Tearing Down Wall Street Will Not Help This Country

So what's an unfocused protester to do?

Some want to write off the small band of protesters who set up camp in the shadow of Wall Street as disorganized 20-somethings who can’t get a job as a Starbucks barista. To a certain extent that is accurate. But as the protest enters its third week it appears, as the 1967 Buffalo Springfield anthem goes, “there’s something happening here.”

The protesters, known as Occupy Wall Street, have tapped into the anger and angst that has been brewing on Main Street since the 2008 economic collapse. The protests are providing a powerful outlet for many who are unemployed, have lost their home or seen their wages stagnate, or are still fuming over the bank bailouts. One protester’s online manifesto called the movement “our Arab spring.” Heady stuff, to be sure, but this movement is going to require more than just complaining about corporate greed and corruption if it really wants to bring about change.

Granted, things are just heating up. Small demonstrations have spread to more than 20 cities including Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. Coming soon: Occupy Philly. Protests in friendlier confines like Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio underscore the level or anger across the country.

Just wait until the protesters hit Washington on Thursday. The only group of leaders more despised and distrusted than Wall Street bankers is Congress. And many see Wall Street and Washington as conspiring against the silent majority.

At some point soon, the activists need to figure out what they want. The decision-making body, known as the General Assembly, is proud of the fact that it is “horizontal, autonomous and leaderless. Signs spotted at the protest reflect a broad mix of grievances from “End the Fed” to “I can’t afford a lobbyist” to “Widow was screwed by Bank of America.” But without specific goals or a dictator to unseat, there is not much of a movement.

Just raising hell against an amorphous Wall Street isn’t sustainable. During the Vietnam War, protesters were united by the senseless deaths of classmates and a desire not to get drafted. The Occupy Wall Street protesters—many of whom are in their 20s—are united by the bleak economic future. Youth unemployment is double the national rate of nine percent. More than 85 percent of the Class of 2011 moved back into their parents’ home. Many are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and the prospect of reduced Social Security benefits and an increased retirement age.

In a sense, the protesters are fighting for their economic lives. That is why at some point they need to come up with some common goals before everyone goes back to playing Angry Birds in their parents’ basement. Railing against Wall Street may make the protesters feel good but that isn’t going to get them anywhere. In fact, healthy banks are needed to lend money and help create jobs.

To be sure, the banks have done little to engender any sympathy. The swift return of outsized bonuses on Wall Street has only fueled the populist rage. The $2 billion in losses by a 31-year-old mid-level trader at UBS signals that big banks have done little to change a culture that encourages risky investments. The even dumber decision last week by Bank of America to start charging $5 a month for debit card transactions will only add to the growing anger.

The protesters have struck a nerve. But they are going to need a more defined message in order to sustain the movement through a New York fall, let alone an Arab spring.

Paul Davies spent 25 years in the newspaper business, including stops at the Daily News, the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]