Who are the protesters behind Occupy Wall Street–and what do they want?

For many casual observers and news consumers, the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement appears to have come out of nowhere--a spontaneous, loosely knit gathering of protesters who feel disaffection and anger over the financial crisis, dismay over the outlook for the American middle class, and a desire to revive traditions of democratic protest.

That was, in many respects, also the vague impression created by the first wave of tea-party protests against the growth of government in 2009. And while both groups are seeking to achieve goals that are in many ways diametrically opposed, the question on the left end of the political spectrum is whether the protests centered on Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan might represent the initial stirrings of a tea-party-style rebellion on the left.

Activists on the left say they would be the first to welcome such a development, in a season of growing liberal unease. Certainly liberal activists are showing far less enthusiasm for the Democratic Party's standard-bearer than they did in 2008. President Obama's poll numbers continue to suffer, and his grassroots support (a hallmark of his 2008 success) seems to be on the wane. Former White House energy adviser Van Jones--who has been convening a founding meeting in Washington this week for the American Dream Movement, the Moveon.org project he now runs--is keen to leverage the Wall Street protests into a broader national movement. Jones told Washington Post op-ed writer E.J. Dionne over the weekend, "This is our 'Tea Party' moment--in a positive sense."

Other thinkers on the left are also hopeful about the movement's prospects, as similar actions spread to other cities such as Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Boston. "I'm very excited!" Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and This Land Is Their Land, responded to The Lookout via email. "So far as I can see, this is what I've been waiting for."

For all the excitement, though, there remains a good deal of confusion--both within and without the movement's circle of organizers--about Occupy Wall Street and its goals. It all began late this summer, when the anti-capitalist magazine AdBusters put out a call for people to occupy Wall Street on Sept. 17. The appeal struck a chord, and the protestors who've assembled at Zuccotti Park are now in day 18 of their occupation, where they have set up everything from a community kitchen to a lending library. The liberal weekly The Nation has published a good breakdown of the movement's structure, which is an admittedly amorphous at this stage: "a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, modified-consensus-based system with roots in anarchist thought."

On Friday, Occupy Wall Street sought to clarify its aims with the release of a declaration of principles--though the gist of the statement was long on defending the simple process of protest, and short on specific demands. "We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments," the statement reads in part. "We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known." As part of its documentary efforts, Occupy Wall Street's has launched an online presence called We Are the 99 Percent, a crowdsourced project on Tumblr showcasing the voices of the movement via handwritten notes explaining individuals' economic situation.

Despite the protestors' murky agenda, their energy and longevity have been enough to attract the backing of more established left organizations. Several unions and community groups, and the liberal grandmother of online organizing, MoveOn, announced that they would join in organizing another march on Wednesday. And in a sign of growing attention to how the protesters can craft a press-friendly message, a major New York PR firm sent out an email blast on behalf of the group. On Saturday, New York police officers arrested more than 700 as the group attempted to march across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Ehrenreich--who is based in Washington and plans to make her first trip to join in the protest later this week--cautions that union support may not be an entirely positive gain for the movement's organizers. "I would actually worry a little bit that if you get too many bureaucratic, institutionalized forces, like the unions, if they get too involved in things, that might have a dampening effect," Ehrenreich said when The Lookout reached her by phone. "I'm sorry, it's a tendency. It's going to be a problem to keep the freshness, the spontaneity as more hierarchical and institutionalized groups come in on the scene."

Some other critics on the left note that, given the beleaguered state of unions these days, they may need Occupy Wall Street as much as it needs them. "Unions jump onto this stuff simply because they're desperate (the way they jumped onto the Seattle stuff years back)," historian Kevin Mattson observed in an email to The Lookout, "But I don't see a focused, defined approach going on here. And because of that, my pessimistic side comes out and suggests: This will crumble."

Ehrenreich says she's intrigued by the movement's similarity to other youth-led protests around the globe, such as those in Spain this past spring. "It's fascinating that this seems to be a very widespread phenomeon around the world. Young, college-educated people who do not see a future."

Ehrenreich is quick to note that you can't compare the U.S. protests with the Arab Spring uprisings, but sees comparable mechanics. "That seems to be the thing, get some space, occupy it, and start a new little culture of protest."

And some of the groups now affiliating themselves with the Occupy Wall Street movement are hoping to build out that protest space--while, of course, also seeking to broaden the appeal of their own agendas. "I think there's been a growing wave around the country of action and protests since Wisconsin of people who are saying that Washington has it all wrong when it comes to our economy and we need sane economic policies that will make our country work for the poor," Justin Rubin, director of MoveOn.org told The Lookout. (Disclosure: This writer worked as a copy editor for MoveOn during the 2006 midterms.)

MoveOn put out an email to its entire list on Sunday calling for members to participate online or in-person in the Oct. 5 march. And MoveOn is echoing Jones' effort to marry up the Occupy Wall Street effort to the American Dream Movement.

Meanwhile, United NY, a New York-based coalition of progressive groups, is also helping to sponsor and organize the Wednesday rally--and to galvanize activists behind its own efforts. The group's executive director, Camille Rivera, told The Lookout that while Occupy Wall Street may not have a list of concrete demands, United NY certainly does: preventing New York state's "millionaire's tax" from expiring, a national jobs plan, and organizing low-wage workers and the unemployed.

"This is larger than just demands . . . . This is about movement, this is an atmosphere where people just don't feel like they are being empowered," Rivera said. "People don't feel like they have a voice. They want action around the country, around the economy."

Is the protest's lack of a clear set of demands preventing it from gaining wider traction in the political conversation? Ehrenreich scoffs. "Who are they going to take them to?" Ehrenreich asks. "To have a clear set of demands, you have to have someone that you're bargaining with. You're not bargaining with Wall Street."

But if this is the left's tea party, how is it fairing in comparison? "The tea party certainly had a tremendous amount of funding from very wealthy people. They had, and have, an entire media apparatus from Fox News to AM radio. They're a little more like astroturf," said Ehrenreich. She adds, however, that both groups are providing a missing outlet for people to express anger over their situation.

Rubin says that such outlets are actually gaining more ground on the left end of the spectrum--noting that the wave of such protests actually dates back to the demonstrations that flared up in Wisconsin this winter in opposition to GOP Gov. Scott Walker's budget cuts and against public unions. But he also concedes that the real political clout of the has yet to be tested. "The tea party has been extraordinary successful at wielding electoral influence that then has given it power over the national debate," Rubin noted. "That's the key task for this movement."

Does Ehrenreich think Occupy Wall Street will succeed? "I have no idea," she said. "I'm a lot more interested in this than I am in the election."

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