Protesters Take Their Outrage to Wall Street
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Enraged by the prospect of $700 billion of their taxes going to reimburse Wall Street speculators for their dubious investments, about 500 protesters paraded through Lower Manhattan's financial district Thursday afternoon, their chants of "You broke it, you bought it" reverberating through the narrow office building canyons and off the flag-draped wall of the New York Stock Exchange.
"I'm outraged," said Linda Greco, a 40-ish Brooklyn woman. "People are losing their homes. There's homeless people all over the city. The schools are falling apart. And they want to bail these pigs out? It's about time the people of this country woke up and took this country back."
Like many others, Greco learned about the protest from an e-mail tree that sprouted like kudzu on methamphetamine. "I must have gotten 10 to 20," she said.
The demonstration originated with an e-mail sent out Monday afternoon by Arun Gupta, an editor at the leftist Indypendent. "They said providing health care for 9 million children, perhaps costing $6 billion a year, was too expensive, but there's evidently no sum of money large enough that will sate the Wall Street pigs," it read. "We need to act now while we can influence the debate. With Bear Stearns, Fannie and Freddie, AIG, the money markets and now this omnibus bailout, well in excess of $1 trillion will be distributed from the poor, workers and middle class to the scum floating on top? Let the bondholders pay, let the banks pay, let those who brought the 'toxic' mortgage-backed securities pay!"
"It tapped into an enormous reservoir of anger," Gupta told the crowd that gathered at the bull statue on Bowling Green. The e-mail inspired similar protests in almost 200 cities and towns, from Greensboro, N.C., to Henderson, Nev. Though phone calls and e-mails to Congress have been running nearly 1,000 to 1 against the bailout, he added, "it's clear that the fix is in."
"It's out-fuckin-rageous. They expect the public to bail them out?" said Rich Haber, 61, a retired Brooklyn bus driver. "I worked for the Transit Authority for 27 years, and I can't afford a house. I knew these mortgages were bogus."
Others offered similar vitriol. "Appalling," said Kate Powers, 39, an Obama supporter from Brooklyn. "Ridiculous," said Laura Skove, an 18-year-old student in an Obama T-shirt. "The government can't spend money on health care, but it can on Wall Street." "Highway robbery," said Annie V., part of a group holding up signs reading "N.Y. to Wall St. and the Bush Adm.: Drop Dead" -- echoing the legendary "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD" headline the Daily News ran in 1975 when then-President Gerald Ford refused to bail out debt-ridden New York City.
That fiscal crisis ended when the banks imposed harsh budget austerity on New York, forcing it to raise the subway fare by 43 percent while virtually eliminating maintenance, lay off police and close firehouses during an epidemic of crime and arson, and slash funding for schools and hospitals.
"They've been allowed to totally screw up and then get bailed out. I want to strangle every single politician," said Kevin Condon, a 30-year-old farm-stand worker from Brooklyn carrying a "Jump Without Your Golden Parachute" sign. Though he doesn't want to see the economy collapse, he said the crisis is an opportunity to dream of a different system, of smaller, more locally based commerce.
"Why isn't everyone in the street?" wondered Megan Fulton, 26, a Brooklyn graduate student. She held a sign asking the government to bail her out for the $93,000 she owes in student loans.
Older protesters had a feeling of deja vu. Davida Joyner, 51, of Harlem worked helping tenants administer abandoned buildings during the 1970s, then suffered a brain tumor and was out of commission for 20 years. "I woke up like Rumpelstiltskin," she said. "I saw all of this housing situation become unbelievable again." Sol McCants, 54, recalled the stock-market and savings-and-loan scams of the 1980s.
"These people are thieves and belong in jail," he said. "McCain's trying to make it look like he's doing a great thing, but he's not. That scumbag doesn't want to face the questions because he was behind the savings and loans."
The best thing that might come out of this crisis, he added, is that white voters might learn to "see their pockets" instead of blaming black and brown people for their problems. But if Obama is elected, people will have to nag him "like my wife tells me every other night to put the toilet seat down."
"I don't think the Democrats are much better," said Eva-Lee Baird, 68, of the Granny Peace Brigade -- noting that many of the Depression-era controls on imprudent investments were taken away under Bill Clinton.
"We need something like the New Deal," said James Trimarco, 30, of Brooklyn. "Put people to work doing actual stuff -- transportation and the environment -- instead of trading fictitious capital around the world."
Though Lower Manhattan is one of the most heavily locked down areas in the country -- the Stock Exchange is surrounded by an iron fence, the closest subway exit is barricaded off, and surrounding streets have concrete stanchions and raised metal sheets to block traffic, with guards and dogs in booths watching them -- police presence at the demonstration was surprisingly light, especially by the draconian standards of the Giuliani-Bloomberg era.
Gupta attributed that to the "media feeding frenzy" surrounding the protest. "You think that while those fuckers are debating in D.C., they want pictures of protesters being beaten by cops being beamed around the world?" he asked.
Many Wall Street types greeted the protesters with contempt. "Just look at these people," sneered one broker as the march neared the Stock Exchange. Another group held a "Get a Job" sign in an office window, and one man dropped a few dollar bills out of his. They fluttered down short of the marchers, landing in a construction site.
Such contempt from the upper classes is nothing new to the lowly proles of Gotham. On Broadway near Wall Street is a stone slab commemorating billionaire real estate developer Harry B. Helmsley, "whose richness of spirit and love for New York helped build this great city." New Yorkers of a certain age and level of cynicism are more likely to remember Helmsley's late widow, Leona, a hotel magnate nicknamed the "Queen of Mean."
She achieved notoriety by leaving $12 million to her dogs -- more than she left to any of her grandchildren -- and telling her housekeeper that "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes."
Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. The author of Exit 25 Utopia and The Cannabis Companion , he has won two New York City Independent Press Association awards for his coverage of housing issues. He is looking for a job.