By Carol Polsky
The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that began with a handful of people camped out with sleeping bags is now drawing thousands of protesters, in New York and other cities.
But veteran watchers of grassroots movements still can't predict whether it is the start of something big.
Now entering its fourth week, the protest is a magnet for the politically and economically disaffected. One recent day, as the drums were pounding in Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, a young man danced with a hand-drawn sign that read, "For the First Time In My Life I Feel at Home."
More traditional liberal groups, such as labor unions, have jumped onboard. The movement has become a prime topic on social media, Web forums and talk shows.
Public figures from President Barack Obama to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to late-night TV host David Letterman have expressed sympathy for the frustration behind the protests.
Still, political experts say it's too soon to tell whether this encampment of people fed up with the status quo can harness its anger over corporate power and income inequality into an effective movement.
"What I see so far in the Occupy Wall Street protest is a more generic protest against corporate greed, against the increasing inequality of wealth and income in the United States," said William Galston, a political analyst with the Brookings Institution who worked in the Clinton administration.
"Those are real enough, but those are the names of problems, not the names of policies and solutions. What specifically are you against, and what specifically do you advocate to do against what you're against?"
The Occupy Wall Street protest has no official leadership or detailed agenda, though a spokesman said core activists are working on a statement of objectives. Just about any protest can get aired: Casey Constable, 30, a Farmingdale State University graduate and a vegan, wants an end to government subsidies that help the meat industry.
Bhavani Jaroff, 54, a natural-food chef from Old Westbury, said, "I'm all about anti-corporate greed and feeding people." She brought enough food for 200 protesters Wednesday and planned to return Sunday.
Compared to tea party
The protests have been compared to the rise of the tea party movement, spawned from outrage at bailouts after the financial collapse of 2008.
However, the tea partyers, embraced by some conservative Republicans, quickly coalesced on specific targets and a strategy of pressuring elected officials. That "enabled them not only to organize but to energize in a way that turned out to be politically consequential," Galston said.
That's not the point for some of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, who range from counterculture kids in pink hair and costumes to college graduates frustrated at narrow job prospects to middle-aged activists and liberals.
Their critique goes beyond electoral politics, and they are leery of getting swept up in institutional agendas, whether those of labor unions or political parties.
"I would say this is a large group of people that has lost hope in the formal political process," said Jason Coniglione, 24, who has been actively involved in the protest since its start.
Originally from Mississippi with an accounting degree from Monmouth University in New Jersey, he said he'd been working temporary jobs and was unable to find one with a salary high enough to both live on and pay his student loans.
The demonstrations, he said, were about starting a conversation "about what society should be like . . . I think we are seeing the very beginning of a social movement that will set the foundation for social change."
That's not what Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) sees: "It seems to be a bunch of angry, maladjusted anarchists," he said. "If they want jobs, what do they want us to do?
It's a very unfocused message -- it just seems like unfocused anger. What are they saying that anyone can hold on to?"
Even sympathizers have some misgivings.
"I know the message is right, but it's muddled by the eccentricities of the people here," said Nick Bromley, 23, who grew up in East Hampton and came by Zuccotti
Park to observe and take pictures of the scene: swirling crowds, the open-air kitchen at its center, piles of air mattresses and sleeping bags, a young woman in a Marie Antoinette costume, a bedraggled guitar player next to a group in earnest debate.
"People like me are treating it more as a spectacle, theater, an event," said Bromley, who now lives in Brooklyn and works at a literary agency. "I think the voting booth is more powerful."
But Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said the protests spotlight the growing income inequality that removes buying power from the middle class and hurts the economy.
"Who knows what will happen with this movement, but if it results in bringing a broader discussion of this then it can be helpful," Bishop said.
Might embolden Democrats
The protests could embolden frightened Democratic legislators, now convinced that swing voters only care about deficit reduction, to support infrastructure spending to create jobs and tax increases for the wealthy, said Steve Rosenthal, a political consultant who was political director for the AFL-CIO and a co-founder of the political action committee America Coming Together.
Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor, former 1960s activist and author on politics and culture, said the growing involvement of unions and progressive groups could expand the protest into a more organized movement.
"There is a lot of uncertainty as to what comes now," he said. "The unions will want to channel this energy into a political agenda."
But, he added, if it "can win the support of both David Letterman and Ben Bernanke, it can't be said to have gone badly wrong."
The demonstrations have put the question of "plutocracy" -- the concentration of wealth and power at the top -- into the political debate, he said, by putting "boots on the ground."
Those include the boots of a recently retired couple, Vietnam War veteran Doug Nash and his wife, Bonnie.
"I'm a liberal person who believes in freedom and opportunity for everyone, and the eroding of the middle class is scaring me," said Bonnie Nash, 59.
Alec Duffy, 35, of Brooklyn, came with his friend Eva Peskin, 23, to deliver some sleeping bags and take home dirty laundry to wash for the protesters.
"The right has been guiding the conversation for the last few years," Duffy said.
Peskin was hopeful. "I don't think people would be here if they didn't think it would do something."