History Lessons for Occupy Wall Street

I recently set out to see first-hand what the Occupy Wall Street protests were all about.  As one of the 99%ers and, furthermore, one of the majority supporting this spontaneous groundswell against the financial greed that landed us in the current economic mess, I saw my trip to Lower Manhattan as part curiosity, part solidarity pilgrimage.  What I found was a relatively small group of committed, albeit dirty (who wouldn’t be camping out in a small, two-block park in the city?) activists engaging in a sort of political street-theater designed to grab a slice of the media’s attention to raise awareness to a much larger group of homebodies like me.  Give them credit: they have succeeded in capturing global and national attention, spawning copycat protests and making space in the limited minutes of tv coverage and inches of print news for views other than Republican Presidential campaigns and their populist tea-party supporters. 

Occupy's History. Photo: JDickson

Yes, there is historic precedence in the U.S. for this kind of response to our current moment.  The Occupy protests attack our financial institutions, much like those opposed to the national bank in first Jefferson’s and then Jackson’s presidencies or the populist agrarian protests against banks and debt burdens during the 1890s.  Interestingly, one sign in Zuccotti Park demanding the Federal Reserve be abolished could have been borrowed from a Tea Party rally.  Common threads of left and right wing populism?  

Some see parallels to Coxey’s Army march by unemployed workers on Washington in 1894 or Shay’s rebellion, organized shortly after the Revolutionary War by veterans who could not pay their debts.  Even the Whiskey Rebellion a few years later in the 1790s could represent another precedent in our history as farmers tried to prevent federal officials from collecting taxes.  Seems more anti-government, like Tea Party than Occupy, though.

Like the unions in the early 1900s and 1930s and the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, there has been music and drumming at Wall Street.  Even Pete Seeger, the voice and banjo threading the environmental activism of the 80s and 90s to the 60s and the 30s, showed up.   Music helps pass the time, helps energize those sitting around and adds to the carnival flavor.  

While these may constitute antecedents in our democratic tradition which allows for this kind of outburst of political passion, they probably did not spawn or inspire this current movement.  Much more on the minds of organizers have been the taking of Tahir Square in Cairo, the “indignados” of Spain this past spring and even the anti-globalization protests of the 1990s.  Certainly, the Occupy-ers have used the same convening power of social media forms like Twitter and Facebook to bring together a loose collection of activists over the summer for the original September 17 protest in New York.   

 I agree with their populist rage, but from the comfort of my own home.  As much as I admire them for this small group’s willingness to undergo the hardships, I just don’t see myself giving up my routines to join this rag-tag group.   Tahir Square was able to bring out people like me, members of the middle class or professionals in Cairo, average people who were so thrilled by having more a say in their daily lives that they gave up their home comforts and joined the protests.   Maybe the difference is that democractic nations have a built-in means of change which was not open to those in Egypt. 

So, while the Occupyers may have borrowed directly from Tahir Square, our historic precedent looks more like a small, energized group of people capable of shifting the mood of the broader body politic.  In the 1950s and 60s, it was one woman who refused to move to the back of a bus, or four students who refused to give up their seats at a restaurant counter which captured national attention and ignited further protests.  But it was a relatively small group of people who kept the up pressure to change, and had a decisive, lasting impact on the broader body politic.  No permanent change came out of Shays Rebellion or even Coxey’s Army, even if they do get a mention in our history textbooks.  It remains to be seen which route the Occupy-ers will settle for a mere mention, or a broader impact.  That should dictate their strategy from here on.

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