'Occupy Wall Street' Gains Starpower—And Then Some

LOWER MANHATTAN—The noisy bazaar of militants, 21st century hippies and dreadlocked nomads with rainbow stocking caps may have fallen short of their "Occupy Wall Street" goal, but they are getting noticed.

Susan Sarandon
Photo: Jeff Cox for CNBC.com
Susan Sarandon

From the lunchtime passersby to the Freedom Tower construction workers to a prominent member of the Hollywood liberal braintrust, the demonstration against corporate greed is, at least, drawing onlookers.

That may also be the most the week-old demonstration accomplishes. "Occupy Wall Street"—a rag-tag organization orchestrated on the streets and online—promised thousands but has delivered just hundreds.

Still, the attention is being looked at as the first step in a long journey.

"I came down here to educate myself," actress Susan Sarandon told CNBC.com. "It's been really informative and I'll be back (following a trip to Italy). There's a huge void between the rich and the poor in this country."

Clad in jeans, a modest polka-dot pullover and just a touch of makeup, Sarandon could have blended in easily with the crowd had it not been for a small phalanx of cameras and gawkers trailing the biggest shot of starpower "Occupy Wall Street" has seen so far. (Filmmaker Michael Moore reportedly stopped by Monday evening.)

Known for her support of many similar causes, Sarandon encapsulated the prevailing sentiments at the demonstration: Bankers and traders who run the financial markets and their enablers in Washington have hijacked the system from ordinary Americans who just want a decent job and a home of their own.

Asked whether she felt Wall Street deserved the abuse the protesters heaped on it, Sarandon bristled.

Photo: Jeff Cox for CNBC.com

"Do you think if you asked that question of anyone in America the answer would be 'no'?" she said. "It's not to say that everything is Wall Street's responsibility. There are good corporations. I can't think of any off the top of my head."

"Greed is widespread all over the world," she added. "We have to start making human decisions and put people at the top of the line."

Tuesday was a happier day for "Occupy Wall Street," which was marred over the weekend when police pepper-sprayed some of the protesters.

With much of the preceding tumult gone, a small marching band banged out a rhythm by which the rest of the protest community seemed to move.

Young men and women staffed tables and asked for petition signatures. Signs populated the sidewalks and politically fueled chatter filled the air. Mattresses dotted the landscape and the weary huddled in blankets, while the stray banjo, guitar or even an accordion contributed to the event's soundtrack.

Photo: Jeff Cox for CNBC.com

"We believe in nonviolence. We are peaceful," explained Chris Mapp, a 20-year old New York Film Academy student who has been around for several days helping to demonstrate. "No jobs, no justice, no peace."

One thing to know about "Occupy Wall Street" is that it doesn't really occupy Wall Street at all. The protest instead has found a home at Zuccotti Park at Broadway and Liberty Street, about three blocks away.

In fact, the only signs of the event around the New York Stock Exchange were the barriers that prevented people from walking through the plaza around the financial center. The most notable protest around the exchange came not from the raggedy-looking "Occupy Wall Street" group but from dozens of neatly attired workers with the Air Line Pilots Association union, which was protesting working conditions for that group.

John Weitrich, a reserved-looking foreign currencies pro in the financial district, gazed bemusedly at a sidewalk mural of signs, each containing equally vitriolic messages about American greed.

Photo: Jeff Cox for CNBC.com

"I get the feeling there's not too much behind it," Weitrich said. "Maybe they want to bring back the '60s. A lot of the signs don't seem to mean a heck of a lot."

Still, no one appeared particularly disturbed that the protesters had taken over the park, which in normal times serves as a comparatively quiet lunchtime spot for Wall Streeters and construction workers alike.

A few of the hard-hats seemed to sneer occasionally at the gathering, but it was an otherwise peaceful coexistence.

"They feel the minority is not getting their fair shake," said Danny DeJesus, a 50-year old construction worker at ground zero. "I don't know if they're going to get their demands met. After a couple months everybody's going to be gone and it will just be the same old thing."

What their demands even are is unclear.

While idealism is running high, it's not like Wall Street is going to come to a screeching halt even if the couple hundred protesters ask nicely. Rather, the protest likely will be one in an ongoing series of events looking to get some level of reform in the financial system, after memories of how greed nearly brought down the entire US economy just three years ago.

"I'm excited there are people in America who care enough to do something," said Jumaane D. Williams, a New York City councilman from Brooklyn.

Photo: Jeff Cox for CNBC.com

Williams' media director said the councilman is the first elected official to visit "Occupy Wall Street" so far. But even he didn't seem quite sure what the protesters want.

"That's a question that has to be considered," Williams said. "People are beginning to take them seriously and they should."

For some, though, the protest if nothing else was a way to carry on an American tradition.

"I've been protesting since the Vietnam War," said a smiling Larry Lawrence. The lanky 61-year-old who now lives in New York but originally hails from Jackson, Ga., wandered the park spouting statistics that highlighted income disparity in the US.

But will the protesters' message gain traction?

With the question put to her, Sarandon raised her eyebrows, looked directly at her interviewer and said, "That depends on you."