By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor
Nearly 1,000 people gathered in the plaza near the City-County building at 17th and Farnam streets on a clear, cool Oct. 15 morning in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement ongoing in New York City.
The crowd represented a broad cross-section of Omaha society, including veterans, union members, students, Ron Paul supporters and small business owners. There were even a few people wearing the “Guy Fawkes” masques associated with the notorious hacker group Anonymous.
The march was part of the planned Occupy Everywhere rallies proposed as an expansion to the original Occupy Wall Street movement intended to draw international attention to economic injustice. Similar rallies in Des Moines and Lincoln each drew hundreds of participants.
Carrying signs displaying populist sayings like “Tired of going bust? Occupy we must!” and “Wake up America!” and chanting the now-ubiquitous slogan “we are the 99 percent” (a reference to the disparity of wealth in America), the crowd marched down Farnam Street, past the Federal Reserve Bank at 22nd Street and down to 10th Street in the Old Market before returning to the square.
Before marching, the crowd utilized the “people’s mic,” a low-tech information relay system invented by the New York City crowd as a way to get around a ban on bullhorns, to announce the rules and the marching plans. When the people’s mic is in use, one person speaks, usually in short phrases, while the crowd repeats the words in wave fashion spreading out from the speaker. It works very well and ensures everyone hears the announcement or speech.
The demonstration was peaceful and remarkably orderly, with the crowd proceeding along the designated route and being careful to stop and allow traffic to pass before crossing intersections. Some poked fun at their own efforts to minimize disruption, at one time chanting “We are the 99 percent! We will obey traffic laws!”
Though everyone seemed to have a different reason to protest, they were all bound by a common theme – that the current economic climate is failing most of America.
“We’re not anti-America, we’re not anti-capitalist,” said Tony Roller, a full time student who also works at a call center. Just getting a job isn’t that simple, he said. “There are people graduating with huge debt and advanced degrees who have to take entry level jobs.”
Public response to the march was generally favorable, with many passing motorists honking their horns and waving to the protesters. At one point the crowd cheered and waved their signs as a passing truck driver honked his horn loudly and long while extending his hand in a “V” salute.
The movement is all about equality of opportunity, according to Vietnam veteran and retired union member Jack Maloney. “I’d like my kids and grandkids to have the same success in life my father made for me,” he said.
One remedy some marchers favor is reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932, the Depression-era law that separated banks from investment firms and put in place many of the protections that helped maintain American economic stability for much of the 20th century. Many of its protections were repealed in 1999 under legislation sponsored by Senators Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa). Proponents of its reinstatement argue that repealing it led directly to the housing crisis and the current recession.
Another common theme among protesters is anger at the way corporations have asked workers to give up their benefits while executives get bonuses.
“You have to work twice as hard to keep the same job,” said Cheryl Hoffman, whose company recently eliminated its employee retirement benefits.
Other protesters, particularly Ron Paul supporters, would like to see the end of the Federal Reserve.
But regardless of the solution, marchers are in agreement about one thing – that the current system isn’t working. “[It] kills the family,” said Maloney. “There’s no reason children should have to go to bed hungry.”
Asked if the movement is making a difference, most believe it already has.
“That’s the challenge,” said Roller. “The fact that there is a movement makes a difference.”
With another meeting planned for Oct. 22 at McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe, the Occupy Omaha movement appears to be settling in for the long run. Anyone interested in the movement can visit their website at www.occupyomaha.com.