Burnett visits with Wall St. protesters
02:34 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

Occupy Wall Street is a protest movement covering a range of issues, with no clear leadership

Many of the protesters are upset with growing wealth divide in the United States

Nobody's being held accountable, one protester complains

It's too soon to clearly label the movement, Stanford sociologist Susan Olzak says

CNN  — 

Hero Vincent has a dream: to see the titans of Wall Street trade their palatial office suites for a row of dank prison cells.

The crime? Theft. Stealing billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded bailouts. Getting rich on your dime while you struggle to make ends meet.

And if you’re tired of standing by while the rich get richer and the middle class crumbles, he has a suggestion: Take it to the streets.

Vincent, 21 and unemployed, has suddenly become one of several unofficial spokesmen for Occupy Wall Street, a leaderless protest movement made largely of twenty-somethings upset with the state of the economy, the state of the war in Afghanistan, the state of the environment, and the state of America and the world in general.

If that sounds vague, it’s meant to be. In less than three weeks, the movement has become a magnet for countless disaffected Americans. And at a time when an overwhelming majority of Americans say the country’s on the wrong track, there’s no shortage of new potential recruits.

Photos: ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests

On Saturday, more than 700 protesters were arrested for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. A splinter group called Occupy Chicago touted a “huge afternoon march.” In Boston, 34 groups – unions and other organizations focused on everything from foreclosure prevention to climate change – marched for “an economy that works for all of us,” according to one website.

Over on the West Coast, Occupy Los Angeles kicked off with a march to City Hall. In Seattle, demonstrators touted “a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors (and) genders.”

On Monday, a live video feed from Occupy Wall Street was featured at the start of a three-day conference of progressive leaders in Washington.

What does it all mean?

“We’re here for different reasons,” said Vincent, whose father is also unemployed and recently went through a home foreclosure. “But at the end of the day, it all boils down to one thing, and that’s accountability. We want accountability for the connection between Wall Street and the politicians.”

“Something has to change,” he told CNN. “We’re out here because we’re tired of what’s been going on.”

Giles Clarke, a 46-year-old freelance photographer and father of two, echoes Vincent’s call for greater accountability.

“People have simply had enough,” Clarke said. “We’re living in an age where the inequality between high-end Wall Street and the (rest of us) is simply a gap that has become too big. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Millions of people have lost their homes.”

There’s been, Clarke said, “way too much cloak-and-dagger activity within the corridors of Wall Street” in recent years. “This is about raising awareness and a change of political discourse.”

The average person, according to Vincent, “is just fed up because there’s no more middle class. The margin between us and the employers is so great now. Where will we be in a couple of years?”

Does he actually want to occupy Wall Street and shut it down?

“We want to educate people,” Vincent said. But “if Wall Street actually shuts down, we’ll be happy about it.”

The movement “feels like something that will ultimately spread like the Arab spring,” said Egberto Willies, a CNN iReporter in Washington. “I call it the American autumn.”

Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots have clear strains of liberal economic populism – a powerful force in U.S. history during various times characterized by growing economic stress. That said, it could be a mistake to label or tie the movement to a specific agenda, said Susan Olzak, a Stanford University sociology professor.

“It’s difficult to classify a social protest movement early on in its history,” Olzak told CNN. “Clearer goals could eventually emerge, but there’s no guarantee.”

“Many movements fizzle out. Others become more organized,” she said. But “I think we run a risk (by) taking a snapshot at any one point in time, and trying to categorize the movement in any one way based on that snapshot. The only way to study these protest movements is to follow them over time.”

If Vincent, Willies and Clarke have their way, there will be plenty of time for this movement to continue to grow and evolve. Some observers question if it could become a liberal counterweight to the conservative populism of the tea party.

For his part, Clarke predicts the movement will go international in the next few months.

“Let’s get talking,” he urged. “Let’s have some of these issues looked at.”

CNN’s Greg Botelho and Maggie Lake contributed to this report.