An evolving Occupy Wall Street protest movement is at a crossroads

A protester calling himself “Zain” holds up a sign on Friday in New York City. “I came down because of the state of the economy, society and the system,” he said. 

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A protester calling himself “Zain” holds up a sign on Friday in New York City. “I came down because of the state of the economy, society and the system,” he said. 

NEW YORK — Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon have dropped in. A seasoned diplomat dispenses free advice. Supporters send everything from boxes of food and clothes to Whole Foods gift cards. They even have their own app, for the legions of fans following them on iPhones and Androids.

Nearly two weeks into a sit-in at a park in Manhattan's financial district, the "leaderless resistance movement" calling itself Occupy Wall Street is at a crossroads. The number of protesters on scene so far tops out at a few hundred, tiny by Athens or Cairo standards.

But the traction they have gained from run-ins with police, a live feed from their encampment and celebrity visits is upping expectations. How about some specific demands, a long-term strategy, maybe even ... office space?

So far the group has none of those.

"At a certain point, there's a valid criticism in people asking, 'What are you doing here?' " said protester Chris Biemer, 23.

The answer isn't entirely clear as the demonstration wraps up its second week. The group generally defines itself as anti-greed, but also weighs in on a broad range of social issues.

In an exchange that illuminated one of the dilemmas that any movement for change faces, Biemer and protester Victoria Sobel made it clear they had different visions for Occupy Wall Street.

Biemer, who recently moved to New York from Florida with a degree in business administration, says that ideally the group should team up with a nonprofit organization and get office space.

"It's possible to stay here for months or longer, but at some point we're going to become a fixture," he said of their home in Zuccotti Park, a privately owned, publicly accessible plaza dotted with trees and flower beds about midway between the Stock Exchange and the former World Trade Center site.

Sobel, who like Biemer serves on Occupy Wall Street's finance committee, disagrees and said the group's strength lies in its ability to remain highly visible and in a place where anyone can visit and participate. The 21-year-old New York University student happily reported Wednesday that bookshelves had been delivered to the UPS store where the group receives mail. They'll sit beneath a tarp in the park, all part of Sobel's vision to solidify the group's foothold.

The protest, which evolved from a network of individuals and groups galvanized by the demonstrations in Egypt last winter, has moved far beyond what it was on Sept. 17, when police barricaded the streets outside the Stock Exchange to prevent a march there. A map in Zuccotti Park pinpoints scores of other cities with Occupy Wall Street events either under way or planned, including sit-ins planned for Los Angeles on Saturday and Washington on Oct. 6.

But its proximity to the real Wall Street and its series of high-profile visitors have made the New York protest the focal point. So have inflammatory videos posted online that show a New York police officer using pepper spray on some protesters last Saturday.

Now, its settlement has gelled into an organized community that hums along almost Zen-like, coexisting with the city that rages around it and ignored by many either too busy or too uninterested to stop.

Tourists stroll in to snap pictures and read the protest signs scattered across the ground, then wander off to their next sightseeing stop. Executives drop in on lunch breaks to talk politics and economics. Police hang back on the sidewalks, and follow along when groups of protesters stage marches.

On its website, Occupy Wall Street describes itself as a "leaderless resistance movement" drawn from people of all backgrounds and political persuasions.

"The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent," the website says. The posters in Zuccotti Park speak to the lack of a narrow platform: "End financial aid to Israel"; "End greed, end poverty, end war"; "No death penalty"; "Tired of racism."

Some supporters of the premise wonder how far Occupy Wall Street can go in galvanizing others if it does not translate its anger into specific demands.

"I see something beautiful here. I've never had a more interesting political debate," said Carne Ross, a former British diplomat. But Ross, who stops by regularly to advise Occupy Wall Street, said it needed "far broader outreach" and a narrower message.

"I'd prefer to see a list of demands," one fan wrote on the Occupation Wall Street Facebook page, echoing the concerns of a woman who tweeted something similar to Moore as he did an MSNBC interview. She asked for "some specific, tangible goals."

An evolving Occupy Wall Street protest movement is at a crossroads 10/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 30, 2011 8:24pm]

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