Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

5 things to know about Occupy Wall Street + 1 big question

October 20, 2011 by Ralph Young


1. How Occupy Wall Street compares  with the Tea Party

It seems that a plethora of pundits are rushing to compare the Occupy Wall Street movement with the Tea Party and to some (albeit superficial) extent they are right.  Both movements are expressions of a deep-seated discontent about the nation’s direction, or lack thereof.  And both seem to have originated as grassroots movements.  But the Tea Party, almost from the beginning, received generous financial backing from many well-heeled sources, most notably the billionaire Koch brothers.  Occupy Wall Street, at least in its infancy, has not received such largesse.  Whereas the Tea Party’s central goal is to drastically diminish government, Occupy Wall Street’s goal is to goad the government to get off both the right and left halves of its partisan butts and do something, anything, to extricate the nation from this financial crisis. 

2. We've been here before

Occupy Wall Street protesters in Portland, OR (Wikimedia Commons)

There have been many similar protests in American history against corporations, industrialists, bankers, Wall Street and the economic devastation their unregulated activities unleashed.  The 19th-century labor movement featured thousands of strikes and protests:  Haymarket was one of the most famous incidents.  But also the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Homestead Strike in 1892 against Carnegie Steel Works (the so-called philanthropist left for a summer vacation at his castle in Scotland ordering his manager Henry Clay Frick to break the strike), and the Pullman Strike of 1894, which brought Eugene V. Debs to national prominence.  Also in 1894, as close to a million workers nationwide went on strike, Jacob Coxey led a march of 100 unemployed men on a march from Ohio to Washington, protesting the federal government’s failure to pass legislation that would create jobs and alleviate the plight of the unemployed.  By the time they reached Washington, “Coxey’s Army” had grown to 500 (he had hoped for 100,000).  They rallied at the Capitol and demanded that the government fund public works projects to put Americans back to work.  But Congress and President Grover Cleveland turned their backs and sent in the DC police to arrest the protestors (for walking on the grass!). 

3. The lesson of the Great Depression

Throughout the Great Depression hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets in protest:  from the 1932 Bonus March of US Army veterans, to the numerous strikes during the New Deal, when labor activists denounced FDR for not going far enough in reining in and, in fact, punishing, Wall Street, big business, and the bankers, even though Republicans at that time were accusing Roosevelt as a Socialist/Communist bent on destroying capitalism.  Economic hardship invariably propels people to take to the streets.  And the worse the economy gets, the more people are willing to protest. 

4. Protest Movements snowball

At present Occupy Wall Street is a grassroots movement without any leaders.  But many dissent movements started off that way.  One thinks of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus, or the four students in Greensboro, NC, who sat down at that lunch counter on February 1, 1960.  So protest starts off like this, with one or a few persons saying they've had enough.  If it expands, if it enjoys some modest success, it becomes more organized and develops a more coherent strategy -- whether through a charismatic leader (like Martin Luther King) and a core of dedicated activists who have decided they're not going to take it anymore, or when an ever-increasing number of individuals reach the point of a critical mass that cannot be stopped.  This is what happened in Tunisia and Egypt.   It's like a snowball rolling down a mountain.  It picks up speed and before you know it you have an unstoppable avalanche. 

5. Inspiration sometimes comes from abroad

For once American citizens have been deeply inspired by the courageous ordinary people of other countries.  When Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Yemenis, and others rose up and challenged the dictators who ruled them, Americans had the collective epiphany that if those people could fight for democracy where it does not exist, perhaps it was Americans’ duty to fight for it in the United States in order to make 21st-century reality more closely resemble the ideals that were expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  If we want to maintain a government of “We the People,” we are going to have to fight for it.

6. Will government listen?

It is clear throughout the history of the world and the history of the United States that in order for change to happen people on the outside have to push and people on the inside have to listen.  What the Wall Street protestors want above all is for their government to listen.  Whether or not it is even capable of listening remains to be seen.

Ralph Young, is a professor of history at Temple University, specializing in dissenters and protest movements, and is the author of Dissent in America: Voices that Shaped a Nation.

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