Today, the group that has now occupied a city park for six weeks shows few signs that it is allowing outside organizations a substantial role in planning its marches, making decisions, or deciding what issues to embrace.
NEW YORK — With its noisy drum circle, meandering parades of bandanna-clad youth and disdain for centralized leadership, the Occupy Wall Street encampment sometimes has the ragtag look of a group that is making things up as it goes along and discovering its own purpose along the way.
But from the start, the movement has also gotten support from a long list of experienced, well-funded organizations, unions and political committees — sometimes to the discomfort of more radical protesters who worry about their message being co-opted or watered down.
After an initial hesitation to get involved, unions from Boston to Los Angeles have sent members to march in the demonstrations and donate air mattresses, food and other supplies. In San Francisco and San Diego, members of the California Nurses Association have staffed first aid stations at Occupy events.
MoveOn.org, a group that has given millions to liberal Democrats, has promoted the demonstrations relentlessly on its Web site and in blast emails.
To most of the youthful radicals at the movement's heart, all this help is welcome, but with a caveat.
"This is a movement of individuals, not managed political coalitions," said Alexa O'Brien, one of the many early organizers who helped get the New York occupation started on Sept. 17.
Unions can be great, and their support is "critical," but they can be corrupt, too, she said. And the Democratic Party, she added, is part of the problem.
"If you are going to ask corporations to get out of elections, you have to ask all special interests to get out of elections," she said. "This movement is about building civic infrastructure for regular citizens."
Today, the group that has now occupied a city park for six weeks shows few signs that it is allowing outside organizations a substantial role in planning its marches, making decisions, or deciding what issues to embrace. But it has also turned to a network of left-leaning organizations for help, some of which have been around since before most of the protesters were born.
The group of activists who began meeting to plan the demonstrations in mid-summer included several people who had been involved in an organization called US Uncut, which is affiliated with the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank that cut its teeth opposing the Vietnam War.
When Occupy Wall Street needed an established nonprofit group to help handle incoming donations, which have now topped $500,000, they turned to the Alliance for Global Justice, an entity originally founded in 1979 to build support for the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
The National Lawyers Guild, whose members have been representing dissenters, peaceniks, and civil-rights activists since1937, has set up Occupy legal hotlines in 19 cities and been representing protesters arrested across the country.
Even the unofficial newspaper of the New York encampment, The Occupy Wall Street Journal, didn't simply spring organically from the protesters' base in Zuccotti Park; it is a special edition of the Indypendent, an alternative newspaper that has been publishing for 11 years.
All of this support by outside groups has become a rallying point by the movement's critics, who have accused it being manipulated behind the scenes by government worker unions trying to keep taxes high, or by Democrats trying to use the "class warfare" card in upcoming elections, or by community organizing groups trying to drum up support for government entitlement programs.
If that's happening, there is scant evidence in Occupy Wall Street's daily organizational meetings, where the demonstrators seem to focus a substantial amount of time and energy on the logistics of keeping the camp running and building an organization. Much of the assistance provided has been more inspirational than operational.
Chuck Collins, a senior IPS scholar, said that while US Uncut activists provided a list of media contacts to the demonstrators, produced some graphics, and brought skills they had honed in past protests against "corporate tax dodgers," the organizing effort was autonomous, with no initial support from organized labor, foundations or other "major institutional players."
IPS Director John Cavanagh said that while was aware that some of his younger colleagues were involved in planning the protest, they did so independently of the institute. The institute didn't offer any financial assistance, "and I don't know any other established progressive groups who did," Cavanagh said.
"I will admit honestly that I had doubts as to whether they would have any impact," he said of his attitude toward the demonstration.
Even the editors at Adbusters, the Canadian magazine that came up with the idea for the demonstration and registered the OccupyWallStreet.org website, appear to have had little influence over the movement's direction. Its subsequent calls for the occupiers to rally behind a demand for a 1 percent global tax on financial transactions has yet to be embraced by the encampment, which has strongly resisted making any specific demands.
But that hasn't stopped groups like unions from jumping on the Occupy bandwagon, and maybe advancing their own agenda.
"It's something that has energized our membership," said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which has turned part of its New York headquarters into storage space for the protesters.
Strong union participation in an Oct. 5 march in Manhattan made it one of the largest for any "Occupy" event to date.
Communication Workers of America political director Bob Master said that while many demonstrators have a political philosophy to the left of the typical trade unionist, "Most of the labor movement in New York recognizes that these young people have sparked a national discussion about issues that are central to our agenda."
Support has also come from groups known for raising large sums for Democratic political candidates — a development that has bothered some demonstrators.
MoveOn angered some Occupy protesters with an Oct. 18 fundraising email that asked members to help it build on the momentum created by the protests by chipping in $5.
MoveOn's executive director, Justin Ruben, said the group wasn't trying to mooch off of the movement.1 comment on this story
"We've been clear about what we're fundraising for," he said. "We're not them. We're not Occupy Wall Street. We're very clear that we don't speak for them. They seem like they are doing a great job getting their voice out. And we want to help."
Democracy for America spokeswoman Levana Layendecker said that while the PAC was prohibited by federal law from giving direct cash assistance to Occupy Wall Street, it was hoping to provide support in other ways, including donating cold-weather sleeping bags and medical supplies.