Occupy Wall Street: Is it becoming your father’s – even grandfather’s – movement?

Many of the 'Occupy Wall Street' protesters are now much older than college age. Is this a sign of cross-generational appeal, or is the movement being taken over by aging ’60s radicals?

Jim Gehrz/The Star Tribune/AP
Betty and David Culver listen to speakers Friday in Minneapolis to show solidarity with the nationwide 'Occupy Wall Street' demonstrations.

For a movement that burst into life on the sleeping bags of college kids, some of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters are getting downright long in the tooth.

This week alone, the Raging Grannies and the Granny Peace Brigade have turned up to show solidarity. And signature boomer anthems by Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield, and Woody Guthrie are being sung by AARP candidates at encampments around the country.

Is this spreading “Occupy” social action – now appearing in hundreds of towns and cities across the globe – being taken over by hoards of old lefties and aging ’60s radicals, in search of “somethin’ hap’nin’ here?” Or, as some suggest, is the steady influx of a wider demographic a sign of a broader systemic call to action with a cross-generational appeal?

“More and more middle-age people are showing up all the time,” says Robert Hockett, a professor at Cornell University Law School, who has a small apartment just around the corner from Zuccotti Park where the Wall Street protest began in New York. He attends the nightly general assembly meetings, he says with a laugh, adding, “They are my neighbors now.”

A student of social protest, he says that “this is different from many earlier movements such as the antiwar actions, because the issues don’t fall into partisan political or age divides.” Rather, he says, “these economic issues are hitting old and young across political lines.”

Veterans from earlier protest eras are putting in a good showing. Margaret Ratner Kunstler, widow of the iconic progressive attorney William Kuntsler, has been in the heart of the fray from early on and represents many of the protesters arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge two weeks ago.

“I’m a grandmother and these are my children,” she says with a laugh, noting that the reach and organization she sees springing up around the movement “is giving me hope.”

She says her optimism about people power flagged after the 1999 Seattle protests at the World Trade Organization meeting, because police began to develop more stringent crowd-control tactics. These included rubber bullets, “pens,” and pepper spray.

But this time around, it was the YouTube video of police using the spray on young women in the Wall Street demonstration that broadened the media coverage from the underground press. Now, she says, more and more people feel empowered, and the movement is going mainstream.

Self-described “old lefty” Mark Naison, now a professor at Fordham University in New York, says he has been “hanging out with the protesters as often as possible.”

While it “warms his heart” to see all these students out on the streets in what he calls nonviolent, thoughtful protest, “this is not a young person’s issue by any means,” he says. The lack of jobs and opportunities affects everyone, he adds.

Atlanta-based Republican strategist David Johnson sees the influx of older protesters differently. This is just a strategic move, he says, adding that well-dressed, middle-aged Americans are just what a scruffy student movement needs to clean up its image.

“This is the first step towards co-opting the movement,” he says, pointing to this week’s endorsements from high-level Democrats, including President Obama and Sens. Charles Schumer and Harry Reid. Beyond that, he suggests, the older faces represent what he dubs “the mushy middle in our country – people who like to come out for events that get media coverage, but aren’t clear where they stand politically.”

The International Amalgamated Transit Union – with more than 190,000 members – is quite clear on its stance, says president Larry Hanley. The union issued a statement of solidarity with the protesters this week.

“We are the parents of all these kids,” he says, adding, “We see that this generation has gotten a raw deal.” At the same time, he says, “workers' pensions have been looted.” He "applauds the Occupy Wall Street activists for their courage and strength to expose the greed and corruption on Wall Street as the rest of America struggles to survive.”

Students appreciate the experience of the older voices, says Joe Briones, a film undergrad at Los Angeles City College. “The Occupy movement is trying to learn from past protests, what worked and what didn’t,” he says. “Every voice is equal, old or young, when it comes to decisions at meetings, but their experience has been invaluable.”

Experience also helps move the effort to the next level, says Occupy Los Angeles media organizer Lisa Clapier, who has seven children and a farm in Oregon.

Although she organizes social-media events for a living, she's donating her time to this activity. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything," she says. "We’ve read all our lives about pure democracy in action, and now we get a chance to live it.”

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