On October 4 Ralph Nader’s “Take it to The Street” campaign staged a rally on Wall Street against corporate corruption. Falling somewhere between a Broadway musical and a high school talent show, the rally had every aspect of a good theatrical production: props, role players, a full choir, a rock-and-roll star and a well-known host.
The American flag was tautly stretched across the entranceway of the New York Stock Exchange. Its corners were tacked down, so when the wind blew down the narrow street in the heart of New York’s financial district, the flag did not majestically wave, puffing up instead. “This is an interesting spectacle to see so many anticorporate symbols in this context,” protester Brad Tito said. “It’s an interesting juxtaposition.”
At 11:30 volunteers were in the final stages of nailing together a banner, inflating balloons and peddling last minute fliers. The crowd still had not arrived. Asked why she was there, Staci Rubin, an NYU student, said, “They’re stealing all of our money. These people need to go to jail. They stole millions and millions. This protest is about corporate corruption.” Rubin was one of the many volunteers with Democracy Rising, a new organization founded by Nader to “educate and empower citizens throughout the country.”
“Mya Cash” of Billionaires for Bush and Bloomberg, began the performance. “Darling, when you say corporate crime, we say way of life,” she aloofly drawled, implying billionaire wealth. Adorned in a tight black dress and a faux fur coat that was casually askew, she adjusted her plastic tiara and the blown-up dollar bills nestled between her breasts. “Their biggest sin was getting caught,” she concluded.
Her friend, Ivona Steal, concurred: “Jail is just for little people.”
Employing outrageous comic satire, Mya and her cohorts have been acting as political court jesters since the 2000 presidential election. There are many Billionaires for Bush affinity groups across the country. They began as Billionaires for Bush (or Gore): Because Inequality is Not Growing Fast Enough and have expanded to address social equality issues across the board. When she’s not a billionaire, Jennifer Pozner runs Women In Media & News. “We use humor to get people laughing,” she said later. “It gets under their barriers and is a really effective way to get messages out to people.”
“Hallelujah! Stop Corporate Crime!” exclaimed the slick, bleached-blond preacher over the air pumps filling up an odd inflatable menagerie. There was a blow-up shark warning against “loan sharks,” a yellow oil bin with a plea to “stop big oil & war profiteering” and a giant pig calling for a corporate “Hogtie.” Rocking back and forth, the gospel choir ripped into their first number, “Stop Shopping.” A mix of men and women of various ages, though mostly white, the choir mirrored the crowd gathered for the event: Punks mixed with clean-cut political types, hipsters rubbing shoulders with aging hippies and older activists.
The police barricades penned in the protesters along Broad Street and squeezed them down Wall Street, maintaining space for the crowd-control barrier and daring financial district pedestrians to join the show. The New York City Police Department, which assigned seventy-five patrolmen, who acted as ushers at the event, gave the crowd an official peak count of 2,500. According to Jason Kafoury of Democracy Rising, unlike recent protests in Washington, they easily obtained a protest permit, reporting good relations with the Bloomberg administration.
After the preacher warmed up the crowd, he turned the stage over to host Phil Donahue, who MC’d the event with talk-show finesse. Yet despite the given agenda of corporate crime, the crowd seemed distracted, possibly by the diffuse causes being promoted. Antiwar signs far outnumbered those regarding corporate corruption.
Moreover, those who were concerned with corporate greed were not unilaterally supportive of the main players: Ralph Nader and the Green Party. Many commented on Nader’s role in the 2000 presidential election. Walking off in disgust, one man said, “I wonder how much Dubya had to pay a month to get him to do that.”
“I think he’s an opportunist,” stated an irate protester in the front row. “He would have been no better than the thief in office now.”
Still others were there to protest the protest. Leonard Bernstein spent his lunch hour parading his sign “Corporate America Feeds Your Babies” next to his neighbor’s “Outlaw Capitalism.” “Walking through this crowd, people are calling me a fascist,” he said. “These people are forgetting the benefits corporate America provides. By being an instigator, Nader is only hurting this country.”
After eight speeches, including ones by New York Green Party gubernatorial candidate Stanley Aronowitz and president of the New York Central Labor Council Brian McLaughlin, the audience cooed with excitement when Patti Smith got onstage. Joined by Oliver Ray, she began to sing. Occasionally Smith raised her hand in fisted emphasis, or pulsed her arms against her side seeming half woman, half icon.
Nader followed Smith, to the applause of the crowd. He stepped onstage in his usual outfit: a gray suit, a conservative maroon tie and a blue oxford shirt. He began his speech with a biting criticism of corporate crime and introduced his Twelve-Step Congressional Candidate Pledge. “Corporations were never designed to be our masters,” he said. “They were designed to be our servants in the public interest.” He also spoke of how corporate greed had created a “speculative casino” filled with “deception, corruption and crime.” Concluding his speech, he led the crowd in a chant of “Crack down on corporate crime.” As his voice echoed through the financial district, curious Wall Street workers peeped out behind windows. The crowd followed along pretty well until Nader suddenly changed the chant to “We the people must own and control our resources.” They had a little more difficulty with that one.
After Nader concluded his speech, Smith and Ray came back up for one last number. As they passionately launched into song, the rally organizers and volunteers mounted the podium and joined in. The crowd sang along to the chorus of “People Have the Power!” which could have been one of those formidable moments, save the embarrassing feeling of watching politicians sing along waving their hands in the air like a house party.
The event’s conclusion felt like some wonderfully parodic, political circus. The Greens “arrested” the indignant Billionaires for Bush and paraded them past the crowd (plastic champagne glasses and all) to a jail-cell prop on stage left. They started deflating the enormous pink pig, the gospel choir broke into a final rendition of their hit number “Stop Shopping” and then three women with red, white and blue wigs, padded cone bras and enormous strap-on missiles came out. With hands on their hips they thrust their pelvises, putting Elvis to shame. Slightly hypnotized, the crowd lingered a bit longer.