Why Occupy Wall Street is Not the Tea Party of the Left

The United States’ Long History of Protest

Courtesy Reuters

"There's a difference between an emotional outcry and a movement," former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young said recently of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. "This is an emotional outcry," he went on. "The difference is organization and articulation." Young knows something about social movements: as a young pastor in the South, he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was jailed for participating in demonstrations in Alabama and Florida. But his suggestion that what is happening today in lower Manhattan lacks real momentum rings false -- the civil rights movement is not a precedent one can use to understand Occupy Wall Street. Neither is this movement a Tea Party of the left, as some observers have suggested. Occupy Wall Street is a movement of a completely new type.

Both the civil rights movement and the Tea Party were created to serve specific constituencies -- in the first case, African Americans suffering under the burden of Jim Crow in the South; in the second, older, white middle-class Americans who saw themselves as victims of an overweening federal government. "This is about the people who work hard to bring home the bacon and want to keep it," one Tea Party group declared. In contrast, Occupy Wall Street puts forward few policy proposals and has a shifting configuration of supporters as it spreads across the country. The closest its activists have come to issuing a clear statement of aims was in the "Declaration of the Occupation of New York City," posted on September 30th. "As one people, united," the declaration proclaimed, "we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors." That is hardly a policy platform. But policy platforms are not the point of this new kind of movement.

Charles Tilly, the late

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