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Meanwhile, on Wall Street

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Two weeks ago, an anti-greed protest/sit-in movement began in lower Manhattan, specifically in Zuccotti park, just a few blocks away from Wall Street. The movement, “Occupy Wall Street,” was largely kickstarted by an anti-capitalist magazine called Adbusters, which described the movement as such: 

#OCCUPYWALLSTREET is a people powered movement for democracy that began in America on September 17 with an encampment in the financial district of New York City. Inspired by the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising and the Spanish acampadas, we vow to end the monied corruption of our democracy … join us!

The protest drew a few hundred activists to the Wall Street area, and gained quite a bit of buzz on social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. As of last weekend, things got a bit nasty when some violence erupted between police and protestors, resulting in some 80 arrests. At the time of this writing, it remained to be seen how active the protests would be this weekend, but National Underwriter paid a visit to Zuccotti Park to see a) how big this protest really was, b) whether it was living up to its social media hype, and c) exactly how well-informed the protestors really were.

The answers, in short order, were: a) not very, b) no, and c) not very much at all. Read on.

All photos by Bill Coffin

Protester w/ Guy Fawkes mask

This fellow with the Guy Fawkes mask described himself as a union construction worker and a 9/11 volunteer battling health problems he cannot get workers compensation for. The mask was a bit of unintentional irony; recently popularized by their use in the movie V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes masks are part of the modern protestor uniform. Like many cheap retail products, most are mass produced overseas and very much a part of the global financial structure being protested. 

We come in peace

Zocatti Park was littered with crude cardboard signs like this one, though most did not reflect any sinister intent. It is worth noting that when Tea Party supporters used similar slogans during protests earlier this year, it was roundly criticized for inciting violence. To hear Occupy Wall Street describe it, its violent clashes with police were entirely started by the police. But were they?

A leaderless movement

Occupy Wall Street has been described from its inception as a leaderless movement, ostensibly to give it as much “people power” as it can. But such decentralization comes at a cost. When this protester loudly suggested to his fellow protesters that they all march around the city to distract the police, nobody took him up on it. Most were too busy sleeping.

Powor shortage

Spell-checking is for the other 1%, apparently.

Sarcasm aside, signs such as these were replete among the protesters, showing a basic lack of spelling knowledge. Such details undercut the protesters’ claims that they are collectively over-educated and under-employed. 

UPDATE: One reader pointed out my own (and now corrected) typo on this slide and on another where I also criticized the spelling of the protesters. Irony, I feel your sting.

Sitting around the park

The “occupation” wasn’t described as a sit-in, but at the time of National Underwriter‘s visit, around 11:00 am on a Tuesday morning, that was about all that was happening. Most of the protesters were either sitting in groups chatting, or sleeping. In the opinion of this writer, judging by the overall grunginess of the protesters, it probably wasn’t any Wall Street malfeasance that was keeping these people from finding high-paying work, especially in the financial district.

Don't conseed to greed

Signs like these pointed to a central problem of the protest: everywhere were fingers pointing at vague notions of greediness on Wall Street. None of them pointed at anything specific that needed fixing, let alone suggested how to fix it. As with a previous photo, the poor spelling also suggests that either the protesters were not quite as highly educated as they said they were, or they really ought to have kept the receipt for their college education.

The signmaker

This woman spent some two hours hand-painting signs nonstop. She was at the center of a little sign-painting operation in the park, and one of the few examples of activity among the protesters themselves. Large piles of carboard signs lay nearby; there were perhaps 200 protesters total in the park at the time. There were well more signs than that.


A repeated complaint, both on social media channels as well as on-site, was that the protest was both being ignored by the media, or it was being undersold by the media – especially by large, corporate news outlets. Yet this cameraman was one of three different media camera crews on site. There were several other photographers and roving reporters taking interviews. For a leaderless movement, Occupy Wall Street was unusually reticent to speak to the media unless it was through one of a handful of protesters who seemed to act as the movement’s spokesperson. So much for decentralized dissent.

Donations bucket

As I photographed a plate filled with loose coins and marked, “Have Some Money, Leave Some Money…Need Some Money, Take Some Money,” a protester poured the plate’s contents into this donation bucket. When asked how much the movement had raised, the protester said that more than $35,000 in online donations had come in. When asked how much actual money had been gathered on site, the protester said he had no idea, not even a ballpark figure. When asked if I could photograph him holding the bucket, he declined.

