There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear. They crashed President Bush's vacation at the Crawford Ranch. They marched on the Mall in Washington. Now, the increasingly vocal war protest crowd has come to Wall Street itself to sound off on peace and social justice in the midst of a stock market rally. On Thursday, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks' arrest that inspired the civil rights movement, the Troops Out Now Coalition demonstrated at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway to protest the war in Iraq and the policies of President Bush. On a flat-bed truck parked before a crowd of protesters, activist Larry Holmes shouted into a microphone, while a crowd of supporters clapped their hands, raised their placards, banged bongos and voiced their agreement in song. "We've come to Wall Street, the heart of the world's financial capital -- where there's billions and billions of dollars changing hands every day -- to let people know that we need to take better care of people who are less fortunate, and we need to stop this terrible war," said Imani Henry, an activist with the coalition. "This is the richest country in the world. There are mansions springing up all over the place, and many victims of Hurricane Katrina still have nowhere to go. Workers are losing their jobs all across the country. Record numbers of people have no health care insurance, and we need people on Wall Street to do something about it." Signs blared out various messages, like "From New Orleans to Iraq, Stop the War," and "Bring the Troops Home Now." One woman wrapped herself in an American flag, but in place of stars, Old Glory was adorned with corporate logos, like General Electric's ( GE) NBC, McDonald's ( MCD) and Pepsi ( PEP). Shares of ownership in those companies were being traded frenetically on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, just one block away.
Traders stepped outside the exchange to smoke cigarettes and watch the rabble with looks ranging from curiosity and amusement to derision. "Those people are freaking out," said one, who declined to be identified. "They sort of make fools of themselves with this kind of stuff." Whatever distance exists between traders and social activists, media polls show that a growing majority of Americans are losing confidence in the federal government. Casualties are mounting in Iraq, and the relief effort for Hurricane Katrina victims continues to be botched. Does this have any effect on the stock market? "It doesn't really show up in the market," said Barry Hyman, equity market strategist with Ehrenkrantz King Nussbaum. "In fact, it's possible to say that the spending for the war effort has actually helped the economy through the increase in the government-spending part of the GDP. Then again, the war contributes to a deficit that is getting very large, and that's a big part of the bear case that a lot of people make for the long-term health of the economy." Steve Millies, a railroad worker and labor activist who volunteered to help the coalition, said the economic arguments about the war are irrelevant. He called people who work inside the stock exchange "bourgeois pigs," and conceded that they probably would greet the rally's message with a tin ear. "The majority of the people that we're getting through to here aren't traders," Millies said. "They're the people who build the buildings around here, push the carts and clean up the mess. These are the people who understand what we're getting at here. There's no even playing field, and the people at the top are trying to make it as uneven as possible." On Wall Street, these sentiments are often viewed with scorn by hard-working financial types who observe the job and wealth creation powered by the capital markets first hand. However, the belief that certain economic policies, -- like the Bush administration's controversial tax cuts on capital gains -- are skewed unnecessarily toward the wealthy has been voiced by such capitalist superstars as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
Nevertheless, with the Dow closing up 107 points Thursday, the other rally wasn't finding many converts outside the exchange. Said a trader: "I really don't think very many people around here are taking this seriously." Walking the line between free markets and free speech is the age-old struggle in the U.S. Prominent economists often have said one cannot exist without the other. On Thursday, they were forced to coexist together on the same street.