"I think Occupy embodies it to me," he continues. "It doesn't have a political strategy, it has a protest strategy. And successful political movements generally have both."
This tension between protest and politics goes back some time.
In February 1965, civil rights movement strategist Bayard Rustin wrote an influential essay in Commentary magazine titled "From Protest to Politics," arguing that the sit-ins which struck down a segregationist legal structure would not be sufficient to address the larger economic challenges facing black America. Only alliances with religious groups, unions, and liberal whites, he maintained, could build the political power required for systemic change.
In the decades that followed, politics proved a reasonably effective tool — yielding Lyndon Johnson's Great Society on the federal level and black mayoralties from Los Angeles to Detroit to, eventually, New York.
But the fundamental problems of economic inequality that concerned Rustin have, in many respects, grown worse. And in the age of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, Occupyers argue, politics as we know it is simply incapable of addressing them.
It is, at its heart, a deeply pessimistic view of our democracy. But there is an odd sort of dissonance, here. Occupyers, if thoroughly disgusted with elected officials of both parties, seem convinced that they can force the bums in the right direction by sheer volume of protest.
Indeed, the glass half-full view of Occupy is that it will be the "protest wing" of a larger movement — its inside game staffed by Democrats forced into a more progressive posture.
The liberal Democratic fantasy has Occupy taking over the National Mall next year in a bold gesture that pushes the party to the left and energizes progressive voters in the run-up to the 2012 elections.
But forcing a system to change, from the outside, requires something like the moral force of the civil rights movement or the explosiveness of Tahrir Square. Occupy, for all its accomplishments, has not come close to either yet.
And history suggests the movement could backfire. Richard Nixon parlayed the upheaval of 1968 into an appeal to "the silent majority" and walked into the White House. Republicans are already trying to make similar use of Occupy.
Newt Gingrich says protesters should be told to "go get a job right after you take a bath." And a Karl Rove-advised group launched ads skewering Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren for claiming she created the "intellectual foundation" for the Occupy movement.
If the GOP thinks those ads can work in blue Massachusetts, one can only imagine what the party has planned for the purple states.
For the reformist wing of the Occupy movement, a GOP romp in 2012 might sting, even if the players won't acknowledge as much. But for another wing of the movement — call it the neo-hippie, utopian strand — all of this is beside the point.
Annie Rose London, 24, a recent Brown University graduate who has played a central role in Occupy Providence says she doesn't want to reform our biggest institutions. She wants to create alternatives — to the big banks, to corporate agriculture, to consumerism; when we talked just before Christmas, she was preparing for a holiday gift-making workshop that aimed to circumvent the mall.
For many of the protesters, the ultimate alternative to our broken culture is Occupy itself.