'OCCUPY WALL STREET': Background & international context

Students learn about the protest and its message, and consider how the Occupy Wall Street protest is related to public protests in other countries in the past year.

To the teacher:

In recent weeks, "Occupy Wall Street" protests, focused on economic inequality, have swept the country. Starting with a protest encampment in lower Manhattan, occupations have spread to more 70 cities nationwide, generating significant news coverage and public discussion.

This lesson presents students with two readings on the Occupy Wall Street protests. The first reading gives background information on the demonstrations and addresses the question of what the protests' demands are. The second reading situates the Wall Street occupation in an international context, looking at it in relationship to movements in other countries that have captured headlines in the past year. The readings are followed by questions designed to further discussion and prompt students to think critically about the issues raised.


Student Reading 1: 

The Message of Occupy Wall Street

In recent weeks, a movement inspired by the call to "Occupy Wall Street" has spread throughout the country. Protests began in New York City. On September 17, hundreds of activists descended on Wall Street, ultimately setting up a camp in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. They had responded to a call to action, initially raised by the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, which asked people to "flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street." In the weeks since then, the encampment has grown. Moreover, similar demonstrations have appeared in more than 70 cities across the country.

The basic message of the protesters is simple: people are mad at the greed and corruption of big banks and corporations that were responsible for sending our economy into a recession. Protesters would like to enact changes to make our political and economic system better serve the vast majority of Americans instead of the country's wealthiest one percent. Reflecting this idea, one of the most popular rallying cries of the movement has been "We Are the 99 Percent."

On several occasions, police have clashed with the protesters. During the second weekend of the occupation, police officers pepper sprayed several individuals who had been detained and who did not appear to be resisting. Video of this apparently unnecessary use of force circulated widely on the internet and in the news media. Approximately one week later, some 700 demonstrators were arrested while attempting to march across the Brooklyn Bridge. In spite of the arrests, or perhaps because of the publicity they created, greater numbers of people have since been moved to take part in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Thousands of people, including the Occupiers, marched to support the protest on October 5, 2011.

Early on, commentators in the media and even some protest sympathizers began voicing the criticism that the movement lacked coherent demands or clear targets for its participants' general feelings of anger. On September 23, New York Timesreporter Ginia Bellafante criticized "the group's lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably." She wrote:

One of the few New Yorkers I met, a senior at Bronx High School of Science, was stopping by in fits and spurts, against the wishes of his psychiatrist mother, who feared the possibility of tear gas and had chastised her son for giving his allowance to the cause.

That cause, though, in specific terms, was virtually impossible to decipher. The group was clamoring for nothing in particular to happen right away - not the implementation of the Buffett rule or the increased regulation of the financial industry. Some didn't think government action was the answer because the rich, they believed, would just find new ways to subvert the system.

Some said they were fighting the legal doctrine of corporate personhood; others, not fully understanding what that meant, believed it meant corporations paid no taxes whatsoever. Others came to voice concerns about the death penalty, the drug war, the environment.

Defenders of the movement have disagreed with Bellafante's assessment. On September 28, Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com wrote:

Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power-in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions-is destroying financial security for everyone else?

So, yes, the people willing to engage in protests like these at the start may lack (or reject the need for) media strategies, organizational hierarchies, and messaging theories. But they're among the very few people trying to channel widespread anger into activism rather than resignation, and thus deserve support and encouragement - and help - from anyone claiming to be sympathetic to their underlying message. 

Young people have been at the forefront of the occupation from the beginning. They have stressed the idea that their generation especially has been betrayed by the American economy. An article by David Weidner at MarketWatch.com captured this idea. Widener wrote:

[A]sk yourself how you might act if you were in school or fresh out of it or young and unemployed. What future has Wall Street, the heart and brain of our capitalist country, promised you? How does it feel to be the sons, daughters and grand kids of a "me" generation that's run up the debt and run down the economy?

Unemployment is between 13% and 25% for people under 25. Student loans are defaulting at about 15% at a time when more young people have no alternative but to borrow to pay for school.

Meanwhile, Wall Street bonuses continue to be paid at close to all-time highs. Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE:GS), took home $13.2 million last year, including a $3.2 million raise. 

