The rapid expansion of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been staggering and surprising. Despite initial doubts and dismissals, the movement has spread to countries all around the world and to cities big and small. The question still remains whether the international protest will actually produce any meaningful changes in government regulation of big business or the business practices of the world’s largest corporations. Looking back on past international protests, both successful and unsuccessful, and at the specific characteristics of the Occupy Wall Street movement it appears that the movement has a legitimate argument and could very possibly yield positive results.
In response to the British government cutting public spending on education, university fees (tuition in the United States) had to be raised in Fall 2010. Angered by what is being viewed as some politicians going back on campaign promises, tens of thousands of students around the United Kingdom have protested the government. The protests began peacefully in the fall of 2010, but they have increasingly become violent. Spurred on by anarchist groups out for a little bit of fun, large groups of students have taken to the streets setting fires, stealing, vandalizing police vehicles, and even attacking police officers and member of Parliament and the royal family. While it can be debated how much momentum the students and teachers unions were gaining in their protests, no one can argue that acts of violence such as these hurt their cause. One student remarked “some kind of anger and aggressive behavior can show the Government that we are not joking around … but showing we’re this violent and ready to take it to this level is detrimental.”
In November of 1999, World Trade Organization (WTO) delegates from countries around the world met in Seattle for the Millennium Round conference. The main goal of the WTO conference was to agree to provisions that would deregulate international markets. 50,000 people from 1,387 NGO’s, unions and environmental and religious organizations also showed up in Seattle to protest the conference. Arguing that the WTO was attempting to circumvent international social and environmental regulations, the protesters did all they could to disrupt the negotiations. Led by groups such as the Direct Action Network and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the protesters actually prevented the WTO delegates from agreeing to any provisions. Things turned ugly however when small groups of protesters began vandalizing shops that sold products from multinational corporations such as Nike, Levi’s and McDonald’s. Fearing a full blown riot, the police attempted to disperse the entire crowd with tear gas and pepper spray. When all was said and done some 600 protesters had been arrested.
A year and a half later in Genoa, Italy, a similar situation occurred when the G8 summit was protested by supporters of the “globalization from below” movement. The peaceful protest was organized by some 800 organizations operating as the Genoa Social Forum. The police anticipated violent protesters to assemble as well so they installed a number of security measures aimed to keep the protesters away from the summit site. Despite these measures, hundreds of members of the Black Bloc launched an organized attack on banks, shops, government buildings and a prison. The police fought back with water cannons, tear gas and batons, beating violent and peaceful protesters alike. For days the routine remained the same with members of the Black Bloc acting out violently and the police fighting back indiscriminately. By the end of the G8 summit, at least one man had been killed, thousands were injured, thousands more had been arrested, 8 million euros worth of damage had been done and numerous weapons had been seized. The manner in which the police handled the protests in turn caused protests throughout Italy and across Europe.
Then in November 2002, Florence hosted the European Social Forum. Many expected more violent protests by supporters of the “globalization from below” movement, thanks to politicians who tried to label the movement as violent and anti-political. Authorities were so worried that they contemplated revoking people’s right to demonstration prior to the forum. Surprisingly, the forum went off without a hitch. Sixty thousand people from all over the world peacefully participated in the conferences, seminars and workshops. At the closing ceremony more than a million people marched without a single act of violence occurring. The enormous success of the forum garnered additional support for the “globalization from below” movement.
Della Porta et.al. argue that for global social movements to be successful, the movement must have certain characteristics. In their book, Globalization from Below: Transnational Activists and Protest Networks, they argue that all successful social movements were the result of a master frame that participants identified with enabling them to unify under a common cause. They argue that in a global social movement, participants identify themselves more with the general movement than any particular organization that engages in the movement. By doing this, the protesters are more focused on the objectives of the movement and are more unified in their effort to bring about change. They are also more likely to remain peaceful when loyal to an idea rather than an organization which is key to bringing about social change. Once a movement turns violent it loses all moral merit and is highly unlikely to succeed.
