For two months the central feature of the Occupy Movement was the occupation of Zuccotti Park and the scores of encampments that spread from Wall Street to Philadelphia, Oakland and nearly every urban center in between. But geography is only symbolic; it is the message that resonates. By ordering the encampments to be dismantled and the protestors expelled, as occurred in Philadelphia and Los Angeles this weekend, the authorities have done the movement a favor. They have liberated Occupy Wall Street from geography.
Even if the protests ceased immediately the Occupy Movement has already had a significant success. It has forced discussion on the income inequality gap into the political debate so that it’s not just the deficit that people are talking about.
That’s not a view everyone shares. Many Americans dismiss the protestors (often with a smirk) as unfocused ne’er-do-wells incapable of issuing a definitive manifesto of their goals and demands. But critics miss the fact that the reason the protestors are expressing such a plethora of grievances is that Wall Street control of Washington has created a plethora of problems.
The cornucopia of grievances is a reflection of the depth of the crisis. When policy creates a handful of problems people will grumble, but they stay at home. But when the problems become so numerous and widespread that they touch nearly everybody, and when they are clearly beyond the government’s power, or willingness, to fix, then grievances boil over and protest with it. It may well be worth asking if Occupy Wall St/Philadelphia/Boston/Atlanta/Oakland/Denver/Los Angeles/Seattle is approaching the point of critical mass. Is the Occupy Movement an aberration, a flash in the pan that will sputter out? Or is it a portent of things to come?
I can’t predict the future. But there is no disputing that the type of dissent represented by the Occupy Movement is central to our past. In fact, dissent is one of our defining characteristics as a people. Every decade since the ratification of the Constitution (indeed since the earliest days of colonial settlement) Americans have protested for a wide variety of reasons, and every time there were defenders of the then status quo who denounced the protestors as unpatriotic, as un-American, despite the fact that protest is the consummate expression of “Americanness.” It IS patriotic in the deepest sense.
Despite the fact that some protestors pride themselves in being anarchists, Occupy Wall Street is not particularly radical. Most activists are calling for reform, not the destruction, of capitalism and as such they are more akin to the Progressive Movement of the early twentieth century than they are to the IWW, or the radical socialists and anarchists who sought to smash capitalism 100 years ago.
I suspect that many of the Wall Street protestors voted for President Obama and an underlying cause of their discontent is the disappointment they feel that he has not done enough to alleviate their suffering. Some hoped that he would be the proverbial knight on a white horse slaying all the dragons as he led America into a new future. The cold dose of reality that followed triggered the epiphany that no single person, not even the President of the United States, can change the world. Thus the foundation of the Occupy Movement is the realization that only through the efforts of millions of ordinary people working together can we bring about the society we envision.
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.