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Occupy Wall Street shifts from protest to policy phase

Protesters face the difficult and interesting task of leveraging their influence to achieve concrete policy changes addressing their concerns.

October 12, 2011|Michael Hiltzik

These are the conditions and numbers that inspire the Wall Street protests. On a march through lower Manhattan staged last week by Occupy Wall Street, two placards were most commonly seen, says Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University expert in social movements and a former student activist who accompanied the march: "We are the 99%" and "The banks got bailed out, we got sold out."

As for planning, Occupy Wall Street has reached a delicate stage at which what may have been born as a ragtag protest is being infused with professionals from groups with organizational skills such as Moveon.org and labor unions. Those groups helped plan the attention-grabbing march Thursday, but the change may produce internal dissension over the participants' conflicting agendas.

Yet grass-roots movements rarely achieve much until they're yoked to movements with specific goals and the wherewithal to achieve them. After all, Rosa Parks was not just another seamstress angered by racial segregation on the bus system in her hometown of Montgomery, Ala.; she was the secretary of the local National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People chapter. Her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger one day in 1955 was a spontaneous act of civil disobedience, but it wasn't lost on civil rights leaders that her standing in the community, the stability of her home life and her personal dignity made her the ideal symbol of an organized bus boycott and a test case challenging segregation in court.

No one can know today whether this new protest has legs. ("It's somewhere between a moment and a movement," Gitlin says.) History warns, however, that it's unwise to dismiss it as merely the work of a rabble. In 1932, after an Army detachment under the command of Douglas MacArthur violently broke up a peaceable encampment of the Bonus Army — a movement of World War I veterans agitating for early payment of a promised government bonus to help overcome destitution caused by unemployment — President Herbert Hoover endorsed the bloody confrontation with the words "Thank God we still have a government in Washington that knows how to deal with a mob."

Listening to radio reports of the violence from his New York home, Franklin Roosevelt turned to his close aide Felix Frankfurter. "Felix," he said, "this elects me."

Photos: 'Occupy' protests

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. His latest book is "The New Deal: A Modern History." Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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