With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Occupy Wall Street

Worth Reading

  • HNN Hot Topics: Occupy Wall Street
  • Background

    Occupy Wall Street began on September 17, 2011, when a group of protesters, prompted by a July 13 blog post by the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters proposed that “20,000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months,” borrowing tactics from the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square which toppled the Mubarak regime and the Indignants movement in Spain, especially their use of online social networks like Facebook and Twitter for communication.

    Though the movement itself has been criticized, even by its supporters, for its lack of specific demands and goals, Occupy Wall Street has indisputably changed the national conversation from the debt and deficit talk of August to a discussion of income inequality and the fading sense of opportunity in modern America, particularly for young people.

    Unemployment, particularly high among young people, is one of the protesters’ major grievances; another related problem is costly college tuition, which is a leading cause of exploding student debt. Without jobs, many recent college graduates feel there’s no way for them to pay back their loans and get on with their lives.

    The protesters have also voiced opposition to the influence of money in politics, particularly the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court—the “corporations are people” ruling which held that corporations, unions, and other special interest groups could spent an unlimited amount of money on elections.

    The protest itself coalesced in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, a few blocks away from Wall Street itself. Eight days after the protest began, on September 24, the New York Police Department clashed with protesters and arrested some eighty people. Video of a police officer pepper-spraying nonviolent protesters went viral on the Internet, generating a great deal of media attention for the protests, causing them to go national, even global.

    At the peak of the movement in October 2011, nearly one hundred cities in the United States saw Occupy protests, and similar protests occurred in Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Japan, and even Mongolia. Violent riots at Occupy Oakland culminated in the first general strike in the U.S. since 1946.

    One of the more novel aspects of the Occupy movement has been its emphasis on consensus-based democracy in its decision-making. Indeed, one of the movement’s major talking points has been that it’s “leaderless,” though observers (especially at the original encampment in New York) have noticed individuals who have taken on the role of “organizers.” Since the City of New York does not allow megaphones in its parks without a permit, the Occupiers used a call-and-response “human microphone” that supporters claim is a unique community-building tool to ensure that every voice is heard—critics, on the other, say it’s a silly gimmick.

    What the Left Says

    Liberals, or at least mainstream liberals, have been ambivalent about Occupy Wall Street. On the one hand, it’s a movement that finally looks like it could be the Left’s answer to the Tea Party—it’s changed the national conversation from debts and deficit reduction to income inequality and corporate greed; it’s energized the grassroots; it’s even gotten support from blue-collar union workers.

    On the other hand, much of Occupy’s ire has been directed at Democrats in general, and President Obama in particular, for their purportedly close relationship to Wall Street. Democrats have come under fire for their support of the bank bailouts and the Dodd-Frank reform of the financial system (which Occupy regards as weak), and their pursuit of Wall Street dollars for re-election campaigns.

    The reaction from the Far Left has been much more positive—many have made triumphal comparisons to the ‘60s counterculture, and some even see Occupy Wall Street as the next step in an ongoing global protest movement, pointing to the Arab Spring, the anti-austerity protests in Europe, and now the anti-Putin protests in Russia as proof.

    Recommended Reading

  • Simon Hall: Occupy Wall Street Should Remember that No One Liked Vietnam Protesters, Either
  • James Livingston: Occupy Wall Street has a History Student on Its Press Team—I Sit Down with Him for an Interview
  • What the Right Says

    Conservatives have criticized Occupy Wall Street from the beginning as an unrealistic, uninformed, pointless, and illegal waste of taxpayer money and public space. Conservatives allege that their goals are incoherent, their understanding of economics in general and capitalism in particular is laughable, and the Occupy movement does not offer any specific solutions. In any event, the Occupy movement’s politics of social justice, its emphasis on the dangers of inequality and the corrupting influence of money are at odds with the conservative belief in individualism, personal responsibility, and the free market.

    One-time Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain bluntly said, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself. It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded, it is someone’s fault if they failed.”

    It’s not just liberals who have noted the similarity that the Occupy protesters have to the hippie counterculture of the 1960s—conservatives have, too, but with much more negative undertones. Conservatives have sneered that protesters are indigent, shabby, vague about their political goals, and hedonistic. Conservatives have also pointed to tensions within the Occupy movement between homeless participants and the more well-heeled college grads as evidence of its insincerity.

    Recommended Reading

  • Niall Ferguson: Yes, Wall Street Helps the Poor
  • Sheldon Richman: Wall Street Couldn’t Have Done It Alone
  • Historical Background

    Mass economic protests are as American as baseball and apple pie. Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786-1787 and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-1794 are early examples of unrest caused by a bad economy. Indeed, in both cases, rural farmers were facing heavy taxes supported by urban business elites. In the case of the Whiskey Rebellion, it took a 13,000-strong army led by President Washington himself to end the unrest, a move which upset many at the time (not least the farmers themselves) and which some historians believe was an overreaction.

    A more direct predecessor was Coxey’s Army, a protest march of the unemployed to Washington D.C. during a depression in 1894 to lobby the government for jobs (they were promptly arrested upon arrival).

    More famous (and much larger) than Coxey’s Army was the Bonus Army. In 1932, unemployed veterans of World War I marched on Washington to demand the immediate payment of bonuses which had been promised to them by the federal government but which were not redeemable until (ironically) 1945. The protest was massive—43,000 people, including the vets’ families—so President Herbert Hoover sent in the army. Douglas MacArthur, then the army chief of staff, personally led two regiments of infantry and cavalry (backed by tanks commanded by none other than George S. Patton) to clear the Bonus Army’s encampment. Fifty-five veterans were injured and a hundred and thirty-five were arrested. The vets ended up getting their bonuses in 1936, after congress overrode a veto from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Western farmers in the 1790s distilled their excess grain as whiskey, since whiskey was easier to transport and there was a high demand for it. In some areas, whiskey was used as currency—so when the federal government raised taxes on whiskey the farmers rebelled.
  • The Bonus Army returned to Washington in 1933 to petition the new president, Franklin Roosevelt. Though he refused to grant the bonuses (and, as noted above, even tried to veto the bonus bill in 1936), FDR was remembered far more fondly by the veterans. Why? Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit with the protesters. Said one to the press: “Hoover sent the army, Roosevelt sent his wife.”
  • Protesters at Occupy UC-Davis (that’s the University of California at Davis), in response to campus police pepper-spraying peaceful protests (the video is here), staged a sit-in between the campus chancellor’s office and her car. When she came out of her office, she was met by hundreds of students sitting in absolute silence along her path. The video is here.
  • Topics for Discussion

  • What’s the role of protest in our democracy?
  • How will Occupy Wall Street affect the 2012 election?
  • Is Occupy Wall Street the beginning of a new global protest movement
  • Why do conservatives (and some liberals) dislike Occupy Wall Street?