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Financial District takes measure of the protests

Henry Helgeson, founder of a financial firm, said he is disheartened by the Occupy Boston protests he sees every day. “I’m someone who is at the epicenter of perceived evilness.’’ Henry Helgeson, founder of a financial firm, said he is disheartened by the Occupy Boston protests he sees every day. “I’m someone who is at the epicenter of perceived evilness.’’ (Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe)
By Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / October 14, 2011

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When Occupy Boston protesters complain about greedy bankers, corporate jets, and the wealthiest Americans, Henry Helgeson feels as if he is one of the prime targets.

Helgeson, 37, said he is not only in the top 1 percent of American earners, but also founded a financial company and an airplane charter business. He said the protesters don’t seem to care that he built his wealth from scratch, creating hundreds of jobs along the way.

“It’s a little disheartening,’’ said Helgeson, who drives by the protesters every day to and from his office at Merchant Warehouse Inc., a credit card processing firm in downtown Boston. “I’m someone who is at the epicenter of perceived evilness.’’

Helgeson’s perspective is part of the view from the other side of the protests aimed at the financial industry, where many depend on banking, investment, and other services for a living. This week in Boston’s Financial District, where protesters have built their tent city, the reaction to the demonstration ran the gamut - from anger to admiration.

Some praised the protesters for their gumption. Some said they were just ignoring them. But others said their industry has been unfairly blamed for the nation’s financial woes.

Christine Bizzaro, 43, a senior banker for a Citizens Bank branch across from the protest, said she was offended by many of the signs targeting bankers. She was unemployed for 13 months. Then she found a job at a bank.

In addition to jobs, banks provide vital services that almost everyone uses.

“What would you do without a bank?’’ Bizzaro asked. “You’re going to have your boss pay you in cash? Because you can’t cash a check anywhere without a bank.’’

The protesters have occupied a small park across from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston for about two weeks, one of scores of protests across the country that are rallying against what participants see as corporate greed, income inequality, and other economic problems. Except for a clash with police early Tuesday morning - when police arrested about 140 people for squatting on a second section of land on the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway - the demonstration has been largely peaceful.

Devon Pendleton, a spokesman for the protesters, said participants are prepared to occupy the square indefinitely, even though they have not settled on a unified list of goals. Pendleton said the situation was best summed up with a sign he saw one activist holding: “It’s not that we’re disorganized. It’s that America has a lot of problems.’’

Frank Spindler, 30, a strategist for an investment management firm, said some protesters had valid concerns, adding that he hoped the demonstrations would spur politicians in Washington to stop bickering and address the nation’s problems.

“A lot of people are frustrated for good reason,’’ said Spindler,who works in his company’s Boston office. “People want jobs.’’

He said he also understood why people, many unemployed and struggling, are angry about the huge salaries on Wall Street and in the financial industry. But, he said, not everyone in the financial industry is a “fat cat.’’

John Holland, who handles regulatory compliance for investment advisers, said he is just trying to support his family like everyone else. He’s married with three children.

“If it wasn’t for Wall Street, I’d be out of a job,’’ said Holland, 40, of Westwood.

But many said they were puzzled about what the protesters want and what they hope to achieve.

Jennifer Eustance, 29, is a trader and analyst for Emerson Investment Management, a Boston firm that manages money for small institutions and people with more than $1 million in assets. Eustance, who handles both stocks and bonds, said the bus she takes to work passes by the protesters’ camp every day, but she is still not sure how many people are there. At 8 a.m., she said, most are still asleep in their tents.

“It’s seems to be pretty unorganized as far as their objectives,’’ said Eustance, a Boston College graduate. “I don’t really understand what is getting accomplished by them camping out.’’

Charles Engle, 25, who works in the internal audit group for a Boston financial services company, said he understood the frustration with the sour economy, but he, too, was unclear about the protesters’ goals.

“I get that they don’t want to appoint a leader and make any official statements to get pigeonholed,’’ said Engle, who passes by the protest daily. “Overall, I don’t know how effective it is going to be.’’

And how effective will efforts be to revive the economy if entrepreneurs who take risks and create jobs are demonized for their wealth, said Helgeson, the founder of two companies. Today, he said, his earnings put him in the top 1 percent of all Americans. He was probably in the bottom 10 percent 13 years ago, when he started Merchant Warehouse with a college friend in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

He said he often did not have money to pay rent for his apartment. And when his decade-old Dodge broke down, he had to watch it get towed away and impounded, because he didn’t have money to repair it.

Today, Merchant Warehouse has 250 employees in Boston, many of whom are about the same age of the protesters, and 400 independent contractors. Helgeson said he also cofounded 26 North Aviation Inc., a jet charter firm in Allentown, Pa., that provides jobs for mechanics and pilots.

“These are jobs that wouldn’t be around if we didn’t build the company,’’ Hegelson said. “I see a lot of signs that are anti-greed, but that is capitalism. People try to make money.’’

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.