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Seasoned Activists Critique Wall Street Protests

AP | 10/10/2011, 11:11 a.m.
Andrew Young says that to be effective, the protests need a serious discussion component and that leadership needs to emerge./Courtesy Photo

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?"