Occupy Wall Street Wins Sympathy Of Neighborhood Businesses
One of the more damaging criticisms leveled against the Wall Street protesters in recent days is that their "occupation" is doing damage to surrounding businesses, hurting fellow members of the 99 percent whom they claim to be defending.
Droves of participants have been using the bathroom in a nearby cafe, Panini & Company, without making a purchase, breaking the sink last week, and prompting owner Stacey Tzortzatos to install a $200 lock. The New York Times reported that "for many neighborhood businesses, the protest's end cannot come soon enough."
But when AOL Jobs conducted its own series of interviews of nearby business owners, there was a strong streak of sympathy for the campers down the road, even as they admitted some hits to their businesses.
"It's been real bad," said a saleswoman at Brooks Brothers, the high-end men's clothing store adjacent to Zuccotti Park.
"It has died down a little bit," echoed store manager Tasha Collins.
Passersby believe the store is closed, she says, because of the barricades around it, intended to hem in the protest.
"But we know it's for a purpose," she says. Would she be out there herself, if she wasn't busy manning the store floor?
"I plead the fifth," she replied with a laugh.
Another nearby menswear retailer noted that business had been down a little bit. But he replied with a shrug that the protesters "can do what they want."
An employee at a men's clothing store one block closer to the action insisted that the protest has only been good for the bottom line. "We had two goals for last week: good and excellent," he told AOL Jobs.
"We beat our excellent goal by $6,000 last week. It's an event now, so there's traffic."
Sure enough, during daytime hours Zuccotti Park is filled with almost as many protest tourists as protesters. As passersby leaned over the barricade to photograph protesters dancing and drumming on Tuesday afternoon, one participant shouted back, "You're part of this too!"
The menswear salesman also had mostly positive things to say about the Occupy Wall Street movement.
"I agree with the original protest," he says. "But I saw someone with a Predator Drone thing, and I have no idea what that was."
Owners of the dozen food trucks circling the encampment were almost all pleased at the flood of attention that's come to their corner of the financial district.
"They're very good," said Muhammad Hasan, who's been selling fresh fruit for the adjacent plaza for three years. "No problem with us."
"They're alright," agreed Ahmen Ami, who runs a food truck, peddling breakfast sandwiches and doughnuts hardly 10 feet from someone's rain tarp. "I think they're doing the right thing."
There was at least one critical voice, however. "These people don't eat," says Shahen, who mans the Bombay Biryany truck. "Only coffee."
City officials across the country have mostly come down hard on the protesters. Mayor Bloomberg's response has been mixed, permitting the protesters' indefinite encampment, but criticizing many of the unions who have become involved, saying that they have salaries that "come from -- are paid by -- some of the people they're trying to vilify."
Bloomberg made another public objection on Tuesday, as protesters snaked their way to the houses of a few of the city's most formidable billionaires, like Rupert Murdoch and David Koch.
"I don't appreciate the bashing of all the hard-working people who live and work here and pay the taxes that support our city," Bloomberg told reporters at a press conference.
But a few local politicians have come out, sometimes more quietly, in their support.
"They have the right target," Major Owens told AOL Jobs. Owens served as a Democratic congressman for New York's 11 district for 24 years, and wandered, without fanfare, up to the corner of the protest after dark on Tuesday, gazing at an acoustic sing-along of Dead Prez's "It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop," with "hip" replaced by "wall" and "hop" by "street."
"Campaign finance reform should be at the top of the list of anyone who wants to change the government," he says. "Money controls Congress. You can't really serve the people and fundraise at the same time."
Of course, the protesters as a group do not have goals as specific and clear as Owens'. Occupy Wall Street has spawned multiple subgroups, campaigning for a host of progressive causes. Everyone has their pet passion, it seems, but there's a sense that those concerns -- women's rights, minority rights, human rights -- are all effects, and the cause can be located somewhere in downtown Manhattan. Something to do with the way money moves around.
Owens says that he left congress because he couldn't cope with the ethical compromise of living in the shadow of corporate money. "Congress needs to want to be free from it," he says. For Occupy Wall Street to really impact politics, he believes, it needs to grow into something "like the National Rifle Association."
So far, the protest shows no signs of relenting, and has emerged into a mostly sustainable organism, arousing less ill-will from its neighbors as past reports would have one believe.
But it's growing, and organizers are searching for ways to accommodate their swelling ranks. On Tuesday night, a few protesters want to test out Battery Park as a potential new camp ground. On the upside, the plot is bigger and offers a view of the Statue of Liberty, but on the downside, overnight stays are prohibited, so participation would be an act of civil disobedience.
"But we're equipped with cameras, to hold police accountable," shouted one of the organizers at Tuesday evening's General Assembly, chanted back by the hundreds of voice boxes that compose the people's mic.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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