Tired and cold on Wall Street, Laurie Penny finds an America she thought was lost

On a cold, wet Sunday morning, Manhattan's financial district is full of zombies. Halloween is weeks away, but members of the Occupy Wall Street protest, which has been in place for over two weeks in Liberty Plaza, have dressed up in facepaint as the "zombies of capitalism" and their presence in the large group meetings, where collective issues are shouted as one by 400 excited activists, can only be unnerving to anyone working weekends in the skyscrapers looming over the protest. From the windows of Wall Street, it must look like a scene from the Resident Evil games.

The protest, which was formed as a mirror of the square and university occupations in Egypt, Greece, Spain and Britain has one simple aim: to demonstrate to the "1 per cent" of American society, who control 40 per cent of the nation's wealth, that the other "99 per cent" are still here, still human, and increasingly angry. One of the "zombies" is Max, 26, who works as a carpenter in upstate New York "basically, making beautiful homes for rich people". Max has become one of the unofficial spokespeople for this occupation, which "started out as a movement to draw attention to the fact that the top 1 per cent of the country and of the world economically controls so much of the wealth and the resources of this world," he says. "The bankers write the laws, the lobbyists write the laws, and they don't write them for us."

On 2 October, merely raising this issue in a peaceful public forum saw 700 of Max's co-protesters kettled, cuffed and bussed to jail from Brooklyn Bridge, in the largest mass-arrest in US history. Numbers here have swelled since initial videos of police pepper-spraying female protesters went viral online at the end of September, and the subsequent crackdowns have confirmed the occupiers' conviction that the police are there to protect the "1 per cent" from the rest of society.

Much of the press has dismissed these protesters as a bunch of overprivileged, middle-class hippies, but walking through the Plaza, I meet people from all walks of American life - laid-off middle-aged workers, a serving marine, union activists and young black men from the Bronx helping out the media team in its makeshift tarpaulin tent. Behind the drum circle, where activists with floppy clothes and floppy hair who might have teleported here from a flower power party in 1968 are chanting, "Keep the fire burning, deep inside your heart", I meet an elegant young woman in a pinstriped suit.

She has worked in one of the nearby offices for eight years and holds a neatly printed sign: "Wall Street workers for realistic fiscal reform - there are more of us than you think."

“We've been watching the protesters here for the last week or two, watching the marches go past from the 50th floor, and almost unanimously people empathise with the general sentiment of discontent," says the young derivatives worker, who cannot give her name for fear of losing her job. "Everyone recognises that what happened in 2008 was a real problem and that [the system] needs real reform and change."

What do they want, this eclectic cast of characters? The point that much of the mainstream media has missed in its rush to criticise the occupation for not having any clear "demands" is the space itself is very much its own demand, a demand for a new kind of society set up provocatively in the uncaring shadow of Wall Street, the symbolic heart of free-market capitalism. "I'm here to learn about how to build a new community," says Max. "We've essentially built a little town right in the middle of Wall Street where people are fed, clothed, housed, taken care of."

The atmosphere here is uniquely welcoming. As night draws in and the rain begins to beat down, the zombies begin to shamble more authentically, cold and worn-out from two weeks of sleeping in the open, their make-up worn and smeared. Jetlagged and full of flu, I stumble to the medical centre, where I am provided with a warm coat, hot coffee, medicine and a hug: a far cry from the pitilessness of America I'd come to believe in. Despite the cold, the exhaustion and the arrests, the occupiers of Wall Street aren't going anywhere.

“My whole generation has kind of been conditioned to believe that we don't have a voice, we don't have the ability to change anything," says Max. "It's cool to believe again."

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression