NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Paul Friedman met the rag-tag youth camped out near Wall Street to protest inequality in the American economy, he felt he was witnessing the start of a protest movement not seen in America since the 1960s.
And Friedman should know. The 64-year-old was a student organizer during the anti-Vietnam War movement, protesting from 1964 for 11 years until the war ended. He also joined Civil Rights actions against racial segregation in America.
On Wednesday, as thousands of union workers marched to show solidarity with the movement called Occupy Wall Street, he walked shoulder-to-shoulder with dreadlocked college dropouts, unemployed youth and students, who for three weeks have camped out near Wall Street and who have no plans to leave.
“It felt in my gut very much like what I was a part of in the 1960s,” Friedman said. “What people are expressing ... is an experience that their opportunities are shrinking, not growing and their hopes are shrinking, not growing, and that is an unnatural feeling for the young,” he said.
The protesters object to the Wall Street bailout in 2008, which they say left banks enjoying huge profits while average Americans suffered under high unemployment and job insecurity with little help from the federal government.
What the Occupy Wall Street movement has in common with the 1960s, he said, was that the weak economy hits home, just like racism or the chance that you or your boyfriend or brother or your son might be drafted to fight in Vietnam.
Most protests since the 1960s - against U.S. actions in Central America in the 1980s or against free trade in the 1990s or the impending Iraq War in 2003 - were in solidarity with an ideal. This, like Civil Rights and Vietnam, is personal.
That more than anything else is why the Occupy Wall Street movement could spread, Friedman said.
One of the hallmarks of the protests has been the relative lack of violence. Aside from the arrest of 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge last Saturday and some use of pepper spray by police, the uprising has been relatively tame compared to the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 or the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in Miami in 2003.
“There’s a lot of naive idealism happening, what’s wrong with that?” said Jeremy Moss, 41, a mental health counselor from the Bronx who lived in Seattle during the WTO riots and said this felt different.
The movement has prompted marches in cities across America and has garnered sympathy in some unexpected places.
A top U.S. Federal Reserve official said the protests were an understandable reaction to persistently high unemployment.
“I am somewhat sympathetic - that will shock you,” Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher said on Thursday. “We have too many people out of work for too long. We have a very frustrated people, and I can understand their frustration,” he said.
The head of the finance arm of General Electric Co, which needed Washington’s help to survive in 2008, said he too was sympathetic. “If I were unemployed now, I’d be really angry too,” said Michael Neal of GE Capital. “There are a lot of unhappy people right now and there’s not a lot going on that gives you much reason to be inspired.”
Georgetown University history Professor Michael Kazin, an expert on social movements as an academic and as a protester himself since the Vietnam war days, says the protests are evocative of those in the Great Depression.
“This is like some of the protests in the 1930s, which started ... with protests about joblessness and was then funneled into the rising labor movement,” he said, noting that now, like then, students, intellectuals and union workers share the same basic goal - a good job.
Kazin said the protests could become a liberal counterbalance to the Tea Party. “Politicians have to be pushed. You cannot just hope they will do the right thing,” said Kazin, author of “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation” and co-editor of Dissent magazine. “The history of social and political change in America is movements pressure change from politicians.”
For all the sympathy it inspires, the movement may struggle to build mass participation.
Edgar Aracena, a New Jersey-based organizer for the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union, has been an activist since he was a student in the early 1980s. He said many Americans have an ideological problem with economic-based protests. “There is a fantasy in the United States that we are all middle class and we will all be the boss one day. People buy into that,” he said.
Aracena said as he tries to organize workers he would characterize as the working poor, they question whether they need the protection of a union, telling him, “We are not the working poor, we are professionals.”
In Europe, by contrast, Aracena said, workers proudly identify themselves as working class. So when something happens to spark potential outrage and protest, workers are clear which side of the system they stand on.
As the protests enter their fourth week, the size of the crowd has begun to grow. As many as 5,000 marched on Wednesday. Such numbers pale besides the 50,000 or 60,000 protesters who would gather at International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings a decade ago or the more than 250,000 people who marched against the Iraq war in New York City in 2003.
Still, the protest is among the largest in New York since demonstrations against the Bush administration at the 2004 Republican Convention, which organizers said drew 500,000.
But as the nascent movement gathers steam, struggles and problems are apparent. Is their message clear enough? Who is their leader? How long can they last, camped out in a concrete park as the weather chills? Who will control it?
Such questions have sown discord.
The young nucleus of the protest say they remain “in charge.” But older activists want more organization and purpose from the denizens of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan.
Walter Hillegass, a plumber from Queens who says he can no longer work due to Ground Zero-related illnesses, said new leadership was needed to bring the protests to their full potential. “They need a little help right now to focus them a little better,” said Hillegass.
He and some union brethren from New York and Boston commandeered one of the stone tables in the park as their own little area, from which they were trying to spread the message that the movement was about more than just Wall Street greed.
Others worry that unions want to co-opt the event.
Christopher Guerra, 27, complained unions would not allow him to speak at Wednesday’s rally. “They were here for their own thing,” said Guerra, a paint-splattered artist who calls himself a conservative Republican. “I wanted to give a speech but they wouldn’t let me.”
Some of the movement’s backers also said it had to remain pure and reject outside influence.
“It really depends on the cohesion of this group, not having people come in from the outside and taking it over,” said Rev. Brian Merritt, a spokesman for the Occupy DC movement camped out in McPherson Square, just off K Street, Washington’s power row for corporate lobbyists.
Georgetown’s Kazin said while protesters have not articulated their goals, “If this movement continues to grow and continues to be popular, which is just as important, then the pressure will mount on politicians to do something.”
Judging by comments from U.S. President Barack Obama, their message is being heard by some in Washington. “I think people are frustrated and ... the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works,” Obama told reporters on Thursday.
At least one top Republican, however, had no time for the Wall Street protesters. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor referred to them on Friday as “growing mobs” that are trying to divide the country.
Writing by Mark Egan, additional reporting from Ian Simpson in Washington and Scott Malone in Boston, editing by Claudia Parsons