NEW YORK — In a small granite plaza a block from the New York Stock Exchange, a group of 20-somethings in flannel pajama pants and tie-dyed T-shirts are plotting the demise of Wall Street as we know it.
They have been there since Saturday, sleeping on cardboard boxes, eating pizza and take-out dinners that were paid for by donations to their cause. There are only about 200 of them left now, though they started out 1,500 strong.
Welcome to the headquarters of "Occupy Wall Street," a place where topless women stood Wednesday morning on the corner shouting "I can't afford a shirt!" while construction workers eagerly snapped photos on their phones. A small group of the protesters wound their way through the streets of lower Manhattan escorted by police officers, blaring bullhorns and chanting "Resist! Stand Up! There comes a time when the people rise up!"
What, exactly, they are protesting is somewhat unclear. When asked what they are fighting, they gave a variety of responses ranging from Wall Street to global warming. On its website, the group proclaims: "We, the people of the United States of America, considering the crisis at hand, now reassert our sovereign control of our land."
Sam Wood, an unemployed 21-year-old, said he was there because he doesn't think it's fair "the way that the rich get more breaks than the poor."
"What I really want to achieve is to educate people about what's going on with the economy right now," he said as he bumped into another protester waving an American flag. "A couple of the ways that we might be able to fix it, you know?"
A barricade was set up to protect the NYSE building as they marched past it. Some people in suits stopped in the street to gaze curiously at the scene in the plaza – a strange jumble of people carrying signs, playing snare drums and openly smoking marijuana on benches.
Police watched the proceedings carefully after a scuffle Tuesday that led to seven arrests and one injured protester. Most of those arrested were given disorderly conduct summonses and released.
Four more protesters were arrested Wednesday for disorderly conduct and released.
Ryan Reed, 21, a senior at Rutgers University, was missing class to attend the protest, but his professors are letting him make up the work by writing papers about the experience.
"The enemy is the big business leaders of Wall Street, the big oil company leaders, the coal company leaders, the big military industrial leaders," he said. "I came out here because what I see – and what I feel most people in this country see – is an economy and a system that's collapsing."
Kaitlyn Leigh, a 21-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., said she is going to move out of her apartment and stay here indefinitely because she's been so inspired by what she's seen.
"It's about creating a community in this liberated space," she said. "It's about having the ability to have people's needs met, whether it be food, clothing, shelter."
Every afternoon, the group convenes at the center of the plaza for what they call a "General Assembly," a meeting during which they map out their tactics for the next day. Forbidden from using a microphone – they don't have the proper permits – the group got creative.
"What we do is a people's microphone," Reed said. "So the person who's speaking says a couple of words and then the whole crowd repeats it so everyone can hear. It's actually beautiful."
For Reed, at least, an ideal outcome for the situation would be a near-shutdown of Wall Street, with protesters descending upon Wall Street and preventing bankers from getting to their desks. But he realizes that may not happen anytime soon – particularly not before he returns to class next week.
"So far we haven't had the numbers to clog the kind of traffic we need to clog," he admitted.
Though the crowd has thinned as the days pass, the group is vowing to stick it out as long as possible. Bill Csapo, an unofficial spokesman for the protesters, said they've gained access to a commercial kitchen and plan to start cooking meals for the group in the next day or two. On Saturday night, people donated $10,000 worth of pizzas.
Csapo, of Cleveland, Tenn., hasn't actually traveled to Manhattan for the event. He got involved by meeting some of the organizers on Internet forums, which is how the whole thing got started. But he said the occupiers – a term he prefers instead of "protesters" – aren't leaving anytime soon.
"I'm currently unemployed and loving what I'm doing," Leigh said. "I'm going to stay here until the end."