Initially written off as a rag-tag bunch of angry co-eds camping out in New York City, the Occupy Wall Street movement has gained attention and traction nationwide since beginning demonstrations three weeks ago. Clashes with police have brought the movement into the national spotlight and several unions have now pledged their support, including the United Federation of Teachers and the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
Meanwhile, Americans from Boston to Boise to Salt Lake City have taken cues from their brethren in New York and formed outposts of civil disobedience in more than 200 cities across the nation.
But what exactly are they protesting? And could the movement spark an even larger event on par with the August riots in London or even the Arab Spring?
At the most basic level, the outpouring of protests has been driven by anger at elites, a feeling of disenfranchisement and injustice, worries about unemployment and the shrinking middle class, and concerns about the future of the U.S. economy. The deluge of complaints and struggles has sparked a desire to do something, to take action. But, while the fury of London's rioters fell on police and protesters in the Arab Spring took on government oppression, Occupy Wall Street has aimed its crosshairs at corporate America.
"There's a lot of angst out there and people are looking for a place to manifest [it]," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup. "The Tea Party, of course, is manifesting their angst [through] anger at the government. These people are manifesting their angst at Wall Street, but it's coming from the same underlying source, which is a lot of anxiety and worry about the economy."
Though its goals are different and, some argue, ill-defined, Occupy's approach has been similar to the Tea Party's: ignite a viral movement fed by social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook and create a forum to support the idea that democracy should be participatory.
"For me personally, the movement is about the dysfunctional relationship between the political process in this country and corporations and Wall Street in general," says Matt Critelli, a New Jersey-based advertising professional and Occupy Wall Street participant. "It seems to me that we really don't have a true democracy."
Critelli acknowledges the movement has served as an umbrella for a multitude of complex issues, including everything from wealth disparity to campaign finance reform, but says the core of the movement isn't as radical as much of the media makes it out to be. "Once you get past the couple of people with the signs that are talking about an end to capitalism or promoting communism, when you actually talk to the people without those signs, that's where you really see the heart of the movement," Critelli says. "The movement isn't [as] radical as it appears to the outside world." The heart of that movement, he says, is the demand for accountability for Wall Street, big business, and politicians.
"The people at the top are just trying to amass as much money as possible, and they're shielded from what the fallout has been," Critelli says. "The other 99 percent of us haven't been shielded from that."
Still, some observers say the lack of a cohesive message could hinder the movement's ability to affect change. "There's no organization," says Chris Houts, founder and executive director of Citi5, a community venture fund based in New York City. "They call themselves activists—I wish they would become proactivists. The opportunities are out there, it's just not as easy anymore."
While some see the diverse messages of the movement as a hindrance, others see it as opportunity for further expansion and increased awareness. "The movement has to start somewhere and as you go along they will refine their goals," Francine Hyde, a retired professional, told CNN Wednesday. "This is not a short-term protest, something has to change."
The resolve of protesters may be holding steady in New York City's Zuccotti Park, and support is certainly spreading throughout the country. What remains to be seen is whether the movement will continue bubbling under surface, a metaphorical thorn in Wall Street and corporate America's foot, or if it will morph into a more cohesive bloc, capable of exerting pressure for change.
No one knows for sure, but, like the London riots and Arab Spring before it, Occupy Wall Street's success or failure doesn't hinge on a compelling leader, or a carefully-manicured, neatly-packaged mission statement. Instead it relies on a new breed of political organizing, self-organizing, facilitated by technology and social media.
"In a way, if there are thousands of people frustrated, all from different ideological backgrounds, mad at a system that's not responding to their needs, that in itself is a message," says Paul, an Occupy DC participant who declined to give his last name. "You don't have to have a goal. People are so angry that they're willing to go and essentially get arrested. That tells you that something is wrong in the system."