WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Veteran comic and activist Dick Gregory said the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations were reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights movement and police violence could catapult it into a mass protest.

Gregory, 78, said political leaders faced the danger of underestimating the strength of the anti-corporate protests that have brought out thousands of demonstrators in cities across the United States.

"Listening to this is like listening to the early days of the civil rights movement. What's going to really tip it off, is a cop is going to make a mistake," Gregory, one of the first crossover black comedians, told Reuters late on Sunday before a sold-out show at the Riot Act comedy club.

"The difference between this movement and our movement is that white people -- rich, poor, educated -- are born with 300 years of white privilege," he said.

"So there are certain things that you don't do to me when you're born with privileges. When it was us, the cops could do anything they wanted to. You can't do these children like this."

Gregory, who has been repeatedly arrested at protests stretching over decades, said he had talked at length with demonstrators at the Stop the Machine protest in central Washington. The protest is separate from Occupy Wall Street but shares similar goals.

"Young folks is coming through now, they are saying, there's something wrong with this. They have this sense of fairness ... they have a new mentality," he said.

Gregory, who also is a successful diet food entrepreneur, downplayed the importance that an entertainer alone could have in bringing about social change.

"People like glamor. That's what messes up America," he said.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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