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Occupy Wall Street activists cool to celebrities' visit

When Kanye West, Al Sharpton and Russell Simmons drop by the Manhattan protest site, activists accuse them of using the movement to boost their own profiles and agendas.

October 13, 2011|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • Musician Kanye West visits the "Occupy Wall Street" protests in Zuccotti Park on Monday.
Musician Kanye West visits the "Occupy Wall Street" protests… (Andrew Burton / Associated…)

Reporting from New York — Most groups that count on donations might welcome nods of support from someone with the deep pockets of superstar Kanye West or the influence of activist and MSNBC host Al Sharpton.

But when the anti-establishment movement called Occupy Wall Street opened the floor to comments during a recent meeting, Reena Walker looked at the crowd in a Manhattan park and bellowed disapproval over the visits that day of Sharpton, West and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

"Sharpton and all these guys — are you kidding me?" said Walker, who accused them of using Occupy Wall Street to bolster their profiles while perpetuating things the movement eschews, such as party politics, consumerism and sexism. "We don't want to be used and co-opted. This is not a game."

PHOTOS: 'Occupy' protests

As Occupy Wall Street expands to dozens of cities and figures into matters including presidential news conferences and Republican debates, interest from stars and activists eager to glom onto its fame is one of its growing pains.

There are others: It needs a kitchen to cook for the thousands of people now in the habit of eating for free in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park. It needs more room for people who have been camped in the park nearly a month and whose sleeping bags compete for space with the new arrivals, the feeding center, the library and stations with a range of offerings from free shoes to tarot card readings. It needs babysitters.

Perhaps, some suggest, it even needs a new name and an official color to ensure that the movement's anti-greed message does not get lost.

"It's a nice problem to have," Mark Bray of Jersey City, N.J., said of the movement's growth, adding that although there are no "official plans" to find additional places to occupy in New York, it was reasonable to assume this could be Occupy Wall Street's next step.

As Bray spoke, another protester leaned in to suggest that the group rename itself Occupy Democracy, to encompass the many spinoffs across the country such as Occupy Portland and Occupy Atlanta.

Bray said Occupy Wall Street's goal was to be replicated across the nation and the world, and it is doing so at a rate that one can attribute as much to the resonance of its message as to the activists — including antiwar crusaders and college students weighed down by school loans — who use the Internet to update its every move.

To counter sirens, jackhammers, drums and other noise, subtitles are displayed on a screen courtesy of volunteers who type furiously on laptops as people speak. Tweets and Facebook pages are dedicated to the movement.

"I actually have never seen anything like this," said Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University who has written books on social and political movements. "Given the kind of activity I've been seeing, I don't think there's any slowing of the physical occupations."

The park owner, Brookfield Properties, plans to begin a phased cleaning of the park Friday to deal with what Deputy Mayor for Operations Cas Holloway said were "unsanitary conditions." The people staying in the park will not be evicted.

Challenges were on display at the General Assembly on Monday, the day that Sharpton, West and Simmons visited. The meeting's duration underscored Occupy Wall Street's ballooning state: It lasted more than 2 ½ hours, finally ending about 10 p.m.

Two women from the food working group appealed to supporters to help secure a commercial kitchen before winter. Currently, food pours into Zuccotti Park via donations, pizza deliveries and dishes cooked in various home kitchens and carried in, a system that doesn't guarantee hot meals and that is becoming unwieldy as the numbers being fed — more than 2,000 daily — increase.

"This movement needs hot food to sustain itself," one of the women said, adding that attempts to find donated space had so far failed to produce a long-term, conveniently located solution. "We are so big, we need a centralized location."

The suggestion that a commercial kitchen be rented drew a warning from a finance group member, who said it could lead to messy legal issues arising from the use of donor dollars. The food group let the rental question drop for the time being. "But it is urgent," one of the women warned as the General Assembly moved on to other matters.

As the meeting went on, someone shouted: "Hey, whoever is smoking weed, stop it!" Occupy Wall Street bans drugs and booze from the park, restrictions that are difficult to enforce as the crowd grows.

A man named Chris used the public forum to propose that Occupy Wall Street adopt purple as its color, because that's what you get by mixing red, white and blue. "We're not anti-American, we're ultra-American," the man said.

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