NEW YORK — What started as just a dozen college students camping overnight on Wall Street three weeks ago has mushroomed into thousands of protesters and Street-inspired gatherings across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston.
On Monday, a number of protesters dressed up as zombies, holding Monopoly money in their mouths in a gesture to financial workers. The crowd was especially energized after more than 700 of them were arrested over the weekend by New York City Police Department officers, who claimed they were blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. Thousands marched from the "base camp" at Zuccotti Park, a plaza near the city's financial center, chanting, "Take the bridge!"
Even as the number of protesters continues to fluctuate, the gatherings have remained relatively small by New York City standards. The longevity of the unrest, however, is far from normal. MTV News recently headed downtown and caught up with some of the young protesters to see what exactly was on their minds.
Mike Chrisemer, a 24-year-old graduate student at the City University of New York, said he got involved on the second day of the protest and doesn't plan to abandon the cause. "The general feeling is that the top 1 percent of people is ruling over the rest of us, the 99 percent, and it's not the status quo that we want to see anymore."
Sympathetic supporters have been donating food to the "occupiers," and those who camp overnight at the park rely on portable gas for laptop energy. Social media networks like Twitter have, of course, helped spark interest in the cause and serve as a vehicle to spread its message. For those who cannot get to NYC, a live stream is available at the Occupy Wall Street website.
Celebrity involvement has also helped stoke media attention. Lupe Fiasco, Susan Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo and filmmaker Michael Moore made appearances in the past week, while "30 Rock" star Alec Baldwin has expressed support over his Twitter
Last Friday morning, an online rumor began to spread that Radiohead would be giving a surprise performance that afternoon in support of the protest. The buzz was put to rest when the band's rep later denied the group would perform, but it's likely that many curious onlookers (and Radiohead fans) had headed to the park anticipating the event. At 4:30 p.m., a statement was finally posted on the Occupy Wall Street site apologizing for the miscommunication; they further explained that an email from Radiohead's manager turned out to be a fake and cited the challenges of verifying information in an open-source movement.
The band's no-show didn't slow down momentum though. Late Friday afternoon, an influx of curious spectators wandered the park, many admitting they came after hearing the concert rumors.
"That probably brought a lot of these people here, but they're still here. It's not just about Radiohead, it's not a pop culture movement, it's a real movement to challenge the status quo," Chrisemer told us.
The protests come at a time when the unemployment rate among American youths under 25 is at 18 percent compared to the national rate of 9 percent. Nearly half of young Americans are underemployed, and the amount of student loan debt has recently surpassed credit card debt.
Tim Payne, a 20-year-old New York University undergrad, said he had been coming to the park between classes to hold signs and participate in the protest. "College tuition keeps going up and the top 400 people have more wealth than the lowest 125 million. I have all these loans out and they're profiting off that, and I don't think that's fair."
Some reports have been critical of the protesters for reportedly failing to deliver a clear message about their grievances. Instead, critics say, the rally has become a gathering place for anyone dissatisfied with, well, just about anything. When MTV News spoke with some of the young activists on Friday, their cardboard signs had messages that varied from dissatisfaction with financial corruption, NYPD police brutality, discrimination against Muslims and workers' rights.
"People have so much frustration with government and media, and they're taking this out as an outlet in different ways," NYU student Payne explained.
It's still unclear whether the protests will succeed in channeling frustration into a lasting movement similar to the Tea Party's conservative movement, which was started in 2009 by a group of Americans fed up with the status quo for different reasons. Occupy Wall Street protesters seem to be hopeful that they will have a voice that continues to be heard and gains momentum into the 2012 elections.
"It's more than just Wall Street," Payne added. "It's the fact that all of my adult life has been economic downturn. And I heard a quote once: it was 'When did the future change from a promise to a threat?' I feel like the people here still have faith in the future and are trying to change it."
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