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“History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” Justice Thurgood Marshall (1989)

Introduction: The Occupy Wall Street Movement’s 
Problem is Big Business

The Battle of Wall Street (aka Occupy Wall Street) began taking shape in mid-Summer 2011, targeting the leading financial district of the United States—Manhattan’s (NYC) Wall Street. The primary thrust of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement (which is in its third week, has reverberated around the country and infused demonstrations from the east to the west coast), is that it is a self-defined social revolution, interested in confronting corporate corruption and greed; the overwhelming influence of corporate America; and the demand for Big Business accountability. Protestors, barred from the Stock Exchange, have staged their protest in several venues (from their Liberty Plaza encampment to the Brooklyn Bridge), and have stated their frustration over, and a crushing sense that, rampant greed on the part of Wall Street financiers has been one of the major causes of the nation’s (and the globe’s) current economic problems. They are infuriated because this sector in particular “gambled with America’s future.” The Occupy Wall Street protestors have stated emphatically: “not in our own backyard.” They have also claimed that politicians have failed America on several key, and interrelated areas: the banking scandals and bailouts (including exorbitant salaries and bonuses), the depletion or elimination of workers retirement/pension funds, unemployment and underemployment (for millions of Americans [9.1% overall, over 10% in some southern states and the District of Columbia; over 12% in California and Nevada; nearly 17% for Blacks, and as high as 24% for African Americans in cities like Detroit]—state source Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2011), wage furloughs (salary reductions) and layoffs, the lack of or inadequate health care/insurance (high costs), taxation arguments (who pays and how much?), rising home foreclosures/homelessness and the devastated housing market as a whole, challenges to collective bargaining and the survival of labor unions, the failure of democrats and republicans to cooperate, and U.S.-funded war-interests abroad. While these are their major concerns, protestors have also cited limited September 11 information flow to the public, and the lack of fair and continuous cable and network news coverage of liberal protests, specifically the Occupy Wall Street movement.

America As Another Example Of “Arab Spring”
And A Counterfactual Challenge

The Battle of Wall Street in the United States has been called “America’s Arab Spring,” (beginning in 2010 with The North African Tunisian and Egyptian protests sweeping into 2011 with Yemen, Jordan, Syria and other regions of the Arab world) by the media because of the widespread nature of the movement, the pervasive and potent use of independent/social media, the intergenerational makeup of protestors that is filled with young people who are predominately white (yet unquestionably the Occupy Wall Street movement includes large numbers of African, Latino, and other people of color), and support from celebrities and public intellectuals. They have insisted that their efforts represent peaceful occupation, that they are people who only want their voices heard—to express their First Amendment Rights. They feel that “corporate criminals” have seized power and that they are part of the vanguard to shift power back to the people. They range from undergraduate and graduate students, the unemployed seeking work, lawyers, teachers, and journalists in support of the protests, union laborers, to “meditation flash mobs”—all expressing the idea that “people are all connected” around these issues. However, counter-factually speaking, if the protest had a singular unifying message around racial discrimination (encompassing the experiences of African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans and Asian Americans, or even gender vis-à-vis the concerns of white women), would the demonstrations or displays of support and sympathy be as visibly compelling today? Recall the 1995 Million Man and the 1997 Million Woman marches where organizers felt shunned by the media, the messages of racism, jobs, and housing was confounded with heated debates over the political significance of the vast numbers of Blacks in attendance. “The American Autumn” protests are notable in historical context because: 1) The rest of the world (for example, South America, Europe, regions that have a modern history of large protests) is wondering “what took America so long?”; and 2) When masses of white United States citizens feel inordinately threatened; or fearful that their own sense of existence —particularly their civil liberties—has approximated that of the plight and struggles of downtrodden people of color—then a widespread people’s movement promptly manifests itself, rather than immediate and expansive support for protests initiated and mounted by people considered grassroots, marginal, and powerless. The Occupy Wall Street Movement has the opportunity to truly seize the momentum to address how racism has been used to control class and economy.

