Seasoned Activists Critique Wall Street Protests

NEW YORK (AP) — To veterans of past social movements, the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York and spread nationwide have been a welcome response to corporate greed and the enfeebled economy. But whether the energy of protesters can be tapped to transform the political climate remains to be seen.

“There’s a difference between an emotional outcry and a movement,” said Andrew Young, who worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a strategist during the civil rights movement and served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “This is an emotional outcry. The difference is organization and articulation.”

The nearly four-week-old protest that began in a lower Manhattan park has taken on a semblance of organization and a coherent message has largely emerged: That “the 99 percent” who struggle daily as the economy shudders, employment stagnates and medical costs rise are suffering as the 1 percent who control the vast majority of the economy’s wealth continues to prosper.

Labor unions and students joined the protest on Wednesday, swelling the ranks for a day into the thousands, and lending the occupation a surge of political clout and legitimacy. President Barack Obama said Thursday that the protesters were “giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works;” some Republicans have been seeking to cast Occupy Wall Street as class warfare.

The growing cohesiveness and profile of the protest have caught the attention of public intellectuals and veterans of past social movements.

“I think if the idea of the movement is to raise the discontent that a lot of people from different walks of life and different persuasions have on the economic inequity in this country — it’s been perfect,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who plans to broadcast his nationally syndicated radio show from the park on Monday and five days later lead a jobs march in Washington, D.C.

He said he felt it was necessary to be there to talk about how blacks and Latinos are also buffeted by the economic difficulties.

“I think it is more a movement to show dissatisfaction. I think that is effective and useful,” he said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said the protest was a growing success. “There is a legitimacy to their demands for economic reconstruction,” he said, with the analysis of the problems in the economic system “dead on,” as he wrote in a commentary.

He said the protest could become a powerful movement if “it remains disciplined, focused and nonviolent — and turns some of their pain into voting power.”

History is littered with social movements that failed to emerge as political forces to create lasting change — including mass labor protests to end unemployment and to call attention to job injustices, said Immanuel Ness, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the editor of the “Encyclopedia of American Social Movements.”

He compared it to the tea party movement, saying both were raising concerns about general anxieties over the economic system.

“The messaging is directed at working people,” he said. “Both the tea party and Occupy Wall Street are arguing that something needs to change. The question is, What is the source of the problem?”

In the late 1990s, a global movement to reject corporate-driven globalization took to the streets, most famously in the U.S. by shutting down the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. In spite of several actions aimed at summits by world institutions, the “movement of movements,” as it soon came to be known, faded away.

Much like the Occupy Wall Street protests, one of the main criticisms was that it lacked a cohesive message.

Todd Gitlin, an author and former president of the Students for a Democratic Society in the mid-1960s, attended Wednesday’s rally and said the emerging movement was different.

The demands of the protesters were crystallizing around calls to tax the wealthy to address inequality, he said.

“‘We are the 99 percent’ is a clear message,” he said. “It is unfair and in fact disgusting that the American political economy is run for the benefit of a plutocracy. I don’t see how that can be misunderstood.”

But he said the movement was still evolving and it remains to be seen whether it can evolve as an effective organization. “This is the new order of movements. They’re informal and ragged, and yet if they’re well-timed, they touch a nerve and get translated by actually existing political forces,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-highest ranking Democrat in the House, is convinced the movement will bring about political change.

“I consider this movement really to be the most heartwarming thing I’ve seen since President Obama’s election,” he told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday. “I hope nobody gets discouraged. I think the impact could be very significant on the psyche of the country as well as on the disposition of members of Congress.”

He disagrees that it lacks a coherent message and said many of the people he marched with during the civil rights era likely wouldn’t have been able to put into words their reasons or frustrations, either.

“They all knew something was wrong,” he said. “They knew that it just wasn’t right to have to get up out of your seat and give some white person your seat on a bus. They may not be able to explain to you exactly why I’m out here marching; they may not even be able to relate that lunch counter to that city bus or to a ride on the train or to walking down the sidewalk having to step off the sidewalk when approached by a white person, which was the order of the day.”

Ambassador Young said that to be effective, the protests need a serious discussion component and that leadership needs to emerge.

“I can understand people being frustrated with Wall Street, but this just needs to be more than people voicing their frustrations and a few leaders having their 15 minutes of fame,” he said. “It is important for those who have thought through their values and objections to somehow be heard.”

Naomi Klein, whose writings helped shape the anti-neoliberal globalization movement that emerged in the late 1990s, made an appearance Thursday at Zuccotti Park, where she delivered a speech to the protesters. In a version of the talk posted on her website, she offered praise and a warning.

“It is a fact of the information age that too many movements spring up like beautiful flowers but quickly die off,” she said. “It’s because they don’t have roots. And they don’t have long-term plans for how they are going to sustain themselves. So when storms come, they get washed away.”

What do you think of the Occupy Wall Street protest? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

  • MsRana

    It’s pretty simple. All Occupy Wall Street protest signs should read:

    “Bankers, Politicians, Mortgage Holders, Greedy Corporations and the thieving rich say to us: Let them eat cake! We say: Off with their heads!”

    Let it be known I said it first because that says it all!

  • Henry

    This movement needs an inside champion and Buffett could be the man.

