Laurie Penny: Working out what they want in the shadow of skyscrapers

This is a resistance movement that has gone global, and it has done so without any defined leadership or central set of demands

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At the nerve centre of global capitalism, 23-year old Julia, who failed to find a job after graduating, has set up camp with a gaggle of new friends on some makeshift mattresses. "I want to get out of this country, because I feel like maybe it's failing a bit," she says. "That American dream that we've all bought into, I feel like it's not really here anymore, and it might be somewhere else." That Julia is wearing an enormous, fluffy orange bear-hat with boggly eyes detracts only slightly from her message.

The Occupy Wall Street camp, called to protest against what members call "the 1 per cent" of American society who have "stolen all the money" has now been in place for two weeks. Its chosen location is the deeply symbolic Liberty Plaza, in the shadow of the skyscrapers of Wall Street. An eclectic mixture of hardened activists, school students, union members and laid-off workers of all ages and backgrounds have assembled here with sleeping bags, and numbers have swelled to 2,000 after videos of police assaulting demonstrators with pepper spray went viral online.

"Fight crime, not freedom!" chant the occupiers at police officers around the square. After a hands-off week, this weekend's 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge suggested that the NYPD was cracking down with a vengeance.

As protesters drift back into Liberty Plaza, sodden with rainwater and full of adrenaline, they dash to the makeshift media centre to file reports and try to locate their friends, many of whom are still in plastic cuffs on police buses. A schoolboy holds up a sign reading "Where's my future?". This is a resistance movement that has gone global, and it has done so without any defined leadership or central set of demands.

"I think that's a strength," says Bobby Andrews, 52, a New York sheet-metal worker for 32 years who has been at the occupation daily after work. "Protests aren't new, but this type of organisation is brand-new, I'm pretty sure, for everybody. They're intentionally not developing in a hierarchy. If they had, it would have too narrowly defined what's happening here."

Holly, also 52, says: "Not everyone has the same agenda, but everybody knows they want a change. They're not quite sure what to do or where to start – but they're here."

Whether that's enough to bring the change, only time will tell.

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