October 2011

A loose-knit populist campaign that started on Wall Street three weeks ago has spread to dozens of cities across the country, with protesters camped out in Los Angeles near City Hall, assembled before the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago and marching through downtown Boston to rally against corporate greed, unemployment and the role of financial institutions in the economic crisis.

With little organization and a reliance on Facebook, Twitter and Google groups to share methods, the Occupy Wall Street campaign, as the prototype in New York is called, has clearly tapped into a deep vein of anger, experts in social movements said, bringing longtime crusaders against globalization and professional anarchists together with younger people frustrated by poor job prospects.

“Rants based on discontents are the first stage of any movement,” said Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University. But he said it was unclear if the current protests would lead to a lasting movement, which would require the newly unleashed passions to be channeled into institutions and shaped into political goals.

Publicity surrounding the recent arrests of hundreds in New York, near Wall Street and on the Brooklyn Bridge, has only energized the campaign. This week, new rallies and in some cases urban encampments are planned for cities as disparate as Memphis, Tenn.; Hilo, Hawaii; Minneapolis; Baltimore; and McAllen, Tex., according to Occupy Together, an unofficial hub for the protests that lists dozens of coming demonstrations, including some in Europe and Japan.

In the nation’s capital, an Occupy D.C. movement began on Saturday, with plans to join forces on Thursday with a similar anticorporate and antiwar group, October 2011, for an encampment in a park near the White House.


About 100 mostly younger people, down from 400 over the weekend, were camped outside Los Angeles City Hall on Monday morning. Several dozen tents occupied the lawn along with a free-food station and a media center. People sat on blankets playing the guitar or bongo drums or meditating. Next to a “Food Not Bombs” sign, was another that read “Food Not Banks.”

At the donations table, Elise Whitaker, 21, a freelance script editor and film director, said the protesters were united in their desire for “a more equal economy.”

“I believe that I am not represented by the big interest groups and the big money corporations, which have increasing control of our money and our politics,” she said, adding that she was not against capitalism per se.

Javier Rodriguez, 24, a former student at Pasadena City College, held a sign that read “Down with the World Bank” in Spanish, and said he was anti-capitalist.

“The monetary system is not working,” he said. “The banks are here to steal from us. Everybody is in debt whether it’s medical bills or school or loans. People are getting fed up with it.”

In Chicago on Monday morning, about a dozen people outside the Federal Reserve Bank sat on the ground or lay in sleeping bags, surrounded by protest signs and hampers filled with donated food and blankets. The demonstrators, who have been in Chicago since Sept. 24, said they had collected so much food that they started giving the surplus to homeless people.

Each evening, the number of protesters swells as people come from school or work, and the group marches to Michigan Avenue.

“We all have different ideas about what this means, stopping corporate greed,” said Paul Bucklaw, 45. “For me, it’s about the banks.”

Sean Richards, 21, a junior studying environmental health at Illinois State University in Normal, said he dropped out of college on Friday and took a train to Chicago to demonstrate against oil companies.

He said he would continue sleeping on the street for “as long as it takes.”

Strategists on the left said they were buoyed by the outpouring of energy and hoped it would contribute to a newly powerful progressive movement. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, in Washington, noted that the Wall Street demonstrations followed protests in Wisconsin this year over efforts to suppress public employee unions and numerous rallies on economic and employment issues.

The new protesters have shown a remarkable commitment and have stayed nonviolent in the face of aggressive actions by the New York police, he said. “I think that as a result they really touched a chord among activists across the country.”

But if the movement is to have lasting impact, it will have to develop leaders and clear demands, said Nina Eliasoph, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California.

With the country in such deep economic distress, almost everyone is forced to think about economics and politics, giving the new protests a “major emotional resonance,” she said.

“So there is a tension between this emotionally powerful movement,” she said, “and the emptiness of the message itself so far.”


Ashley Southall contributed reporting from Washington, Ian Lovett from Los Angeles and Steven Yaccino from Chicago.



Diane Ackerman is the author of “One Hundred Names for Love” and “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”                                 

GOLDILOCKS is alive in the constellation Vela. Her real name is HD 85512b, which may not roll off the tongue, but it’s sheer poetry to the ears of sky watchers like me, who long for signs of an Earth-like planet that might harbor life.

This newly discovered planet orbits its sun in what’s called the “Goldilocks,” or habitable zone, at the right distance for liquid water to sparkle on the surface and life to bloom in the shallows. Life as we know it, anyway, with wings and dreams, if the planet has a rocky surface — and isn’t too hot or too cold — as well as a tent of clouds for shade.

That’s a lot of ifs, which is why other candidates have been scarce. This is our best hope, though she’s 36 light-years away, beyond the reach of our spacecrafts or clear view of present telescopes, but well within the imagination. Her temperatures may range from 85 to 120 degrees, which conjures up images of equatorial Africa, or much of the hot, muggy United States this past July.

The past month has been a marvel in the planetary world. In addition to HD 85512b, astronomers spotted a planet that may be fashioned entirely of diamond, a brilliant diadem set in the black velvet of space. For all we know, it has baguette moons in tow. And a few weeks later, planet hunters confirmed the discovery of Kepler-16b, a planet that circles two suns in the constellation Cygnus.

In the “Star Wars” saga, Luke Skywalker hailed from such a world, Tatooine, where he paused from work on his uncle’s moisture farm to enjoy a smoldery suns-set. Until now a stable planet orbiting twin suns was science fiction, strictly hints and hunches. Wouldn’t the quarreling gravity of two suns shear the planet apart, swallow it whole, or hurtle it off into space? Apparently not. Such solar systems, with winking suns that eclipse one another every few weeks, may be common throughout the universe. That’s the best thing about discovery, how it widens the mind’s eye, refines the scope of our inquiries.

However, we won’t be glimpsing these worlds anytime soon, I’m afraid. If we want to explore in fine detail, we’ll need better eyes in the sky and faster robotic spaceships. I’m for both. Despite all the problems that beset us, we’re on the threshold of a new era of exploration and discovery. Scientists are asking thrilling questions, like: what existed before the universe? How did we get from the Big Bang to the whole shebang? Can we design spaceships that fly faster than the speed of light? Do other planetarians haunt the wilderness of space, or are we alone? I hope we’ll continue sending scouts around our solar system, and use the planets as stepping stones to the stars.

This is not a new goal, but one of humanity’s oldest yearnings. Every society has been tantalized by the great loom of the sky with its flowing quilt of stars. The Egyptian pyramids may have been arranged like the belt stars of Orion, pointing to Sirius, so that the pharaoh’s soul would be launched into the heavens where he’d shimmer as a star. To the San people in the Kalahari, the Milky Way is the “backbone of night.”

In the 20th century, we sent robot emissaries to explore the solar system and voyage deep into space. With the cupped ears of radio telescopes, we began listening for voices from other worlds. We rode fierce winds to the Moon and looked back in wonder, amazed to see Earth whole. Viewed from space, Earth had no visible fences, military zones or national borders. But it did have the thinnest rind — an atmosphere embracing the sky, weather systems and all of human history. That image from an Apollo mission changed everything.

We’re explorers by design, right down to our cells, and we thrive on quests. Stars flare like distant campfires overhead, and we wonder if they’re home to other worlds like our own. Or made of diamond. I’m hoping NASA will continue to find the boosters it needs, because our compass points to the stars.

* October 1, 2011, By DIANE ACKERMAN