The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon has proven that large scale demonstrations in the United States are not simply a thing of the past. For mainly a younger segment of the population the movement has given hope that the people can incite change in the way the system works. And for many of the young protesters this concept seems like a novel and new approach to changing the financial situation of the country.
But what can the movement learn form the past? How has previous financial turmoil responded in the face of protesters and action movements? With a historical reference is the Occupy Wall Street movement one in a long line of successful economic protest movements or are the sign holders wasting their time?
The Labor Movement
The Labor Movement in the United States started in the late 1800s and continued through the early 20th century. The movement is a name that covers many different protests, strikes, and sit-ins with the aim of increasing the rights and treatment of workers.
The Industrial Revolution gave business owners the opportunity to make products on a much larger scale than before. There was ample opportunity for business owners to expand their companies on the backs of low-wage earning workers. Much like the “we are the 99%” rallying cry of the Occupy Movement, this earning disparity caused much distress within the bottom portion of the arrangement.
The workers in this case were in a much desperate situation than modern workers with their lives literally on the line in some circumstances. Protests during these times often led to police action without much government sympathy for the protesters.
In the end, it was more the impact of a handful of horrible accidents that finally got legislators to create policies to help the workers. But the protests certainly impacted the business owners themselves, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Great Depression Protests
The Great Depression was caused by a similar situation we find ourselves in today; the economy appeared a little better than it actually was and people over-committed their finances in reaction. And much like today’s post-bubble US fingers were pointed at different directions and the ultimate culprit seemed to be a collective negligence.
Either way the Great Depression was the result. And this period of American history was marked with a huge lack of employment. And it was this lack of jobs that got people out of their houses (or Hoovervilles) and onto the streets to protest.
And much like Occupy Wall Street the disdain of the protesters was focused on the government. The collective conscious had decided that President Hoover, the Congress, and their fiscal policies were to blame for the economic stagnation.
The good news here is that their movement did in fact result in a drastic change in the political landscape. The next presidential election brought in Franklin Roosevelt, the Democrats, and the New Deal. From 1928 to 1932 the Democratic party seats in the House of Representatives went from 37% to 71% and the Great Depression was on its way out.
The Anti-globalization Movement was created to take a stance against multi-national corporations and their poor business practices. Global companies were seen by this group as a real problem as they pushed out local businesses and often relied on cheap labor in poor countries to keep their competitive edge.
The movement culminated in a 40,000 person strong protest that took place at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center where the World Trade Organization was holding its biannual meeting in 1999.
The protesters closed down streets and even chained themselves together. The police were dispatched and hundreds of people were arrested. The group decided to be a little less than peaceful and a bit of destruction of local businesses gave the movement a bit of a negative opinion on the news.
In the end the protest brought a bit of light to an issue that was already picking up steam. A handful of organizations used this protest to enlist more members in their cause, but at the end of the day the protest was short lived and made little impact in slowing down the global corporations.
Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street maintains that their aim is to stop the greed and corruption of the people who control the top 1% of the money in the US. Their protests are occurring in almost every major city and are continuous with some even creating tent-based sleeping quarters.
As with other protests throughout history they have been met with police action. But with a nod to historical knowledge they have done their best to maintain a peaceful movement. The public opinion of the group varies and the tipping point when the beliefs of the group will become the beliefs of the masses is uncertain.
They do appear to be the largest and most publicized protest movement in recent US history though. However, of all the things the movement is doing right the one way they differ from previous movements is their lack of a tangible goal. In order the three previous movements wanted workers’ rights, jobs, and action to curb globalization. But if OWS would be content with new tax legislation, new business regulations, or wall street reprimanding is unclear. Where will Occupy Wall Street Movement find themselves in history books only time will tell.
George Gallagher is a economic and education writer. He also works with graduates of college to figure out what student loan consolidation plan is right for them.