Lewis: Anger at Wall Street Easy to Organize

A man on the corner of Jackson and LaSalle handed me a flier: "Occupy Chicago: Standing Together Against Corporate Greed."

He was Clem Balanoff, 58 years old, chief of staff for the Cook County Clerk's Office. This is how he chose to spend his lunch hour: assisting a movement that saw about 700 people arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge over the weekend.

"I remember demonstrating in 1963 when I was 10 years old," he said "My parents brought me to Washington D.C. to march with Dr. [Martin Luther] King. In 1967 and 1968, we were in Chicago and Washington D.C. demonstrating against the war in Vietnam."

History smiled on those two movements. Balanoff believes it will smile on this one, too. The reason is simple: Banks got bailouts. People got foreclosures and pink slips.

"Organizing people to fight in their own best interest is how you win," said Balanoff, who grew up on the city's southeast side, among union steel workers.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that began Sept. 17 in front of the New York Stock Exchange spread quickly to other cities, with social media prodding America's disenfranchised into the streets. Folks I found protesting in Chicago came from all walks of life, connected mostly by a vague sense that the economy wasn't dealing with them fairly anymore.

Jen Renstrom, 42 years old, from Crete, Ill., wielded a sign that read "A corporation isn't a person until Texas executes one." She took her children -- ages 11, 12 and 15 -- out of school to protest by her side.

"I think it's important that they know how America works," she said. "They'll get a better education right here today than they do in their schools."

Protester Chris Fogarty, a 76-year-old retired engineer, protested beside his wife, who prompted horn blasts from passing cars with a sign that read "Honk to Indict the Banksters."

"We saw the whole world economy taken down by a couple of dozen criminals in the Wall Street banks," Fogarty said. "Many of them are now in government when they should be in prison."

"Hey, get out of your [bleeping] cubicle you [bleep]," a young woman shouted at a passerby in a suit who expressed his disagreement with her sign, which read, simply, "corporate greed." It was Muyassar Kurdi, a 22-year-old student, poet and musician.

"I've been pissed since the day I was born and subject to this mess," she told me. "Worrying about what you are going to eat or where you are going to live is not something you should have to worry about."

Caroline Herzenberg, 79 years old, of Chicago, wielded a sign that read "Don't privatize Social Security."

"We need to put people above profits, at least until we get out of this mess that we're in," she said.

Michael Lundt, a 22-year-old ballroom dance instructor from Rheinlander, Wisc., told me he is trying to make the world a better place for his mother. She has gone back to school, retooling for a job in health care. But he worries there may not even be health-care jobs when she gets out.

"Somebody yelled I should get my hair cut. That I should get a job," Lundt said. "I've got two jobs, and I'm donating this hair to Locks of Love. I'm out here for my family. I'm out here for my friends."

There are too many people with too many problems with corporate America to end this protest any time soon. Veteran protester Balanoff says he can feel it building.

"I see a lot of young people out here," he said. "For a lot of people, it's their first demonstration, the first time they are getting involved. To me, that's very exciting.

"My grandfather many years ago said that when you raise the standard of living for people on the bottom, you raise them for everyone," he said. "If we're going to get our economy back on track, that's the way it's going to happen."

For now, Balanoff says he's just doing his part to make sure more people join the crowd.

"Four of us came out of the office today," he said. "We're going to have 14 tomorrow."

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at al.lewis@dowjones.com or tellittoal.com.)