The world is now gripped in another international protest aimed at protecting the average man from corporate greed and malpractice. The Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York in September 2011 and has since spread to 82 other countries around the world and even to small towns like Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. According to the movement’s official website, occupywallst.org, the aim of the movement is to “expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of a dangerous neoliberal economic agenda that is stealing our future.” Specifically, the protesters want to hold those responsible for the recent global economic collapse accountable. Supporters call for economic reform in terms of stiffer regulations and penalties and the reduction of “too big to fail” corporations. As of now there have been no reports of violence in any of the Occupy Wall Street protests that have taken place in 1,500 cities worldwide.
The protesters have a legitimate claim in the eyes of the philosopher John Rawls. Rawls believed in two core principles of justice, the more relevant one being that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all,” (Sandel pg. 214). The Occupy Wall Street protesters believe that the executives on Wall Street are in direct violation of this principle. To them the “1%” control the majority of the world’s wealth thanks to the business practices they set and the government regulations that they have a large voice in thanks to campaign donations and lobbyists. Their argument is further enhanced when one considers the fact that the many executives of large corporations play a leading role in multiple corporate entities, restricting their power and wealth to a miniscule percentage of individuals.
Despite the rapid expansion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there are many who dismiss the global protest. There are many claims against the legitimacy of the movement with varying amounts of evidence. One such complaint is that the protesters are not unified in their complaints and that people are joining the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon while not actually arguing for the demands of the actual movement. Keith Boykin, CNBC contributor and former White House aide, would beg to differ. He argues that although there are many aspects to the Occupy Wall Street protests, they are all unified in the fight against a system which has routinely benefitted the rich minority at the expense of the less fortunate majority.
Another critique of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that they should be marching on Washington, not Wall Street. Although bringing the fight to the law makers’ doorstep would be a good plan of attack, Boykin again comes to the defense of the movement. He argues that whereas the American public has the opportunity to remove unpopular or incompetent politicians from office every election, we have no such power over Wall Street executives. By forming up in the financial district, the protesters can more effectively dial up the heat on those that caused the largest economic collapse since the Great Depression.
A third argument meant to diminish the efforts of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it is comprised of a bunch of modern-day, anti-American hippies. Once again, Boykin argues to the contrary. He admits that during his time in the protest he ran into a few people who would fit the description of the classic hippy, the movement is being led by a diverse group of patriotic Americans with genuine complaints about the way our financial system works. Boykin found young, old, male, female, blue collar, white collar, no collar, white, and non-white protesters occupying Wall Street. These people come from diverse backgrounds and with a number of complaints but they are all united against what they feel is a broken system that rewards the rich at the expense of the everyday working man.
Despite critics dismissing the legitimacy of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it actually it based on sound philosophical principles and has shown characteristics that are consistent with past successful international protests. The movement is continuing to spread out globally and take up roots in unlikely places, such as Lewisburg, PA. If the movement continues on this course corporate executives and law makers are going to have an increasingly difficult time ignoring their complaints. So long as the protests remain unified and peaceful, we may witness a global financial revolution.
1.) Boykin, Keith. “Keith Boykin: Everything The Media Told You About Occupy Wall Street Is Wrong.” Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-boykin/occupy-wall-street-media_b_1019707.html?ref=occupy-wall-street>.
2.) Della, Porta Donatella. Globalization from Below: Transnational Activists and Protest Networks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2006. Print.
3.) Sandel, Michael J. “Chapter 7: Rawls: Justice as Fairness.” Justice a Reader. Oxford [u.a.: Oxford Univ., 2007. 203-21. Print.
4.) “TUITION FEES PROTEST: London Streets in Flames Again as 25k Go on Rampage | Mail Online.” Home | Mail Online. Associated Newspapers Ltd., 15 Dec. 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1332484/TUITION-FEES-PROTEST-London-streets-flames-25k-rampage.html>.