What Occupy Wall Street Activists Appear to be Saying
And Anti-Protest Labels

The Battle of Wall Street protestors are asserting—in the same way 1960s activists (concerning several causes) proclaimed that American capitalism was flawed and does not work for the masses of people; that the quality of life of the citizens—the development of America—has deteriorated; that society is “less” equal and class divisions are more pronounced; that persistent social problems can no longer be ignored; that organized criticism of the system of government is not public threats that calls for socialist or communist replacement schemes; and that democracy in practice fails without open communication and dissent. The resounding rightist criticism of The Occupy Wall Street Movement is that its organizational structure is not easily discernable if not unsteady. However, the public conservative reaction to the movement insists that the protestors are largely comprised of underachieving “hippie-types”; and that political liberals wield undue influence over the aims of the protestors. Undeterred by anti-protest labels, and with a presidential election looming, the Occupy Wall Street supporters are dissatisfied with the outcomes of the events of the distant and recent past—and the youth especially feel empowered to state that they do not envision a viable future without change.

The Civil Rights/Black Power Movement
As Protest Model into the Twenty-first Century

The legacies of perpetual racism, and the sense of “too little too late” (social and legal attempts to address racial inequality and systemic discrimination) fueled the protests of the 1960s. When the Civil Rights/Black Power Movement came to fruition in the 1960s, two decades after its emergence in the wake of World War II, millions of people of African descent in America had reached a tipping point. For generations African Americans were socially and methodically oppressed and racially ostracized in every aspect of American life. As their voices unified and rose, the protestors that marched and boycotted risked their lives and largely segregated livelihoods to bring about democracy. In 1964 Malcolm X called for Black community action when he stated that social unrest would eventually culminate into “ballots—or bullets.” Today—though racism has not abated—the driving force of the Occupy Wall Street protests is primarily focused on class and the economy. Like many civil protest activities of today, we revisit the Civil Rights/Black Power era for valuable lessons and insights. The Civil Rights/Black Power era is certainly viewed as an ideal paradigm of peaceful civil disobedience; that included various forms of non-violent dissent. However, despite this peaceful purpose, reactionary rioting in major cities occurred. Military force was used to halt (initially) the racial integration of schools, and to eradicate notions of “Black Power” and civil disobedience as major public narratives of race relations. Mass arrests and police brutality were televised for the first time (in black and white), along with the aftermath of lynching, the use of attack dogs, water hoses, actual and “rubber” bullets, gas, and beatings with clubs, etc.). The decade of the 1960s (the protests of the sixties lasted well into the seventies) defined the modern American social movement. Mass demonstrations, marches, boycotts, sit-ins and bus-ins was accompanied by the development of community and religious organizations dedicated to securing and exercising political and civic rights. The Civil Rights/Black Power Movement inspired, influenced and instructed the quest for social justice for numerous people in the United States and the world over. Thus, when one Occupy Wall Street protestor was asked her name she immediately replied, “Troy Davis, Emmitt Till, Martin Luther King, Jr.” (10/5/11) The Civil Rights/Black Power Movement stands as an important legacy, a remarkable precursor to the Battle of Wall Street. Activists advocate civil disobedience and peaceful protest, and at this early phase have reported the excessive use of police force: the arrest of hundreds of people, dragging people on the sidewalks and in the streets, the use of mace/pepper spray, hand-cuffing and detention—and some officers using their bodies to form a human shield in order to block the numerous hand-held video cameras attempting to record the police “take-down” (knees pressed into necks and backs, etc.) of protestors.

Conclusion: For the Occupy Wall Street Movement—
Will History Reveal What It Knows?

As ephemeral as it may seem Democracy is an elegant human idea. The Battle of Wall Street continues, and history will show that the event will be a fleeting episode, completely suppressed, co-opted or submerged by a counter-message, or emerge as a genuine people’s uprising, intensifying toward the effective articulation and resolution of society’s concerns. Without the quest for knowledge and information about the critical issues, especially the study of historical precedents (Shay’s Rebellion [1786-1787], The Ghost Dance [1890], Populism [1870-1915], March on Washington [1968], etc.), performer Lupe Fiasco’s call for “All Day, All Week Occupy Wall Street” will be hollow. The Occupy Wall Street Movement has already been christened a contemporary expression of the global demands for human equality. Thus, The Battle of Wall Street is another example of the historic call for democracy in America—similar to the eras encompassing Abolitionism, Suffrage, and Civil Rights, etc. The Occupy Wall Street movement is an effort to create authentic political space, to seize the historical moment, in order to effectuate positive change.

Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

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