At Occupy Wall St, the 1% are people too
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Protesters at the Occupy Wall Street camp in New York say they are fighting for America's downtrodden 99 percent. Now some of the hated one percent want it known that they are people too.
The likes of Taha Hammam fail to make up even one percent of the protesters thronging New York's Zuccotti Park. Dapper in a dark suit, striped shirt and red tie, Hammam, 34, sticks out far more than the often outlandishly dressed hippies and activists around him.
So does the message on his placard, pointing out that 99 percent plus one equals 100 percent. “We are all ONE,” it reads.
Hammam described himself as a wealthy landlord who, despite having money, shares protesters' anger at the way the cards are stacked in favour of US political and corporate elites.
The son of immigrant Egyptians, he said: “I had opportunities, my parents had opportunities and they succeeded. The infrastructure was there for the American Dream so that everyone could aspire to it.”
“I'm not saying that everyone should be rich,” he added, “but a lot of those people who made millions or billions, they should say: 'We had opportunities and should give opportunities to others.'“
Hammam hasn't gone as far as sleeping at the camp - he lives in an apartment nearby in expensive downtown Manhattan. Nor does he find running with the protest crowd easy.
“There's an element of insecurity,” he said, constantly checking his Blackberry smart phone. “Watch your wallet. Keep it in your front pocket.”
He recounted in amazement how he once put a water bottle by his feet, “turned around and it was gone.”
Hammam's solidarity puts him politically in the same camp as famous wealthy people such as Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor who has said that the very rich should pay more in taxes.
Hammam was also showing a certain amount of courage to stand alongside hundreds of protesters carrying signs such as “Wall Street is a rigged casino” and blaming the “one percent” for everything wrong in the country.
Another “one percenter” entering the lion's den - but in his case with no intention of joining forces - was a combative executive from Citigroup Global Markets.
In a spirited, open-air debate on Monday, Ethan Heisier, a managing director, said banks were not the enemy. “Banks are a very efficient way of borrowing and saving,” he said.
Taking on the protesters' frequent criticism of the 2008
government bailout of the financial sector, Heisier said: “This bailout of the banks thing - what did you get? You got ATM cards that still worked.”
Heisier's defense of banks didn't win many over. “What about corporate greed?” asked John Hector, 25.
But there was a muted acceptance that talking to a representative from the one percent had been interesting.
Heisier told AFP the experience had been “exhilarating.” However, he left thinking that the 99 percent understand little about economics. He also thinks they lack direction.
“The average Joe doesn't get the fact that banking is not a right. Banking is something you pay for, like you go to McDonald's,” he said. “The real tragedy (in the protest) is there's a lot of anger, a lot of spirit, but there's not enough of 'what do you want?'“
On that last point, another white collar convert disagreed.
Writing this week on the website, http://occupywallst.org/, former Wall Street analyst turned activist Karanja Gacuca issued a personal manifesto that comes close to summarising the demonstration's main demands.
“I believe it's time for a fairer system that provides health care, education, and opportunity for all, and rejects corporate influence over government,” he wrote. - Sapa-AFP