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NAPLES — The Naples arm of a worldwide protest began Saturday afternoon as a quiet gathering among five people in Cambier Park. Then 15 and suddenly 50 stood in a circle, voicing their frustrations and marveling at the momentum of a global movement.
Eventually more than 300 marched through the streets as part of Occupy Naples to protest corporate greed.
As the group grew, they were careful not to talk over one another. But passions often got the better of them.
“Our system is corrupted by special interest groups, lobbyists and campaign financiers and until we get our government back, we are at their mercy,” said Naples resident Bill Van Arsdale.
When the group at Cambier Park met up with another growing bunch at City Hall, the volume increased. They practiced chants for the 5 p.m. march, ignoring grumbles from observers and shouts of “losers” and “jerks” from the few who drove past.
“They’re talking about a revolution,” said Naples resident Larry Ryan, 80. “That scares me. This is a nice community. And (my wife and I) believe Wall Street is a good thing. Corporations are a good thing.”
Shortly after 5 p.m., Occupy Naples began their walk down Park Street and onto Fifth Avenue South, flanked by Naples Police officers who estimated a crowd of 300 to 400 at its peak.
They marched slowly. They chanted infrequently.
“Four rooms not four houses,” yelled Christina Giordano, 41, of Marco Island.
They drew curious glances but did not interrupt 5th Avenue shoppers or diners.
“I wondered out loud today if there was an Occupy Naples,” said Mike Wolters, 70, of Kansas City, who ate with his wife Connie outside Bistro 821 as marchers squeezed past their table.
The full force of Occupy Naples started to resemble the national demonstrations at the intersection of Fifth and Ninth avenues.
They spread out over the four curbs. They waved their signs and chanted. Dozens of drivers reciprocated their enthusiasm by honking, waving and giving thumbs up.
“I did not expect this,” said Suzanne Cherney, 69, of Naples. “This is a rich place and we’re getting thumbs up. I thought there wouldn’t be anyone here but I said ‘Oh well, I’ll make my own sign anyway.’”
Sgt. Dave Sugrue of the Naples Police Department said those gathered did not need to get a permit for Saturday’s event provided they stuck to the sidewalks and did not disrupt traffic flow. Officers directed traffic at intersections and saw the group along their march. Sugrue expected a peaceful event. Arrests and injuries were more frequent in other U.S. cities and abroad as violence broke out in Rome. Fort Myers protesters, 300 strong, decided to camp out overnight. About 1,000 met up in Miami and 1,500 in Orlando.
Even with the strong attendance at the Naples event, critics had a common complaint: What’s their goal?
“Are these people on the same side?” said John Saling, 63, of Naples as he gestured to the demonstrators standing across the intersection and next to him. “What is their definition of justice? I think a lot of people are pissed off, but they aren’t pissed off about the same things.”
The Occupy Naples demonstrators addressed the jumbled message.
“We want to schedule meetings with some frequency and come up with a solid platform of what we’re about,” Van Arsdale, 59, said.
Participants said the string of worldwide protests prove this movement is not a fad.
“I think this is possibly the movement where people say ‘I’ve had enough,’” said Naples resident John Pack, 62. “It will reach a point when the ‘haves’ are taking the lives of the ‘have-nots.’”
While the demonstrations seemed slightly out of place in Naples -- surrounded by palm trees, outdoor dining and the not-so-infrequent Mercedes -- participants said that lended more strength to their message.
“Naples doesn’t run itself, said Mike Brewer, 42, of Naples. “Anyone who owns a store here feels the pinch and it used to be just a pinch, and now it’s a huge bite out of your butt.”
Van Arsdale echoed that sentiment.
“We have a wealthy population and a great working class population. On this side of (U.S.) 41 everything is hunky dory, but quite frankly, it’s hitting the greater part of society, the middle class,” he said.
Ellen Hemrick of Naples is exactly who Van Arsdale is talking about. The 42-year-old has her master’s degree in speech pathology, holds a steady job, raises her 2-year-old on her own but can’t get ahead.
“I feel like the American dream has passed me by,” she said. “I have to rent a house, I have no money in the bank, I work six days a week. I’m very aware that this system has left regular people behind. And I’m not against capitalism -- I just want it to be fair.”