As other protesters chanted vigorously around her, Nancy Pi-Sunyer stood off to the side at the Occupy Wall Street rally, clutching her sign, looking a little like a new teacher on the first day of school.
In a way, she was: At 66, this 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, some of them first-time protesters.
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 the US — the “99 percent,” in their words — isn’t getting a fair shake.
Beyond that, though, there is a diversity of age, gender and race — in part because of the 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. At one protest, the younger element seemed actually to be in the minority.”
Pi-Sunyer, who lives in Montclair, New Jersey, was drawn into the fray on Wednesday the same way many were — via social networks. She saw a post from a friend on Facebook and realized it was time to join.
“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.)
“I was oblivious before. I can’t be oblivious now,” she added.
Nearby, a speaker in lower Manhattan’s Foley Square yelled into a microphone: “I’m tired of sticking my hand in my pocket and only getting my leg.”
The “Granny Brigade” pulled out guitars and played a song.
Such diversity is what organizers were hoping for, said Patrick Bruner, spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street.
Since launching the protests in the middle of last month 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, or for women.
“We’ve gradually seen our message resonate with different groups of people,” he said.
Organizers also have been encouraging people to tell their stories in a virtual protest on tumblr, the social network, spotlighting people of different backgrounds, each tale of economic hardship ending with: “I am the 99 percent.”
Experts say the role of social networks in building and organizing these protests, like in the recent revolt in Egypt, cannot be overstated.
What the movement does not have right now, these experts said, are the same concrete goals of some past social movements — a lack that many demonstrators seem to be embracing, at least for the moment.
“For now, it’s a lot like the Internet — leaderless, spaceless,” Karen Livecchia, 49, said as she collected signatures, spurred to action by an e-mail from MoveOn.org.
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