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    October 2011
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Occupy Wall Street: People, Protest, and the Nature of Social Change


When he was younger, my dad was active in the anti-war movement. Living in Ontario, then Quebec, he spent much of his time during and after university organizing protests against the Vietnam War throughout central and northeast Canada and the United States. By the time I was born in the early ’80s, that period in his life had passed, but the remnants and legacy of the protest culture were all around me growing up. Folk musicians like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and (early) Bob Dylan were staples on the family record player. I was told stories about protests, and friends from the movement. I learned the meaning of some big words from things like a “Stop Nixon’s Genocide” button.

“His students, they just don’t see any hope”

Speaking to my dad on the phone last week, our conversation naturally turned to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I had just returned from Chicago, where I came across the Occupy Chicago march (more on this shortly), and he had just returned from Philadelphia, where he visited my cousin (a professor at a private college). The quote above is one from my cousin, about his students’ outlook and what they’ve said given the state of the economy. I think it provides excellent context to what many people (though not just the young) are feeling not just in the United States, but across the west in places where economies are struggling.

“Better watch out, they’re coming for you.”

A stranger next to me on the streets jokingly uttered these words as we crossed paths with the Occupy Chicago protest last Monday night. I was walking down Michigan Avenue, back to my hotel after the first day of Urban 2.0, still wearing a suit and tie. I stopped to take a photo and short video, then moved on.

The Occupy Chicago march on October 3rd, seen leaving Grant Park.

The joke got to my own conflicted feelings about protest. Certainly, I recognize it as a legitimate form of social and political activity, and that done properly it can be an effective form of advocacy. That said, I also think it has diminishing returns. Unless they attract incredibly large numbers of people, protests are less and less effective each time. See them often enough, and people will tune them out. I also wonder where many of them fit in as a means towards a greater end. But most importantly, I believe that for any movement to be successful, large numbers of citizens need to see themselves reflected in it. Sure, there have been large protest movements and actions in the past couple of decades (such as protesting the G8/G20), but these seemed more like outliers, protests about things that didn’t seem to materially affect most people on a day to day basis (note: I say ‘seem’ because we can argue all day about whether these actually do, but my point is most people don’t see it as something that does). Protests and this style of activism seemed disconnected from mainstream culture and concerns.

I think Occupy Wall Street is different. The economic crisis and financial inequality is something that hits a greater number of people, and in a real, tangible way they will notice every day. Also key is that to date, the protests have been civil, well-organized, and relatively free of conflict and violence. They also seem to be attracting a greater diversity of people. CNN profiled a handful of activists who by and large don’t fit the bill for what you’d expect at a protest. A lot of people are concerned about the economy, and frustrated with the benefits given to the banking industry and large corporations (they come at it from many different places, but this is the root of both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement, to name two examples). Also important – both the scale and duration make it stand out as a public protest event. A weeks-long camp-out/protest is different, and more likely to grab attention.

I see a lot of potential in this movement. This is a message that resonates with a lot of people – whether they’re regular activists, lapsed for a generation, or have never been active before. It’s a message, and a movement, that – for the time being at least – people can easily see themselves reflected in.

I can’t predict where Occupy Wall Street will go next, or how it will end, but I feel like this is a pivotal event in history. Anti-banker and financial elite movements have often defined politics in the United States (the Progressive movement in the 1890s-early 1900s, best evidenced through William Jennings Bryan and his Cross of Gold speech), and again through the Great Depression (FDR and New Deal pieces such as the Glass-Steagall Act), and to a lesser extent Canada as well (crow rates and tariffs that benefited central Canada at the west’s expense). The financial bailout seems to have reignited these tensions. The 99% is waking up, and politics and society are on the brink of a major shakeup.


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