Just another day in the park

Occupy Wall Street has made repeated mentions of police violence toward protesters, but during our visit, the police simply looked bored. I asked one officer, “On a scale of one to ten, with ‘one’ being a quiet evening at home and ‘ten’ being the Rodney King riots, how would you categorize what’s happening here?” The officer simply said, “We have no comment.”

Suits not scared

A stated goal of Occupy Wall Street has been to disrupt daily life in lower Manhattan, especially for those working in the financial district. It was not enough to stop these two professionals from taking a few moments in the park to check their messages, however. This is, after all, a city that went back to work the day after 9/11.

Construction worker

The occupation also did not stop the many construction workers working on the nearby Freedom Tower and World Trade Center from using the park to enjoy a quick lunch. When asked if they intended to stay to join in the protests, this construction worker said, “Are you kidding me? I have work to do.”


On either side of the park, groups of drummers would periodically set up and play; causing the only notable amount of noise among the protesters. As passersby paused to watch the drummers play, it illustrated a fundamental problem the occupation was having: 200 people taking over a park and playing music might gain much notice in some parts of the country. But not in New York City. As one bystander said, “You usually see this in the subway.”

Blue tarps

It is worth noting that the scuffles that broke out last week apparently stemmed from some curious violations; some protesters had been wearing (Guy Fawkes?) masks, which violated an old city law prohibiting organized protesters from covering their faces. The protesters also ran afoul of a city law prohibiting the setting up of tents, though the protesters claimed they were simply tarps to keep their belongings dry. As of these photos, the park was still covered in blue tarps.

Hiding eyes

This protester covered his face when he saw he was about to be photographed. Moments later, he spread his fingers to see if I was still there. When asked if he had anything to say for publication, he smiled and shook his head no. “You’re just going to take it out of context, anyway.”

This underscored the overall feeling of the occupation: that these protesters were united mainly by their lack of a common goal, no real plan of action, and no large-scale willingness to engage the media. (Although that may change shortly.) They seemed almost universally under-educated in terms of the specifics of the financial services industry they wished to protest, and not one could explain, for example, how exactly AIG imploded or what the Dodd-Frank Act sought to accomplish.

There is no telling how long this protest will continue, and most likely, it will achieve little real result. However, when walking among these protesters, I was reminded of the many complaints and criticisms leveled at the insurance industry, often by people who have little real knowledge of what they are protesting, and backed by legislators who cannot be bothered to read the entirety of the legislative reforms they are asked to vote on. Occupy Wall Street, in and of itself, is a non-event that does more to discredit opposition to Wall Street malfeasance than to drive public awareness of whatever financial services reform does or does not need to occur.

This movement was started by way of social media, in the hopes of creating large Twitter streams and flash mobs to fill the streets. In this case, it would seem that social media has not been enough to start a riot, let alone a revolution. There needs to be a powerful message, and an amorphous complaint that Wall Street put the planet behind a financial eight ball is hardly enough to spur people to take notice. It is merely stating the obvious at best. At worst, it overlooks the complexity of the planet’s financial problems to such a degree as to disqualify one’s dissent on the grounds of incompetence.

For those tasked with safeguarding the reputations, legal status and regulatory status of life and health insurers, take note. This is what you are ultimately up against. Protesters as disorganized as these pose little threat to a firm’s public profile. But how much different were the kids in Zocatti park from the legions of everyday Americans who demanded health care reform or financial services reform? How much did any of them understand the issues they complained about?

In our Media Age, the public does not listen to reason half as much as it listens to slogans. And it has already decided what it wants, what is wrong, and who is to blame. The only way to address this sort of thing is to do so proactively, by loudly proclaiming one’s own success stories, by boldly confronting news of wrongdoing, and by being transparent. The more the public cannot understand what you do, the more what you do scares the public. Even if it is life insurance. Even if it is healthcare. Even if it is retirement planning. It is a truth that is as sad as it is unfair. But this is the environment in which the life and health industry finds itself today. The question is: who will thrive in it? Not the people with the masks, hopefully. They don’t appear to have any answers at all.