Taking It To The streets

A small protest on Wall Street has exploded into a nationwide phenomenon. Will populist demands for jobs, fair taxes and corporate oversight reshape the political landscape?

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Sasha Bezzubov for TIME

A protester leads an Occupy Wall Street general-assembly meeting at Zuccotti Park in New York City.

It started in Canada, of all places. The editors of the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters called for a Tahrir Square "moment" on Sept. 17 in lower Manhattan to protest what they called the disproportionate power of the U.S. corporate elite. The first responders--a motley collection of punks, anarchists, socialists, hackers, liberals and artists--spent that night in Zuccotti Park, an acre of concrete and greenery near Ground Zero, the New York Stock Exchange and the New York Federal Reserve. Then they did it again. Others noticed: the unemployed and the underemployed, scenesters and community organizers, middle-aged activists and folks who never bothered to vote. The crowds swelled, both online and beneath New York's skyscrapers. Camera crews arrived. Celebrities made pilgrimages. The spark started a fire.

Facebook sign-up data suggest the Occupy Wall Street movement has been doubling in size, on average, every three days since mid-September. By Oct. 10, protesters in almost every state had joined in, and demonstrations had jumped the Pacific to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney. Crowds gathered in Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Toledo, Knoxville and Fairbanks. Sometimes there were only a few dozen, sometimes a few thousand. But their growing numbers and spreading movement raise urgent questions: Who are these people and what do they want?

The answers are as varied as the crowds, ranging from achieving "collective liberation" to imposing new taxes on financial transactions. But a few threads have emerged: the people who come claim to represent the vast majority of the country, which has been languishing economically while the wealthiest flourish. Corporations, they say, have too much influence in Washington.

Beyond that, though, the protests' direction is murky, so it will be some time before anyone knows exactly what to make of them. But recent experience suggests that small and spontaneous protests can matter in times of broad economic difficulty, whether in Arab dictatorships or advanced democracies. In 2009 a few dozen conservative activists found one another on Twitter, and the Tea Party began to grow. It came to define the national political conversation in the U.S., helping deliver Republicans control of Congress in 2010. Now the left is fighting back with the same tool kit and its own visual iconography--fewer tricorn hats, more tattoos. In Washington, no one dares to underestimate the potential impact.

The larger public is taking notice as well. By early October, more than half of those polled said they had heard of Occupy Wall Street. More important, they seemed to like it. A new TIME/Abt SRBI poll finds 54% of Americans have a favorable view of the new protest movement, despite the images of bearded and shirtless youth playing bongo drums, rolling cigarettes and painting their bodies in Zuccotti Park. The same poll finds just 27% still have a favorable view of the Tea Party.

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