Occupy Wall Street
Written by Jeremy Morse
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is the name given to the 2011 nonviolent protest movement organized to address the perceived inequalities of the US financial system following the recession of 2007-2010. The invitation to “occupy” Wall Street was initiated by Adbusters, an activist magazine, in July 2011 and promoted by Anonymous and other internet-based radical groups. On September 17th, protestors set up a base camp of tents and sleeping bags at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. The date chosen was the anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution (Castells, 2015) and protestors renamed the location “Liberty Park”. The focus of the protest was framed as a class conflict between the ultra-wealthy 1%, and the remaining 99% of Americans they believed had been left behind by a corrupt political system based on greed and power.
The movement started quietly, but quickly gained attention after police disrupted protest marches in Union Square and on the Brooklyn Bridge. As videos of police arresting and using pepper-spray against peaceful protesters circulated on YouTube, the mainstream media began to pay closer attention. As awareness spread, protestors started Occupy movements in other cities across America. Websites and social media were used by participants to communicate the objectives of the OWS campaign to outsiders and to organize the movement’s activities.
On November 15th, New York City Police raided the Occupy Wall Street Camp and removed the protestors and their belongings. The raid was coordinated with the mayor’s offices in the other cities impacted by the Occupy protests, as well as with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (Castells, 2015). The removal of the protestors effectively ended the public phase of Occupy Wall Street.
The OWS movement began as a reaction to the effects of the 2007-2010 financial recession in America. The US housing markets experienced a violent crash in late 2008. This sudden drop in housing equity left homeowners deeply in debt and pushed the nation’s financial institutions to near collapse. In response, newly-elected President Obama authorized the US government to bail-out the banks using billions of taxpayer dollars. The financial institutions that survived began to foreclose on struggling homeowners while continuing to reward their executives with million-dollar bonuses and lavish incentives. This stark contrast exposed the growing income gap between the wealthy and the rest of the country (Castells, 2015). The OWS protestors pointed to this inequality and advocated for a more just system.
The roots of the OWS movement can be traced to other significant nonviolent protest movements in America and across the globe. The anti-war and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s used principles of nonviolence to persuade mass audiences that their causes were just. They understood that riots, looting, and destruction of property would undermine their moral position. While some OWS protestors wanted to engage in violent acts to garner attention to the cause, others pointed to the success of the Civil Rights Movement as an example of the effectiveness of nonviolent protest. The nonviolent popular movements that overthrew corrupt governments in Tunisia and Egypt, often called the “Arab Spring,” also inspired the early leaders of the Occupy movement. They believed the same tactics – large scale occupation of public spaces and creative use of technology and social media – could be used to unite protestors around the perceived injustices of the US financial system (Jensen and Bang, 2013).
Although the OWS movement had deep roots in earlier nonviolent protests, it was the first opportunity for many in the Millennial generation to address their own unique social, political, and economic concerns. Many had voted for Obama and were inspired by his vision for hope and change in America, but the climate in America three years later was not what they had expected. They turned to the protest movement to demand “the fulfillment of what they had been promised" (Welty, 2015, p. 39). Millennials brought their generational values with them to the protest: a commitment to social justice, democratic decision-making processes, a resistance to formal organizational hierarchies and an insistence on openness and dialogue between people of different classes, genders, races and sexual orientations. Though critics argue that the OWS movement did not accomplish any concrete political goals, the participants argue they were only seeking to establish a public conversation around the issue of economic injustice (Castells, 2015). By drawing attention to the deepening income inequality in America, protestors considered OWS a success.
Technology provided the platform for OWS members’ concerns by creating a “virtual space” for public dialogue. Web sites and social media were the perfect vehicles for the OWS message because the internet was a radically democratic form of communication; anyone could post their ideas and suggest activities to further their cause. The use of technology – particularly social media – to organize protests and communicate goals, objectives and activities is a new form of social movement that constitutes a break from the protest movements of the past. This type of action community “pursues common projects even though its members may display irreconcilable differences, whether social, cultural, religious, or ethnic. In fact, such differences tend to be regarded as a resource for, rather than a barrier to, doing things in common" (Jensen and Bang, 2013, p. 447). The OWS movement provides a template for modern social protests in its use of technology to unite people in common causes despite traditional cultural differences.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
The OWS movement is also an excellent example of a new form of voluntary association, distinct from the more formalized associations of the recent past. In this new type, “the individual desire to make a difference gives rise to loose networks of persons seeking to collectively enact a political transformation of some portion of the world in which they inhabit" (Jensen and Bang, 2013, 450). The cause itself is what binds the individuals together and gives the group its unique identity. Since technology defies the limitations of time and place, it reaches a broader audience and allows members to participate in the cause without the obligations of formal membership. These kinds of informal, episodic networks of volunteers advocating on behalf of a cause that cut across traditional identity groups will be the future of voluntary associations in the philanthropic sector.
- Key Related Ideas
- Adbusters Magazine is an activist online and print magazine that describes itself as “a global network of artists, writers, musicians, designers, poets, philosophers and punks trying to pull off a radical transformation of the current world order.” Adbusters authored the initial online invitation to Occupy Wall Street.
- Micah White is a former editor of Adbusters magazine, an early leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement and a current spokesperson for the ongoing dialogue around income inequality.
- Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders, and political persuasions.
Reflection Question – How do movements like OWS gain traction? What does it mean to join a peaceful protest?
- Castells, Manuel. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015.
- Jensen, Michael J., and Henrik P. Bang. "Occupy Wall Street: A New Political Form of Movement and Community?" Journal of Information Technology & Politics 10 (2013): 444-461.
- Welty, Emily E. "Occupy Wall Street as 'American Spring'?" Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice 26, no. 1 (2014): 38-45.
This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.