Is the 'Occupy Wall Street' Movement Being Hijacked by Newcomers?

PHOTO: Members of trade unions join Occupy Wall Street protesters as they rally in Foley Square, New York, Oct. 5, 2011.
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An estimated 200 social justice protesters demonstrated in Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., Thursday, expressing solidarity with the "Occupy Wall Street" movement that has spread to more than 150 US cites.

The protesters, part of a larger group that had gathered earlier near Capitol Hill for a long-planned antiwar rally, beat drums, carried signs that said "Tax the Rich," and rang cowbells.

The smaller group's modest, if opportunistic, appearance in Freedom Plaza showcased a larger phenomenon challenging the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began Sept. 17 in New York.

As expressions of solidarity with Occupy multiply – labor unions marched in New York Wednesday while student and labor groups joined in Boston – the question is being asked: Can the protest movement carry the newcomers, or will it sink under their weight?

Political scientists, sociologists and historians – as well as public relations specialists – are coming forward to offer their views and comments about the pluses and minuses of merging interests with other groups, some traditional, others not.

Partly because the movement has coalesced so quickly and captured growing media coverage, it faces both uncommon promise and peril as it tries to turn the corner and sustain itself for the longer term. The next two weeks are crucial in deciding its identity and structure, say a host of experts who study grass-roots political movements.

"The entropy that is Occupy Wall Street threatens to either destroy the group or propel it to new heights," says Michael Robinson, senior vice president for Levick Strategic Communications, an international public relations firm. "They need to be really careful about becoming too schizophrenic and having too many personalities. They risk getting diffused if they expand themselves too much."

Pros and cons of union involvement

The entry of established groups could benefit the movement by providing it with focus and organization, says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "But these groups could also jeopardize the protests by making them look like just another partisan political tactic. The involvement of labor unions is especially problematic. Public approval of unions is near historical lows," he says.

Pitney, Robinson, and others point out that the antiwar movement of the 1960s had a singular goal – getting the US out of Vietnam – and even the Arab Spring countries zeroed in on very specific goals such as "Get Mubarak Out" rather than a laundry list of complaints from water rights to the economy.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is circulating a working draft of very broad principles – "engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy," for example, and "the belief that education is a human right" – and different cities are coming up with specific goals in coming days.

Standing outside his tent at Los Angeles City Hall Wednesday, activist Joe Briones said breadth is precisely the appeal of this movement to him.

"In the '60s, you had the civil rights movement and Vietnam with specific goals, but once those goals were met, the activists had nowhere to go," he says. "We are building this for the long term."

If that's true, all the more danger and promise at the moment, say others. The more you tighten goals with specifics, the more people get alienated.

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