NEW YORK - The encampment of disenchanted young protesters in New York City's financial district has exposed growing anger around the United States over rising inequality and a stubborn jobs crisis.
The Occupy Wall Street protest, based at Liberty Plaza in downtown Manhattan, has drawn comparisons to the U.S. auto workers sit-down strikes of the 1930s, the counter-culture rebellion of the 1960s, and the Arab Spring revolt against authoritarian governments.
Protests have since spread to more than two dozen major cities, from Los Angeles, California to Atlanta, Georgia.
Clearly, it is too early to judge whether Occupy Wall Street will be remembered as the spark that created a social movement to roll back decades of neo-liberal policies of deregulation, tax cuts and reductions in public services. But what's undeniable is that the protest has struck a deep chord of alienation in millions who have been left behind during the country's latest gilded age.
"This reflects a widespread anger that the economy only works for the very few," said Robert Borosage, co-director the Campaign for America's Future, a Washington, D.C.-based strategy center for the progressive community.
That anger is reflected in two of the protesters' slogans: "The banks got bailed out, we got sold out" and "We are the 99 percent."
The protesters express outrage that the government gave the country's top banks 787 billion dollars in aid after the 2008 financial crisis while it has only extended at best a limp helping hand to the country's struggling poor and middle class. College graduates find themselves stuck with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debts and forced to move back in with their parents, as they cannot find jobs.
In recent years, inequality in the United States has deepened so much that it compares with the polarization that existed before the Great Depression about a century ago.
The top one percent takes home 21.9 percent of the country's pre-tax income and controls 33.8 percent of the country's wealth and 50.9 percent of the nation's stocks, bonds and mutual funds, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies.
While Wall Street titans have prospered, the middle class has experienced what Harvard economist Richard Freeman describes as a "lost decade" during the first 10 years of the 21st century.
The earnings of middle-class families began to stagnate in the 1970s. But their income actually dropped to an average of 49,445 dollars last year from 53,164 dollars in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. During the century's first decade, net job creation was zero, the worst on record. Young workers no longer count on finding a long- term job with a traditional pension, employer-provided pension and decent salary.
At 14 million, the number of unemployed people is about the same as during the Great Depression.
The official unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, but the number of unemployed roughly doubles once it includes people not actively looking for work and part-time workers who want full-time jobs. The unemployment rate of young adults with only a high school degree has averaged 21.6 percent over the past year. For college graduates under 25 years old, the rate is 9.6 percent.
At Liberty Plaza, Gillian Cipriano, 23, complained about being unable to find a job after earning her nursing degree less than a year ago. Austere government policies are causing public and private hospitals to cut services and reduce hiring, said Cipriano, who lives with her parents in Staten Island, one of the city's five boroughs.
Cipriano said friends are working in non-professional jobs in public schools because they can't find teaching positions.
"If the government had used the bail-out money for the people instead of the banks, they would be able to hire teachers, fund public hospitals and pay for police and firefighters," Cipriano said.
Borosage said Occupy Wall Street reflects a nationwide backlash that started with the fight against conservative Gov. Scott Walker's attack on unions in Wisconsin, where public employees were stripped of their collective bargaining rights. A groundswell of opposition developed there and in other states where Republican governors are rolling back union protections and benefits as they deal with deficits.
Occupy Wall Street received a major boost when several powerful unions decided to back the budding uprising. Tens of thousands union members and other sympathizers demonstrated Oct. 5 in Foley Square near a federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan and marched about a mile to Liberty Plaza.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters, including the 100 to 200 who sleep there and hundreds more present during the day, have been at Liberty Plaza since Sept. 17. A smaller group, inspired by a call for a revolt by the Canadian magazine Adbuster, moved there after police evicted them when they pitched tents on Wall Street.
At first, the protesters received little attention and even ridicule from the mainstream media. But the protesters captured national attention - and the heart of the country's left - after the police pepper-sprayed some young women. The arrest of 700 demonstrators on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1 led to more interest and further energized the group.
Videos of both incidents wound up on YouTube, serving as organizing tools for the tech-savvy protesters, who like the activists of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, used their smart phones to rally support.
Where will this go?
Occupy Wall Street protesters say they don't intend to let up, though they acknowledge that cold weather or a police eviction may eventually force them to leave the park.
For now, they remain in their makeshift city. They hold two general assembles each day in which decisions are made by consensus, not by voting. They have set up an Internet account that allows supporters from around the world to make donations and pay for pizzas from nearby restaurants. A generator powers the laptops in the media Center. There is a library, sleeping area and health-care zone. Recently, the group published The Occupied Wall Street Journal.
"It's hard to say what this will look like down the road," said Mark Bray, a 29-year-old graduate student who is studying for a doctorate in European history. "We are trying to envision a better way, a better democracy in practice. The most important thing is the model of our movement, which is participatory and inclusive."