The young (and not-so-young) protesters who came to Occupy Wall Street -- and have stayed despite mass arrests -- deserve thanks from the "99 percent" of Americans they claim to represent.
Without articulating a clear set of demands, they have nevertheless voiced the frustration felt by millions of ordinary people who have lost homes, jobs, income and security in the post-crash economy and see little help coming from government offices or corporate suites. Soon, however, someone will have to decide whether Occupy Wall Street eventually concludes in mere symbolic success, which would be little more than glorified failure, or evolves into a powerful political current that can rival the tea party.
If the pivotal moment of this protest continues to be a video of a high-ranking police officer brutally "macing" innocent women, then it is unlikely to grow far from its anarcho-bohemian roots. There are simply too many Americans who will never side with "hippies" against cops, no matter how wrong the cops may be. But if the sympathetic statements from labor leaders of the past few days turn into supportive action -- and if teachers, bus drivers, firefighters, nurses and, yes, police officers show up to demand change -- then this could be the beginning of something very, very big.
Don't scoff too quickly: Last winter, hundreds of off-duty law enforcement officers from around Wisconsin repeatedly joined the statehouse sit-in against Gov. Scott Walker's attack on labor, even though their own unions were exempt from his proposed law -- and even as their fellow officers were standing guard over the protesters.
In those circumstances, the cops were just as capable of understanding the stakes behind the protest as any other workers, or the students who supported them. A policeman who had retired from the Madison Police Department after 20 years on the force explained to USA Today that "we all see this as union busting and wage suppression. This is a long-term, downward spiral of wages for working families."
Such progressive insights probably don't fit the anarchist stereotype of the cop, whose enmity is cherished as a token of the alienated lifestyle. But not all of those who have flocked to Zuccotti Park and the other protest sites that have sprung up around the country are committed to political irrelevance as proof of authenticity. Many, perhaps even a majority, might be intrigued by an opportunity to provoke something more significant than a cloud of tear gas or a court summons.
The protesters have serious grievances, from mass youth unemployment to burdensome student loans that cannot begin to be paid off if there are no decent jobs.
What would happen if they began to articulate the connections between their own problems and the assault on the living standards of public employees and unionized workers? How would the angry middle class respond if the "kids" made common cause with those downwardly mobile working families -- demanding debt relief for everyone, a special prosecutor for the financial crooks and higher taxes on those who have profited from the crisis? Why shouldn't the students (and former students) stand with teachers against cuts in education and for rebuilding public schools and colleges? Even those who understandably disdain partisan politics, with its endemic money corruption, could swiftly change the direction of the national debate.
It is encouraging that many young activists came down to Wall Street from Wisconsin, where they have conducted themselves with impeccable style and effectiveness. Four decades ago, the goons in Richard Nixon's White House egged on construction workers in downtown Manhattan to beat up antiwar students, who had allowed themselves to be portrayed as enemies of working-class soldiers and cops. Repeating that same mistake now would be tragic for everyone -- except the 1 percent.