Occupy Wall Street shares roots with tea party protesters - but different goals

NEW YORK — They could be fraternal twins from the same political womb and separated at birth.

At first glance, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the tea party movement appear to be polar opposites. One rails against, among other things, the overarching power of wealthy banks, the other assails the federal government's overreach into businesses and people's lives.

But a closer look reveals that the two movements are as much alike as they are different, despite assertions by some backers of each that such comparisons are overly simplistic.

"At 30,000 feet, they both look quite similar in that there is anger, there's a demand to be heard, and there are concerns that are legitimate," said former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, whose 2010 re-election bid was stymied by tea party opposition. "The tea party was initially dismissed as being not very important and the Occupy Wall Street people are being dismissed as not very important."

Karanja Gacuca, a laid-off Wall Street worker who's become a member of Occupy's press and public relations committee at New York's Zuccotti Park protest site, agrees.

"They were both born of grievances, similar grievances," he said.

The origins of both movements are rooted in anger with the nation's financial industry triggered in large part by the federal bailout of Wall Street institutions in 2008, according to several experts who study political and social movements.

That anger was compounded by frustration with lawmakers who members of both movements say haven't listened to the people who elected them to office.

"The banks are holding back on giving back to the economy," said Paula Goldfader, a 78-year-old New York retiree. She held a hand-made sign that read "Congress Hear Us Now" as she sat among protesters Monday in Zuccotti Park. "They're working for the stockholders, outlandish pay scales for CEOs. We all have people in our lives that are unemployed."

"The similarity may just be we are frustrated with the behaviors on Wall Street," added Brendan Steinhauser, director for federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, a group linked to the tea party movement. "However, the tea party is much more angry and frustrated with politicians in Washington, D.C., than the Wall Street occupiers are."

Other tea party leaders view the Wall Street protests with disdain and say any comparison between the two is apples and oranges.

"Those occupying Wall Street and other cities, when they are intelligible, want less of what made America great and more of what is damaging America: a bigger, more powerful government to come in and take care of them so they don't have to work like the rest of us who pay our bills," Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler, co-founders of Tea Party Patriots, said in a written statement headlined: "Occupy Wall Street? They're no Tea Partiers."

If anger and frustration are the ties that bind Occupy Wall Street and the tea party, the links begin to fray quickly after that.

For example, supporters of each movement accuse the other of not being a genuine grassroots effort. Occupy Wall Street participants say the tea party was bankrolled by wealthy conservative groups like FreedomWorks and billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

"The tea party was originally an organic expression of discontent among a segment of the U.S. working class, largely white, who were feeling betrayed," said Christine Kelly, a political science professor who examines social movements at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. "That movement morphed into something quite different and had an exclusionary message of who it represented. Then it became highly funded and then it became politically incorporated."

Tea party backers and many conservative blogs suggest that the Occupy protests are being financed by labor unions or wealthy liberal Democratic Party patrons like George Soros, but Occupy spokesmen deny it.

"I don't know what the point is, and I think it's going to backfire because when you peel the onion back, you find out who's behind it and who's financing it," Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a tea party favorite, said of the Wall Street protesters. "It's not a true grassroots movement."

An Occupy Wall Street spokesman said the movement gets its funding from on-site donations or credit card donations through the movement's website, not from unions or Soros.

The tea party and the Wall Street demonstrators are taking different paths to address their issues. Tea partiers delved deeply into electoral politics last year, vetting and fielding candidates who shared their philosophy on government and fiscal matters.

That involvement resulted in the election of conservatives such as Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky to the Senate and 87 GOP freshmen in the House of Representatives, many of them backed by tea party activists. Their presence on Capitol Hill has influenced debates on deficit reduction, immigration, and environmental issues.

Whether or not the Occupy Wall Street movement will seek solutions to its issues through politics is unclear. Some members of the amorphous movement have formed working groups at various protest sites to develop lists of demands and figure out exactly how to get their grievances addressed.

But Occupy Wall Street has studiously avoided aligning itself with Democrats — some of whom view the occupy movement as a potential "Tea Party Left" — or any other political entity, for fear of having its message co-opted.

"Most people in the movement are hesitant because they don't trust politicians or the political process," Gacuca said.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., experienced the movement's ambivalence firsthand recently when protesters at an Atlanta site declined to let the civil-rights movement veteran speak.

Still, the Occupy movement's reluctant political stance hasn't kept President Barack Obama from speaking positively of the Wall Street occupiers. He told ABC News on Tuesday that the movement "isn't that much different from some of the protests that we saw from the tea party."

"Both on the left and the right, I think people feel separated from their government," Obama said. "They feel that their institutions aren't looking out for them."

While some prominent Democrats want to forge stronger ties with the movement, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., co-chair of the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus, warns fellow Democrats not to be heavy-handed in trying to adopt Occupy Wall Street.

"This thing is jelling, but it has to have time to do it," Ellison said. "But at this point these folks are so distanced from the political system that the last thing they want is some politician telling them what to do. They'll discover it for themselves."


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