House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) made an abrupt shift in rhetoric toward the Wall Street protesters on Tuesday, saying they were “justifiably frustrated,” just days after describing the people in the streets as “growing mobs.”
“People are upset, and they are justifiably frustrated,” Cantor told reporters at his weekly Capitol Hill briefing. “They are out of work. The economy is not moving. Their sense of security for the future is not clear at all. People are afraid, and I get it.”
On Friday, Cantor appeared to condemn the movement and chastised Democrats who had voiced support for the demonstrators in New York and other cities.
“I, for one, am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country,” Cantor said in a speech to the conservative Values Voter conference in Washington. “Believe it or not, some in this town have actually condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans.”
Cantor drew criticism for his remarks, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noting that the Republican leader did not condemn excesses in the Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010.
“I didn’t hear him say anything when the Tea Party was out demonstrating, actually spitting on members of Congress right here in the Capitol, and he and his colleagues were putting signs in the windows encouraging them,” Pelosi said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Cantor made his comments Tuesday during an unprompted monologue on the protests at the outset of his press conference, in what appeared to be an attempt on his part to revise his initial denunciation of the activist movement.
Asked on Tuesday whether he regretted his earlier characterization of the protesters as “growing mobs,” Cantor said his criticism was aimed at elected leaders and others who sought to pit Americans against Americans.
“What I was attempting to say is that the action and statements of elected leaders in this town condoning the pitting of Americans against Americans is not very helpful right now,” Cantor said. “What we need to do is come together as one, all Americans. To sit here and vilify one sector of the economy, industries, et cetera, is not helpful. People are lacking confidence right now, and we have elected leaders stirring the pot, if you will. That’s not good.”
The Occupy Wall Street protests have grown in number and expanded to other cities, including the District of Columbia, where Capitol Police arrested six protesters at the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday. Nearly 700 demonstrators were arrested by the New York Police Department on the Brooklyn Bridge earlier this month.
Some Democrats have called the nascent movement the Tea Party of the left, but the activists have been reluctant to embrace support from establishment members of either party.
Cantor on Tuesday rejected the Tea Party comparison, and while he said he understood the frustration of the demonstrators, he did not dial back his criticism of their aims.
“The Tea Party is very different. The Tea Party were individuals that were … seeking redress of their grievances from the government that they elected,” Cantor said. He said that by contrast, the Wall Street protesters were “pitting themselves against others outside government in America. That’s the difference.”
“The folks who were involved and continue to be so in the Tea Party are worried about the government and its policies,” he added. “It’s not pitting one part of our country against another.”
Responding to Pelosi, Cantor said: “You didn’t hear most of us encourage any type of violent behavior or whatever when that was occurring.”
Reporters repeatedly pressed Cantor on whether he regretted his comments from Friday and to explain the distinction he saw between the protests of actors on Wall Street and Tea Party anger at the government in Washington. He returned again to his focus on elected officials he suggested were inciting the protests.
“I don’t believe our role is to inflame a division between different parts and sectors of American society,” Cantor said.
—This post was updated at 7:32 p.m.