NEW YORK — As other protesters chanted vigorously around her, Nancy Pi-Sunyer stood off to the side at the Occupy Wall Street rally, clutching her sign.
At 66, the retired teacher was joining a protest for the first time in her life.
“I was too young for the civil rights movement,” Pi-Sunyer said earlier this week as she joined thousands of protesters marching in lower Manhattan. “And during the Vietnam War, I was too serious a student. Now, I just want to stand up and have my voice be heard.”
As the protests have expanded and gained support from new sources, what began three weeks ago as a group of mostly young people camping out on the streets has morphed into something different: an umbrella movement for people of varying ages, life situations and grievances.
There are a few common denominators among the protesters: their position on the left of the political spectrum, and the view that the majority in America – the “99 percent,” in their words – isn’t getting a fair shake.
Beyond that, though, there’s a diversity of age, gender and race – in part because of the recent injection of labor union support, and fueled by social networks – that is striking to some who study social protests.
“Most people think this is a bunch of idealistic young kids,” said Heather Gautney, a sociology professor at Fordham University and an analyst of social protests. “But the wider movement is remarkably more diverse than it’s been portrayed. I’ve seen a lot of first-time protesters, nurses, librarians.”
Pi-Sunyer, who lives in Montclair, N.J., was drawn into the fray Wednesday the same way many were – via social networks.
“I just decided to get off the couch and be in control,” she said, holding a hand-lettered sign that read: “Wise OWLS Seek Economic Justice 4 All.” (OWLS was a play on the initials for Occupy Wall Street – with an “l’’ for little people.)
Both Cherie and Rich Walters had protested during the Vietnam War, as students at Central Michigan University. Compared with those anti-war protests, she said, this one was way more diverse – “different ages, colors, even languages,” she said. Legal Aid lawyer Steve Wasserman, 63, who joined Wednesday’s march with his union and remembered his Vietnam protesting days, agreed. “The old left was very male-dominated,” he said.
Such diversity is what organizers were hoping for, said Patrick Bruner, the spokesman for Occupy Wall Street. Since launching the protests in mid-September with a group of mostly young activists, “we’ve made a concerted effort to diversify our group,” he said, with an outreach committee and caucus groups for people of color, for example. “We’ve gradually seen our message resonate with different groups of people.”