Nearly two weeks ago, an estimated 3,000 people assembled at Battery Park with the intention of occupying Wall Street. They were an eclectic group, mostly young, some with beards and tattoos, other dressed in shorts and sneakers; a few even wore suits for the occasion. But nearly everyone was angry at what they saw as a culture of out-of-control greed. They didn’t succeed — at least not geographically, forgoing Wall Street for nearby Zuccotti Park, just around the corner from Ground Zero.
News outlets put the crowd there at several thousand, but that seemed to overestimate its true numbers. When I visited the park on Sept. 17, I counted backpacks and sleeping bags, trying to differentiate the tourists and casual marchers from those who were in it for the long haul. I came up with about 200 people.
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Over the past 12 days, however, those numbers have grown. On a late-night visit to Zuccotti Park on Tuesday, the fecklessness and disorganization reported earlier in the New York Times seemed largely absent. A protest that began in utter dysfunction has given way to a fairly organized movement with a base camp for its most stalwart members, now numbering more than 300 people, who have slept in the park for 12 nights straight–and who say they intend to stay.
Perhaps no incident galvanized the protesters more than their march north to Union Square on Sept. 24. Police arrested nearly 80 people whom they say were blocking traffic, and video of a penned-in female protester being pepper sprayed by a police officer went viral on the web. The protesters have posted the video on their website and a picture of the woman adorns the board at the entrance to the park, at what’s now become the groups quasi-official information booth. At small table, posterboards lay out the schedule for the day, which includes marches down to Wall Street for the stock exchange’s opening and closing bells, each followed by a “General Assembly” where the various groups gather to discuss their goals, their current status and what might come next.
The park has become a semi-permanent home, complete with a medical station and a distribution point for food and water. The protesters have organized themselves into committees to remove the garbage, roam the camp to enforce a ban on open flames (an evictable offense in the eyes of the NYPD) and engage with the people in the area. A couple of pizza joints, a Burger King and a deli have let the protesters use their bathrooms; some have even donated food. In the middle of the park is a media center where protesters send out Twitter updates and live-stream the latest news on their website. At 1 am Wednesday, more than 3,000 people were sending in questions while a young woman in a yellow poncho answered them on a live feed.
But while “Occupy Wall Street” has become more organized, its demands haven’t coalesced into a coherent message. The only thing its various constituent groups appear to have in common is a deep-seated anger at inequality in this country. For them Wall Street symbolizes that unfairness, but the groups have other concerns as well. Many want to redistribute wealth; others want to enlarge government social programs. Some are protesting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Daniel Levine, a journalism student from upstate New York, said he was taking a stand against the controversial method of natural gas extraction known as hydrofracking in his hometown – but also noted that the practice can bring jobs to economically disadvantaged regions.
Just as it lacks a single message, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has been defined by the absence of a clear leader. Participants say that is by design, and point to the committees that have sprung up to tend to the daily needs of those camped in Zuccotti Park. It isn’t clear that they want a single leader, and many think the movement is better off without one. “It’s kind of cool how it’s growing organically,” one said. “People just need to give it time and it’ll come together.”
Assuming organizers can keep the protest on the good side of the law, all indications are that it will continue for a long time. A sign by the information booth held a wish list: hats, gloves, tarps, and warm clothing. On live streams on the website, organizers answered questions about what supporters could bring or send. If last weekend is any indication, the numbers could swell this Saturday as supporters come in from out of town. For those who eventually leave again, Levine hopes that they take the skills they’ve learned back to their communities to continue to protest for whatever cause they support. “Every person who’s been here more than three days can completely organize a protest in their hometowns,” Levine says. “This is the most productive homelessness I’ve ever seen.”
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Nate Rawlings is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @naterawlings. Continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.