Riverhead banjo player Warren McKnight stopped in his tracks Thursday morning on Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan as Zuccotti Park came into view about a block away.
Dressed in a yellow raincoat with a banjo slung over his left arm, he straightened his cap and squinted his eyes.
As he neared the park he looked around, wide-eyed, at the sea of blue and green tents filling the public space. Some people were waking up in sleeping bags to the morning’s rain. Others went in and out of a large cardboard structure with a sign that read “Library.” A few walked around the perimeter of the park picking up trash.
“These people are in it for the long haul,” Mr. McKnight said.
Mr. McKnight, 67, was joining the ever-growing group of protestors involved in Occupy Wall Street, an activist group that has been protesting for more than a month now and stands against corporate greed, social inequality and “the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process,” according to its website, OccupyWallSt.org.
“This is what happens when you shaft too many people and you don’t give them work,” Mr. McKnight said as he approached the park.
Mr. McKnight, who is well-known locally for playing his banjo on the streets of Riverhead, stood near dozens of protestors and spoke out against large corporations, but his main goal, he said, was to raise their spirits through song.
He strummed “This Land is Your Land,” on his banjo and sang, stopping mid-verse at times to let out a jovial laugh.
“He’s bringing the sunshine,” said Ahmaz Hevahn, a protestor from Brooklyn who had been sleeping in a nearby tent for the past week and a half.
Mr. Hevahn joined Mr. Knight in song and a group of about a dozen onlookers quickly surrounded them.
An automobile parts salesman who works as a street musician for extra income, Mr. McKnight said he understands the frustration of the people huddled in their tents and holding signs of protest.
One man arrived at Zuccotti park early Thursday morning after spending time at the Occupy protests in New Orleans, Kansas City, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.
The 28-year-old, who declined to give his name to any media outlets, said he was left jobless and homeless after a tornado destroyed his hometown of Joplin, Missouri this past May. The tornado took the lives of several of his close friends, he said.
“We lost everything to a natural disaster and the government can’t help rebuild my town but they can bail out big businesses?” he said. “Why am I on the street? Why am I homeless? I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Alex Moore, a 22-year-old originally from Alabama said he quit his landscaping job in Washington, D.C. last week to come demonstrate. He said he felt trapped despite being employed and hoped his protests would reduce the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
“It’s waking people up,” Mr. Moore said.
After Mr. McKnight left Zuccotti Park, he defended the protestors in the group, which has been criticized for lacking clear goals, and insisted their demonstrations will make progress in the long run.
“When every little person does their own little thing in a little way, it can change the world,” he asserted.
He’s sure he accomplished his short-term goal that morning, he said.
“I had people join in and sing and play their instruments and dance — that’s my lot in life,” he said. “It’s my privilege to try to make people happy and that’s what I did.”