With a doctorate in pharmacology, 31-year-old Nicole Dunn of Omaha may not fit some people's image of a protester.
But she has become active in Occupy Omaha, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread around the globe. She said it is not dependent on charismatic leaders — or any leaders at all.
"This is a rising of the people," she said Wednesday. "The emphasis lies in the many, the millions speaking up."
Dunn said those involved in Occupy Omaha — which police estimated drew 900 to 1,000 for an Oct. 15 gathering downtown — include "the full spectrum" of political beliefs and occupations.
The movement that started in New York often says, "We are the 99 percent," as opposed to the 1 percent that the protesters say are dominating the economy. Dunn has hand-lettered many signs, including one that emphasizes to passers-by: "YOU are the 99 percent!"
"Almost everyone honks their horns positively," she said, "especially blue-collar workers, cabdrivers, tow truck drivers. Police officers wave."
A 1999 graduate of Marian High School in Omaha, Dunn attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha and studied backstage theater tech before switching gears to pharmacology. In 2006, she earned a doctorate from Creighton University.
She worked as a retail pharmacist in Arizona and moved back to Omaha two months ago to be close to her extended family and her godchildren. Arizona has warmer weather, but she said she loves Omaha because of "the warmth of the people."
She is studying for her pharmacology licensure test in Nebraska and intends to return to her profession.
She is unhappy that friends have run up large education debts without good job prospects. Dunn herself had a $200,000 debt.
By taking her father's advice to "live like a college student for five years," she has whittled that down to $80,000, which she calls "still daunting." But in this economy, many are struggling to pay off debt.
Those in the Occupy movement are frustrated about lots of things, including high unemployment. Critics say the movement hasn't articulated clear goals. Dunn said hers include higher taxes on corporations and the extremely wealthy.
She is not totally against capitalism, she said, but believes the system needs more "social responsibility." Elected leaders need to listen more to the people, she said, as opposed to just the most powerful.
A CBS/New York Times poll of 1,650 American adults from Oct. 19-24 (with a margin of error of 3 percentage points plus or minus) found that 43 percent agreed with the Occupy movement and 27 percent opposed it. Thirty percent had no opinion.
"Changes are going to happen," Dunn said. "Eventually, politicians will have to step up and say more than, 'I understand your grievances.' They'll have to say, 'I support your grievances.'"
She hasn't slept outside overnight as several in the movement have at the downtown Gene Leahy Mall. This week they have moved to a privately owned vacant lot at 24th and Farnam Streets, where four tents were set up Wednesday night behind a sign saying, "Honk if you can't afford a lobbyist."
Earlier in the evening, about 25 people held a meeting at the Leahy Mall and agreed to begin another Occupy Omaha downtown march from there at 11 a.m. Saturday. The public is invited to take part.
Dunn said the Occupy movement is slowly gaining more followers around the world, and she doesn't expect it to fade.
"I wasn't alive during the anti-war movement of the 1960s, or the civil rights movement," she said. "But I feel like this is something that's never happened before. We are peaceful. We are fighting for everyone. And we won't quit."
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