By Lauren Tara LaCapra
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Since the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off last month, big banks and their employees seem to have made a point of ignoring it, with some privately writing it off as no more than a badly organized nuisance.
But as the protest has expanded from a few hundred people in a little park in Lower Manhattan to thousands across at least two dozen cities, gaining support from labor unions, celebrities and politicians, it has become harder to ignore.
One Wall Street banker described the protesters as "a bunch of whiny people who are lazy or incompetent and have nothing to do with their time." He also said he was concerned the rhetoric could escalate to violence. "Who's to say they won't storm NYSE or throw something at the window of Goldman Sachs, that in turn inspires them to grab an investment banker and throttle him?"
Some Wall Street employees who initially dismissed the protests as disorganized and unimportant are also starting to worry that they may lead to punitive policies in Washington, such as higher taxes for the wealthy.
"I think this thing will continue to grow," said Robert Siegfried, a partner who works with financial clients at the communications firm Kekst & Co. "Wall Street is just a term here that represents the huge disparity in income levels and distribution of wealth in this country. For anyone to dismiss it, that's a terrible underestimation of the sentiment behind this phenomena."
On Tuesday, protesters planned to demonstrate at the homes of big-money Wall Street types, including JPMorgan Chase & Co Chief Executive Jamie Dimon and hedge fund billionaire John Paulson, the latest salvo in a protest that has now entered its fourth week. Demonstrators in New York have dressed as zombies eating Monopoly money, stormed the Brooklyn Bridge and faced arrests and pepper spray along the way.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein canceled a planned lecture this week at Barnard College, a liberal arts school in Manhattan, as students prepared to protest his appearance.
Goldman has been painted by some lawmakers and activists as the epitome of Wall Street greed following investigations into its actions leading up to the financial crisis. Blankfein, who has headed the firm since 2006, has frequently been the target of populist rage.
Last week, an Occupy Wall Street protester marched with a gory image of Blankfein's head impaled on a stick, according to the financial blog Business Insider. In late-September, an anonymous hacker posted his address and other personal information onto the website pastebin.
Goldman spokesman Stephen Cohen declined to comment on the protests and said Blankfein canceled the lecture because of a scheduling conflict.
Richard Plansky, a senior managing director at the security firm Kroll, said the protests have led to heightened awareness among financial executives whom Kroll protects.
"It's fair to say they're concerned," he said, noting that there has been a greater focus on security for Wall Street executives in the aftermath of the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
The New York City Police Department has kept banks in the loop about protester activity by sending out email blasts to its Lower Manhattan Security Initiative and Midtown Manhattan Security Initiative, according to sources familiar with the matter. The emails tell landlords and occupants in those areas, including large banks like Goldman, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America Corp, where protesters are headed and whether there are any unusual risks.
Morgan Stanley declined to comment on the protests. A spokesman for Bank of America said employee and customer safety was a top priority.
Witold Henisz, an associate professor of management at The Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania who has studied the public reaction to the financial crisis, said banks' response to anti-Wall Street sentiment had been woefully inadequate so far.
"Leadership from the heads of some of these banks would be a powerful signal and it's just not there," said Henisz. "They're putting it all in terms of, 'You can't tell me what to pay my workers, you can't regulate me, that's not the role of government, the role of government is to stay in the background.' Well, where would they be without the bailouts?"
Some bankers said they understood the frustration with widespread unemployment but felt they had been targeted unfairly by the populist masses.
"I sympathize with them to a degree, because there is corporate greed and corporations can suck the soul out of your body," said Matthew Miller, founder of foreign exchange consulting firm Shift Forex, who lives and works near Wall Street.
Ken Polcari, a managing director at ICAP Securities on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, said financial workers were also having "a hard time," with widespread layoffs and a weak business outlook. "That's why I think you haven't heard so much from the financial services industries," Polcari said.
(Additional reporting by Rodrigo Campos in New York and Rick Rothacker in Charlotte, North Carolina; Editing by Claudia Parsons)