginning to form groups to develop demands.
“We’re disenfranchised,” said Chris Cobb, a 41-year-old writer and designer from Brooklyn who was conducting mock interviews with a cardboard television camera and microphone emblazoned with the Fox News logo. “Wall Street is a metaphor for the financial industry,” Mr. Cobb said.
Acknowledging that most financial executives now work in Midtown, he said with a laugh, “We couldn’t do this on Park Avenue. Park Avenue isn’t a metaphor for anything. This is a metaphor for David and Goliath.” While the protesters generally didn’t talk much about politics, most leaned left. Mr. Cobb said, “Like the Tea Party was about reinvigorating the right, this is about reinvigorating the left.”
As evidence of the underlying politics, Ms. Evans volunteered that she had proudly disrupted the Koch brothers’ Tea Party conference earlier this year in Palm Springs, Calif. “They put me in shackles,” she said with a grin. “They were looking down at me with their drinks in hand.”
Ms. Evans, who said she has made a career of participating in protests, said she had just flown to New York from Los Angeles to join Occupy Wall Street. How did she get here, I asked. “Virgin America,” she replied with a smile. But doesn’t Virgin America represent the corporations you are trying to fight? “No,” she insisted. Referring to Richard Branson, she said, “He’s working on creating solar planes.”
As I was leaving, having spoken to scores of protesters, I noticed two of them walking over to the A.T.M. at Bank of America . As much as this group may want to get away from Wall Street and corporate America, it may be trapped by it. In the eyes of these young protesters, until they can unshackle themselves from the system — or perhaps make the system work for them — the sense of unrest is unlikely to go away anytime soon.