    Warren Buffett used to be a reasonable guy, blasting the rich for waging “class warfare” against the rest of us and deriding derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction.” These days, he’s just another financier crony, lobbying Congress against Wall Street reform, and demanding a light touch on—get this—derivatives! Buffet even went so far as to buy the support of Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, for a filibuster on reform. Buffett has also been an outspoken defender of Goldman Sachs against the recent SEC fraud allegations, allegations that stem from fancy products called “synthetic collateralized debt obligations”—the financial weapons of mass destruction Buffett once criticized.

    See, it just so happens that both Buffet’s reputation and his bottom line are tied to an investment he made in Goldman Sachs in 2008, when he put $10 billion of his money into the bank. Buffett has acknowledged that he only made the deal because he believed Goldman would be bailed out by the U.S. government. Which, in fact, turned out to be the case, multiple times. When the government rescued AIG, the $12.9 billion it funneled to Goldman was to cover derivatives bets Goldman had placed with the mega-insurer. Buffett was right about derivatives—they are WMD so far as the real economy is concerned. But they’ve enabled Warren Buffett to get even richer with taxpayer help, and now he’s fighting to make sure we don’t shut down his own casino.

  • Meme Meyagi

    what is done about 7 million mooslime terrorists living in usa?

  • Ira

    FIrst it was let’s give every kid a trophy whether they are good at sports or not robbing the real athletes of earned recognition, then give them a passing grade when it wasn’t earned pushing them through a system where some kids worked hard for those grades, now lets reward those who haven’t earned their job/their money etc… a piece of the pie. Sounds like the story of the Little Red Hen. Yeah, tax fairly but remember how life should work, earn your way not take it from others. And we wonder why this contry is slipping

    • TomNJ

      I agree 100%

    • Danny

      It’s not about giving money away. It’s about taxing fairly. It’s about removing the loopholes that allow the rich to pay far less in taxes than the middle class, which is being taxed into poverty. It’s not called socialism or communism. It’s called a democracy, where the majority rules, not the 1% that make big ‘contributions’ to an elected official so he can get his way.

      • Guillermo Vargas

        @Danny, You are just plain wrong when you say that the rich “pay far less in taxes than the middle class”. According to the Congressional Budget Office people in the top quintile (20%) pay a larger share of all Federal Taxes (about 75%) than all of the rest of the population. See this chart and learn from it:

        And regardless of what Warren Buffet says, high income workers pay a higher rate for ALL Federal taxes than low income workers. See this chart from the Congressional Budget Office:

        Now that you know the facts will you change your mind?

  • AM

    Thye Wall Street protest is revoltign and most unpatriotic. By advocating “spreading the wealth, these protesters are advocatign stealing. Also, in this capitalist state, they can protest openly; this would be more difficult to accomplish in the communist or socialist environment they seem to prefer.

    • Eric

      So wait, while you praise this “capitalist state” for allowing them the freedom to protest, you call these very protestors “revolting” and “most unpatriotic” for enjoying those very freedoms. Sounds like you would fit right in that communist/socialist environment you claim they prefer!

  • Calzada

    This is more serious. The down hill situation will not get fix a bit by lowering taxes to giant corp leaders and the class A people. This possible reduction in taxes for some can create other greed opportunities. For example: Extra money for bigger bonuses and increase salaries and no creation of opportunities for the “99%”.

  • The Realist

    Where do I get trained as a PROFESSIONAL ACTIVIST? I need a high-paying job complaining about unemployment.

    • Jenn

      Probably the same place you got trained to be a professional moron.

  • The Realist

    I want to be trained as a PROFESSIONAL ACTIVIST and get a high-paying job complaining about unemployment.

    • Eric

      You would probably get paid much better working for Wall Street. If they had any jobs.

  • Pete

    If you tax the top one percent everything they make over 100 grand, it still won’t balance the budget because we just spend TOO MUCH. If you instead redistributed it among the 99%, it still would amount to peanuts per person. All it would accomplish is to make jealous people feel better in a vengeful way by taking things away from those who are more successful than them.

    By the way I am NOT the top 1%. I just am just logical person who is not jealous of others. All I have is a high school degree and do VERY well in life with no help from unions either because I am NOT mediocre and have creatively with a drive to be successful. Maybe it’s time all the ‘whiners’, stop blaming others and instead look in the mirror and realize that many are not successful because of their own mediocrity.

  • Nathan X.

    I walked down to visit the occupiers, and found a peaceful, frustrated group of individuals with varying backgrounds. Most were recent college grads who have been completely ignored by employers and politicians alike. I wrote about it on the leadfootedrabbit web site. My guess is that the people protesting will see that the repubs and dems alike care about little more than getting reelected, and that we the people are essentially on our own. to read more about this and other events

    • buh-bye

      noone cares about yer stupid-azz website.

  • Kelly Starters

    Andrew Young is from the old do nothing Jimmy Carter school of politics now
    Carter gets lot’s of Arab money for his library” to do their bidding agaist Israel.
    This movement will catch on bigtime and will have it’s national leaders and wishes
    published, wait till Medicare pulls back on 25 million patients where they will have
    to pay out of pocket for the first 7500.00 of their benefits some 20% as you know
    the average monthly check is 800 dollars.Asking this from poor folks will have
    them protesting too and not to the AARP who are in the insurance business.
    Medicare next June wishes also to cut back Dr’s. payments 30% maybe
    Doctor’s will get off their butt and join the 99% also.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Giving Tuesday
Charles Osgood Event

Listen Live