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'Occupy Wall Street': If protesters don't list demands, will they get anything?

With new recruits emerging daily and union members joining marches, 'Occupy Wall Street' is experiencing growing pains. Should it prioritize goals? Should it forge alliances?

By Gloria Goodale and Daniel B. WoodStaff writers / October 5, 2011

A coalition of students and their supporters from New York University and The New School chant "show me what democracy looks like" as they march towards Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on Wednesday, in New York. Many are asking what the protesters' demands are.

Bebeto Matthews/AP

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Los Angeles

On the eve of a huge solidarity rally planned Thursday for Freedom Plaza in Washington, and with new recruits emerging daily across the nation, the emphatically diverse “Occupy” protest movement is already facing a Shakespearean-level dilemma: To be or not to be specific about its demands.

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If it refuses to spell out actionable agendas, will it get anything at all? Ay, there’s the rub.

“Occupy Wall Street” has listed virtually every progressive concern of the early 21st century in its current manifesto – from environmental degradation and corporate greed to animal rights and gender, race, and age equality, as well as collective bargaining rights. Now a new item has emerged, listing access to higher education as a basic human right, perhaps not surprising considering the youthful face of the movement.

Such idealism is all well and good for a protest moment, but not enough for a genuine movement, says Professor Ted Morgan of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, author of “What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Failed American Democracy.”

“For this to move from a colorful, attention-grabbing protest, they are going to have to reach into communities, connect with workplaces, churches, schools,” he says. “That’s how you build organizations that create change.

“It takes a long time, and it’s not as exciting or dramatic as camping out in front of City Hall,” he adds with a laugh, “but that’s how grassroots change happens.”

The team behind “Occupy Los Angeles” is finding its own way. They just have their own way of going about it. Taking a page from the Wall Street playbook, the dozens of Angelenos hunkered down Wednesday in the first big rain of the season say they meet every night at 7:30 on the steps of City Hall.

“Everyone is welcome,” says Lisa Clapier, who directs media for the group from a small tent with tables filled with laptops, coffee makers, donated donuts, coolers, and a small generator. But, she adds, “They have to come as an individual. They may not come as a group with their own agenda.”

She notes that a local activist ensemble tried to press its concerns on the group at the Tuesday night meeting. “We kicked them out as a group,” she says, adding, “but let them know they were welcome to voice their individual issues any time.”

As unions and other traditionally Democratic groups have joined marches and expressed support for the Occupy movement, many original members have shared their concern that the movement will be co-opted by these organizations with strong political ties.

“We’re happy to have them be in solidarity with us,” says Ms. Clapier, “but we don’t want to be tied to their positions.”

Interviews with those at the “Occupy Los Angeles” encampment outside City Hall – the 300 or so people who spend the nights here pitch their tents on the sidewalk to comply with “don’t sleep on the grass” ordinances – show most participants feel this movement is just beginning and getting more structured every day.

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