Monday, September 17, 2018
September 17, 2018: Mass Protest Studying: Occupy Wall Street
[On September 17th, 2011 the Occupy Wall Street protests began in lower Manhattan. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that event and four other mass protests, leading up to a special weekend post on mass protest in the age of Trump.]
On a frustrating side to the groundbreaking mass protest, and a more important effect.
I wrote in this space about Occupy Wall Street just a few months after it began, as part of my 2011 year-end series, and would still emphasize many of the same historical and cultural contexts that I highlighted in that post (many of which, it turns out, will be focal points for later posts in this week’s series). More broadly, I would argue that if anything the subsequent six and a half years have driven home far more clearly and frustratingly one of my main points in that post: the many parallels between our contemporary moment and the late 19th century Gilded Age, an era full of layers and contradictions but most centrally defined by striking, growing, and hugely destructive inequalities across a wide range of communities and issues. (But also by images of gold, making a president who literally shits on a golden throne about as on-the-nose as a metaphor can possibly get.) If we are indeed inside a new Gilded Age, then the Occupy Wall Street protests could be seen a vital origin point for the kinds of collective protests and activisms that helped produce the prior Gilded Age’s progressive, muckrakers, and other voices of resistance and reform.
The Occupy protests also have a good deal in common with another Gilded Age movement of mass protest and resistance, the incipient labor movement. While the late 19th century labor movement achieved many vital victories and reforms, it also found itself inextricably linked to a historical tragedy where mass protest and mob violence became frustratingly interconnected: the May 1886 Haymarket bombing. As I wrote in that hyperlinked post, there’s no way to know whether the Haymarket bombers had anything to do with the labor movement (or anarchism, or etc.); but at the very least domestic terrorists used the occasion of a justified mass protest to enact an act of violence. And similarly, while the rise of antifa and its central strategy of (often) violent leftist mass protest is a separate 21st century trend from Occupy Wall Street, I would argue that the two communities overlap (or at least occupy a continuum) and are at times difficult to separate—justified and overtly peaceful mass protests in service of vital social and political goals blending far too closely with extreme and often violent mob actions. (To be fair, antifa does many other things as well, but mob violence is a part of the movement without question.) Violence and mass protest are never entirely unrelated, but to my mind they cannot become too closely tied without producing a fundamental and frustrating shift in purpose for the protests themselves.
Frustrating continuums or not, however, the Occupy Wall Street protests themselves remained largely nonviolent and peaceful, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. Moreover, I think OWS achieved at least one hugely important effect that has endured long beyond the disassembling of the camps: a crucial reframing of national narratives to include issues like the minimum wage and the need for a living wage, student loan debt and the cost of higher education, health care costs and realities, predatory banking practices and loan forgiveness policies, and many more. All of those issues pre-dated Occupy of course, but as often with mass protests Occupy helped draw sustained and substantive attention to them, forcing them into our collective conversations. As a result, Occupy-linked political figures like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been able to make their fights for these and other parallel issues central to their public service work and identities, extending Occupy’s protest activisms into the policy-making arena very successfully. As the rest of the week’s posts will illustrate, mass protest is most effective when it creates legacies that survive and thrive long after the protests have concluded—and on that note, OWS has to be counted as one of the most effective and important mass protests in American history.
Next protest tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?