The Occupy Wall Street protest, which has been going on for two weeks, is now rapidly gaining steam and publicity - albeit not all of it positive. Over the weekend, a massive 700 people were arrested in New York after a march on the Brooklyn Bridge crossed over from the pedestrian walkway onto the roadway, blocking traffic. In the last few days, shocking images have shown what seem to be peaceful protesters pepper-sprayed by police officers -- begging the question, whatever happened to freedom of speech?
The protest is now fast spreading to other cities too: In San Francisco, two dozen people camped out on Sunday outside the Federal Reserve branch. Their posters said, "Arrest the fat cats." In Chicago, protesters occupied a sidewalk outside the city's Federal Reserve bank for the 10th consecutive day.
According to the organizers, the Occupy Wall Street protests are inspired by the Spring 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Egypt. But while the Egyptian protests were clear in their scope - to get rid of Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak and overhaul the massive inequality of the Egyptian political and social system - the Occupy Wall Street protest is much more vague in what it hopes to achieve, both in the eyes of the protesters themselves, and onlookers.
One Wall Street Journal reader commented today on an article about the protests: "And they are protesting what?" Another reader replied: "They're protesting 'greed'. They also seem to have no idea of what they want."
The reader has a point. The protesters are definitely not clear about their agenda. In an article in today's New York Times quoted a few words of advice one woman gave to a new protester. "It doesn't matter what you're protesting," she said. "Just protest."
Ultimately, the protesters' grievances seem to be largely aimed at big corporations. A couple of recurrent themes are unemployment, and the fact that bank executives received huge bonuses after receiving taxpayer bailouts.
So do they have a point? Well, they just might have a point about bonuses and severances. Last week, I wrote a blog about the fact that golden handshakes are still the norm on Wall Street.
Recently, Robert Kelly, chief executive of Bank of New York Mellon was awarded $17.2 million in cash and stock after being fired. In the tech industry, Yahoo! gave chief executive Carol Bartz a $10 million severance package, while HP just rewarded ousted chief Leo Apotheker with $13.2 million.
Yet despite a general outcry at the height of the financial crisis against massive pay packages, few investors have so far taken an active stand. Only 38 of the largest 3,000 companies had their executive pay plans voted down, and even then, the votes are nonbinding, according to the Times.
So is there that much that investors, or protesters, can actually do to change things? Well, it's a tough challenge, according to Wall Street experts.
"It is no secret that board of director oversight of public companies is an 'insider's game'," says Matt Samelson, principal at Woodbine Associates. "Boards and management are often exceptionally close which limits a board's ability to oversee and - if necessary - discipline or remove a CEO. This much talked about relationship is one of the reasons that bloated pay packages exist regardless of firm performance," he says.
Maybe the protesters will help rekindle the 2009 fire against exorbitant bonuses and golden handshakes.
But for that to happen, they will have to be much more focused about their grievances. It's never enough for protesters - or for investors - to just say, "We're not happy about stuff."
Then again, even if they are more focused, it seems that it will be a long, hard road for change to really happen. Especially if consensus is still low among boards of directors and in other hallways of power, that change really is a necessity.