When Does An Occupation Become A Movement?

On Sept. 22, I was on my way to moderate a panel discussion in lower Manhattan, when I walked past a crowd of several hundred people gathered in Zuccotti Park.

It looked more like a sit-in than a protest, but it had the feel of something bigger waiting to be born.

Nobody was shouting or making much effort to talk to passers-by. A number of people were taking pictures, but most of them looked more like tourists than journalists or bloggers. One young woman wearing a Gucci bag draped over her shoulder held a film school’s microphone, nodding intently as a young man talked into the video camera looming behind her. A number of other cameras snapped her picture as she continued to nod.

I talked to a few of the protesters that day. I found them intriguing, as I do most groups of anonymous Americans who stand shoulder to shoulder to make a public statement. What that statement was exactly was a little murky. They were mostly young and always earnest and loosely connected to one another. Beyond their outrage over corporate wealth, it was difficult to discern their call to action.

A blanket of posters on the ground, however, quilted together their list of grievances. All of the signs were homemade, most of them written on plain slabs of brown cardboard. There seemed to be hundreds of them.


I took a few more pictures and went on my way. That evening, I posted a few of the photos on Facebook, under the title “Just another day in New York.” A few days later, we all were calling the protest “Occupy Wall Street.”

Did I, as a member of the mainstream media, fail to register the movement unfolding in front of me? I’ve thought about that a lot after such criticism from the left reached a crescendo in the past week or so.

It had been a beautiful fall day, and they seemed so leisurely, so unengaged. I can’t work up a lot of guilt for how I responded to them that day.

A lot has changed since. They have not only refused to leave Zuccotti Park but also turned it into a functioning community. There are group-imposed rules about cleanliness and order. Donations have rolled in to staff a first-aid station and clothing booth and provide regular meals. Dozens of volunteers, including several experienced journalists, have started publishing a four-page newspaper, called the Occupied Wall Street Journal. The protesters have their own website, too, at http://www.occupywallst.org, where you can catch up on their latest developments and watch live streaming video, too.

Similar public protests — Occupy Boston, for example, and Occupy Cleveland — have sprung up in cities across the country. Even the most resistant of news organizations are covering the phenomenon now, and the word “movement” is bubbling up. Hundreds of stories now echo a variation on the persistent theme of economic disparity between the 1 percent of America’s wealthiest citizens and everybody else.

Some pundits are wondering aloud how long the protesters will hold up after the splendor of early autumn gives way to a punishing winter. We’re a little too gleeful in the speculation, which is often the case when we run up against people who are far more willing than we are to be uncomfortable for a cause.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently told The Wall Street Journal he has “no idea” when the occupation will end, but he added, “I think part of it has probably to do with the weather.”

What if the weather has nothing to do with it?

There was a time when women who dared to picket Woodrow Wilson’s White House for the right to vote were thrown into prison and dismissed as crazy.

There was a time when too many scoffed at the notion that a bunch of maids boycotting buses in Birmingham, Ala., could change the way blacks were treated across the country.

There was a time when students marching against the war in Vietnam were denounced as spoiled brats with too much time on their hands.

I’m not saying the protesters of Occupy Wall Street are in the same company as these brave activists who changed America.

I’m not sure they aren’t, either.

Hard to be smug about that.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (con.schultz@yahoo.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.



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