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OccupyWEF Protesters Say World Economic Forum Leaders 'Should Disband'

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Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, delivers the opening address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012.
Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, delivers the opening address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012.

DAVOS, Switzerland -- A mile away, in the center of this posh ski resort, some of the most powerful people on earth are gathered in pinstripes, discussing the state of the globe at the World Economic Forum. No one could accuse organizers of lacking ambition: "COMMITTED TO IMPROVING THE STATE OF THE WORLD," declare the signs hanging from seemingly every wall of the central venue, the Congress Center.

But here, in a snow-covered parking lot on the other side of the railroad tracks from the rest of town, two dozen protesters coalesced under the banner OccupyWEF dismiss that slogan as a fraud.

"They talk about our future, but they are the point zero, zero, zero, one percent of the people, and that's not democratic," says Valentine Sidjanksi, 25, a bricklayer from Zurich who is spending the week in one of two yurts erected here, alongside four igloos. "They have tried for 25 years to build something, but they are the wrong people. They are all from business and politics. They just want to strengthen the system and make more profits. They should disband."

OccupyWEF, the latest progeny of the global, grass roots response to widening inequality, joblessness and financial turmoil, has aimed itself directly at the glittering pageant of power that is the World Economic Forum. While the Occupy movement is often dismissed as an inchoate mass that lacks concrete demands, the people camped out here readily articulate a central aim: They want to put a stop to this annual gathering of top executives, heads of state, and other people of influence -- the very group they say generated the unjust economic order the forum is supposedly intent on fixing.

"You take the same people who brought us into this mess and you ask them to find a solution, which is a joke in itself," says Laurent Moeri, a graduate student in international relations from Zurich. "We have to look for bottom-up solutions to all of our problems."

The World Economic Forum has clearly taken heed of such critiques and the populist anger seething in many countries -- not least, in Europe and the United States, both still grappling with the economic damage left from years of speculative excesses in the financial system. In public statements, organizers sometimes seem to have adopted the vernacular of the Occupy movement, while nodding at the reappraisal of guiding economic policy unfolding in many countries.

"When I created the forum, I felt that I had to find a motto, a slogan," said Klaus Schwab, the German economist who is the World Economic Forum's executive chairman, as he greeted first-time participants on Tuesday afternoon. "The motto is, entrepreneurship in the public interest."

This year's meeting is called "The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models." The conference program includes offerings such as "Debate on Globalization," "Debate on Capitalism" and "Global Risks 2012: The Seeds of Dystopia."

"Finally economists now acknowledge what sociologists and anthropologists have been saying for years, that economics is not just sunny side up," says Tomas Sedlacek, a former economic adviser to Czech President Vaclav Havel, and author of "The Economics of Good and Evil." "There's darkness, and it has to be addressed."

The Occupy protesters here express no satisfaction that their rhetoric appears to have penetrated the World Economic Forum. They describe the gathering as fundamentally undemocratic and, therefore, illegitimate, rejecting the notion that people who have benefited from the apportioning of power can sincerely deliver reform.

A sign draped across a snow bank in the parking lot offers a response to the forum's very title: "Transformation?? BULLSHIT! Nobody With 4 Aces Wants A New Deal."

"I take offense at the exclusivity," Moeri says. "You're not going to decide what to do without us, and we don't accept your self-announced global leadership."

On this day, us includes activists from the Occupy Zurich movement, a handful from the Young Socialist Party of Switzerland, and a few self-described anarchists -- "in the good sense," Moeri adds. "We are individualists. 'Hey, people of the world, rise up and take up the power that you have!'"

From the parking lot, however, beneath the jagged, snow-crusted peaks of the Alps, the people of the world seem awfully far away. Even the rest of Davos seems in another province. In town, the Congress Center is packed full of heads of state and hedge fund managers who proceed straight from discussions about hunger in Africa to buffet tables teeming with smoked salmon prime rib. Here, the protesters are jammed into a yurt, conducting a general assembly, their wood fires filtering black smoke skyward. A plastic of muesli sits on a bare table.

For a group aiming to occupy the main event here, this fledgling community of activists is exceedingly hard to find, in contrast to the hordes of people who took over Zuccotti Park in New York and who, for a time, seemed to dominate daily life around Wall Street. Finding OccupyWEF protesters amounts to an undertaking, requiring a bus ride from the center of Davos, and then a lonely walk across an unplowed expanse of snow to a crude development at the end of the parking lot. The average World Economic Forum participant is more likely to confront a traffic jam full of black Mercedes sedans than run into any sign of the Occupy movement.

Protesters have been affixing signs throughout the town, entreating people to come pay them a visit, but few have accepted the invitation.

Schwab, the forum's executive chairman, extended his own invitation earlier this week. "We are open to any constructive dialogue," he said, adding that he offered to add demonstrators to a panel discussion.

Moeri scoffed at this offer as an insincere effort to turn the movement into a photo-op demonstrating supposed inclusion.

"The WEF pretends to be a multi-stakeholder organization, but it's mostly business people and politicians," he says. "It's not about improving the world. It's about improving the state of corporations."

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