Occupy movement's May Day turnout seen as test for its future
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Occupy Wall Street vows a day of demonstrations in New York and across the United States on Tuesday, in a crucial test of its staying power some eight months after emerging as a movement against corporate greed and economic inequality.
The "99 Percent" populist movement, which began as a 24-hour encampment in lower Manhattan last fall and spread to cities across the country, will join organized labor for a day of May 1 protests, in what it has called a "day without the 99 percent."
Dozens of actions are planned across the country, though there is some skepticism over how many people will turn out and whether it will spell Occupy's resurgence. The event was first billed as a "General Strike," but organized labor declined to sign on to that call.
Inspired by the pro-democracy Arab Spring, the Wall Street protesters last year targeted U.S. financial policies they blamed for the yawning income gap between rich and poor - between what they called the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
But since last fall, when scores of demonstrators set up a vigil in lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park and Occupy boasted it had $500,000 in the bank, donations have slowed to a point where Occupy was left in a cash crunch earlier this year.
There is also evidence of media fatigue, with mentions of the term "Occupy Wall Street" down 75 percent this month compared to late last year. So far in April, the term has appeared in 4,323 articles, according to the Factiva data base. Last October, the same search yielded 17,327 references.
Chris Hedges, a former journalist and one-time vocal supporter of Occupy Wall Street, said the movement has been plagued with internal problems since it swelled in size. He said he did not expect May Day to "resurrect the movement."
"If you look closely at movements, they don't follow a sort of straight trajectory upwards. They stumble, fall, have reverses - sometimes, they're crushed," he said. But Hedges cautioned that writing off Occupy based on the success of May Day would be "short-sighted."
Occupy Oakland has called for protesters to "occupy" the Golden Gate Bridge in a show of solidarity with bridge workers who are engaged in a contract dispute over wages and benefits. In New York, protesters plan to set up a "pop-up encampment" in midtown's Bryant Park and then join organized labor for a permitted march starting at Union Square.
Some in New York have vowed to disrupt commuter traffic, but Occupy said it would have no involvement in that.
Police declined to say if any unusual security precautions were planned, but the city's financial community was making preparations. At the Deutsche Bank building in lower Manhattan, where the atrium was used for much of the winter as an Occupy meeting spot, the ground-floor space will be closed to the public on May 1.
"People are rallying around the idea that the situation in this country calls for desperate action, significant action, that can really capture the country's imagination," said Ed Needham, a member of Occupy Wall Street's New York media team.
But he rejected the idea that May Day should be a litmus test for the movement's durability.
"One event doesn't define what the movement is," said Needham. "This movement is driven by ideals as well, that we're in an economy that no longer treats us fairly, that the cards are stacked against us for the one percent."
In New York, the Occupy movement lost significant momentum in November when a pre-dawn sweep broke up the encampment at Zuccotti Park. Occupy protests in Oakland, California, in January led to police firing tear gas into crowds of protesters and more than 200 were arrested.
In recent weeks, small groups of New York protesters have taken to camping out in different locations, including across the street from the New York Stock Exchange.
Occupy Wall Street now has less than $100,000 on hand. Late last year, the group's governing body voted to put aside that amount of money for possible defense costs, which typically translates to money to post bail for those arrested in the protests.
"We did have a little bit of a cash crisis as far as buying food, printing," said Christine Crowther, who sits on Occupy's finance committee. She said the problem had been helped by new donations and bail money that has been returned.
Crowther said Occupy had spent about $3,500 as part of its advertising campaign for the May 1 events.
But despite the anemic response to several recent events, observers say that Occupy Wall Street has already influenced political discourse in a year when U.S. voters will decide a presidential election. Democratic lawmakers and President Barack Obama have adopted some of the language of Occupy Wall Street.
Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has decried what he says is Occupy's message of divisiveness and envy.
"I think that they have had enormous impact in the way that the Democratic party has come to recognize the challenge of tax reform and inequality," said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University. "The debate about the concentration of wealth has already become part of the accepted conversation in America."
But he said the presidential election campaign has "superseded" the popular movement.
Needham points to several events from last week as signs that Occupy Wall Street is alive and well.
Last week, hundreds protested annual meetings of two major U.S. companies closely associated with the 2008 financial crisis and banking-sector bailout -- Wells Fargo & Co.'s shareholder gathering in San Francisco and General Electric Co.'s in Detroit.
Police arrested two dozen protesters at the Wells Fargo event, where as many as 500 activists were accompanied by a huge inflated rat with dollar bills sticking from its pockets.
The next day at GE's meeting in Detroit, about 100 agitators chanted "Pay Your Fair Share" in an attack on the big U.S. conglomerate's low tax rate.
After their exit, Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin stepped up to defend GE's tax practices, and noted that the company's low tax rates in 2008 and 2009 were the result of heavy losses at GE Capital.
Also last week, college students held demonstrations in several U.S. cities to mark the day total U.S. student loan debt was expected to reach $1 trillion, with some burning student loan documents and others demanding a right to "debt-free degrees."
(Reporting By Edith Honan; additional reporting by Scott Malone and Chris Francescani; Editing by Dan Burns and Philip Barbara)
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