It was, in Alessandra Demeo’s view, a beginning.
Fewer than 100 people had gathered at Grand Army Plaza on Saturday to mark the beginning of “Occupy Brooklyn,” an off-shoot of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests that have spread across the country, and this past weekend, around the world.
But Demeo, a 46-year-old Brooklyn teacher, was not discouraged by the modest turnout.
“It’s only the first day, I marched on Wall Street the very first day and it pretty much looked just like this,” she said. “We planned this really fast, most of us found out only through word-of-mouth and the fact that some of the trains are not working this weekend hasn’t helped.
“It’s a little meeting, but that’s fine. Every person here is important.”
The protestors held up banners, beat drums, chanted slogans and passed out fliers and sign-up sheets to people passing by. “We are the 99 percent,” they chanted. “We got sold out! Banks got bailed out!” And “This is what democracy looks like!” Passing cars honked their horns in support of the protesters, drawing large cheers from the group.
The planning began Thursday night at a “General Assembly” meeting at a community center on Atlantic Avenue where just before 7 p.m. four people were handing out fliers. The group, said Brian Merchant, 28, didn’t have a leader.
Soon the room began filling up. Some 70 people, ranging from their mid-20s to early 60s took their seats. A white board with five agenda items sat in one corner.
The first item was an “awareness check” – to determine how many people were first timers. Many raised their hands. The room, which had been quiet at first, grew louder as people shared their views on whether local businesses and the Saturday farmer’s market should be involved.
People discussed such issues as the group’s independence from the Wall Street protests, as well as the possibility of training protesters should police make arrests. People discussed when the next meeting should be held. Finally, the group was able to agree on forming a committee to organize a follow up meeting at a location that could attract more people of color.
Saturday was sunny and mild and by 11 a.m. people gathered at plaza’s traffic circle across from the farmer’s market. The shoppers outnumbered the protestors. The police had set up barricades, designating the area where protesters were allowed to stand, and sharply reminding protesters to stay off the road.
Kara Segal, a teacher in her 20s, and one of the organizers of the event said forming Occupy Brooklyn was essential for spreading the message to a bigger audience.
The crowd was a mix of mostly young, white people in their 20s along with veteran protesters from the 1960s and 70s. Segal acknowledged the lack of diversity in the crowd, which the movement was trying to overcome.
“Brooklyn has amazing communities of color,” she said. “It has amazing activist communities and we’re trying to link up with those people who are already doing some wonderful things because the 99 percent is not just a group of 20 to 60-year-old white people.”
“Today we’re trying to achieve visibility and presence in Brooklyn,” she said. “Hopefully Occupy Brooklyn expands here in a way Occupy Wall Street hasn’t been able to.”
But the protest also had its skeptics. One was Eli Sitt, 46, who described himself as a small business owner. He was shopping at the farmer’s market. “I don’t think what they’re doing is going to help, there has to be a paradigm shift in the economy,” he said. “We’re such a big ship, its impossible to turn it around so quickly.”
Sitt did offer a suggestion: “These people have so much passion and time on their hands, they should go start a small business and pay their workers $50 an hour instead of 7 an hour or grow chickens in their backyard and make a business out of it. The government can’t do it. The people have to.”
Still, he did concede that the protests were a good starting point. “It’s good because it’s getting people talking, and that’s what protests are about,” he said. “We look at the Egyptians in Tahrir Square and cheer them on, but we look at our people and dismiss them saying they’re losers, they’re idiots, they’re potheads? That’s wrong.”
At 1 p.m., organizers told the crowd to start leaving in small groups to join the larger protests in Washington Square Park, and eventually marching on Times Square.
“This is not the time for an identity crisis, whether we’re Occupy Brooklyn or Occupy Wall Street,” Segal said. “Our going to Washington Square Park is a show of solidarity.”
See The Brooklyn Ink’s full Occupy Wall Street Coverage.