NEW YORK — 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 mayor of Atlanta and 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, a civil rights activist 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, a veteran civil rights leader who also was an aide to King, 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 conservative tea party movement which advocates small government and low taxes, 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.
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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 of Representatives, 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 telephone 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."
Associated Press writers Errin Haines in Atlanta and Seanna Adcox in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.