As protests have grown larger and more visible, greater numbers of participants have been able to voice their criticisms of corporate power and economic inequality. While the ultimate political impact of the protests remains unclear, the demonstrators' concerns have evidently resonated with a wide swath of the American public. A Time Magazine poll taken in early October 2011 found that 54% of Americans had a favorable view of the protest. The same poll found that the issues positions supported by the occupiers were also strongly favored by most Americans: 68% want the wealthy to pay more taxes; 71% want to see bankers prosecuted for the 2008 crash; 79% believe the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. has grown too large; and 86% believe Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence.


For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. According to the reading, what are some of the main reasons for the occupation of Wall Street?

3. From what you've read and heard about the protests, do you agree with Ginia Bellafante's criticism that the protesters don't have a coherent message? Why or why not? What do you think of Glenn Greenwald's argument?

4. One of the main slogans of the protest is "We Are the 99 Percent." What does this slogan mean? Do you agree or disagree with focusing on the top one percent as a symbol of economic inequality in our country? Why?

5. Young people have taken a leading role in the Occupy Wall Street protests. What are some reasons that young people might feel uniquely invested in this movement?

Optional follow-up:

Have students read some of the personal stories presented at the "We Are the 99 Percent" Tumblr site: http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/.

Discuss the following:

1. What are some of the hardships experienced by people who have contributed their photographs to this project?

2. How do these stories relate to students' own experiences?


Student Reading 2:

Occupy Wall Street In A Global Context

The Occupy Wall Street protest is only one of many important protests people have organized in public spaces around the world over the past year. The same economic conditions that gave rise to the Wall Street occupation and other "Occupy" demonstrations around the United States have also been felt in other countries.

In Spain, for example, protests erupted at the beginning of 2011 in response to high unemployment and significant government spending cutbacks. In Madrid, protesters known as los indignados (the indignant) took over a number of public squares and plazas - including the city's central plaza, Plaza del Sol - where they camped out for extended periods of time. In both the Spanish movement and Occupy Wall Street, participants made active use of the Internet - particularly social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter - to communicate with other protesters and plan their actions.

An even more famous instance of protesters taking over a public square in the past year was in Egypt, as part of what became known as the "Arab Spring." In early January, citizens speaking out against the 30-year reign of the violent and undemocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak filled Tahrir Square, a major plaza in downtown Cairo. Protests and occupations in other parts of the country followed. Government forces attempting to repress the protests killed hundreds and injured thousands of demonstrators, but the protest only grew. Some two weeks after the Tahrir Square occupation began, popular discontent throughout the country succeeded in toppling the Mubarak regime.

The Wall Street occupation has drawn comparisons to the Egyptian uprising from participants, supporters, and some members of the media. Patrick Glennon of In These Times magazine writes that the Wall Street occupation shares some qualities in common with the Tahrir Square uprising:

The activists behind Occupy Wall Street hope to emulate the success of Tahrir Square, which was an integral force in the dethroning of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last February. In Cairo's case, the occupied square became the most compelling symbol of the country's spontaneous rebellion against its autocratic leader.

By endowing Wall Street with a similar, populist significance, American activists may succeed in producing a symbolic rallying point to push their agenda for finance and government reform, especially as the nation has recently seen the first ravages of the Citizens United ruling and the appalling leniency granted to speculators and profit hounds responsible for the financial crisis. (www.inthesetimes.com)

At the same time that some commentators have attempted to link Occupy Wall Street with other global demonstrations, there are also some important differences. One difference is the sheer number of people involved. The Egyptian uprising relied on the participation of millions of people across that country. In contrast, participants in the Wall Street occupation and subsequent demonstrations in other American cities have only numbered in the hundreds or thousands.

In his article, Glennon himself goes on to note some other distinctions between Occupy Wall Street and movements in other parts of the world:

[T]here are significant differences between the situation that Egypt faced at the onset of its occupation of Tahrir Square and where the United States is now. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was an aggressive tyrant. The Egyptian people thus had an enemy against whom a diverse array of individuals with different political, social, and religious affiliations could organize.

The US activists behind Occupy Wall Street inhabit an altogether different environment. The financial world lacks the identifiable characteristics of a single dictator, and it operates more as an abstraction compared to Mubarak's concrete and oppressive security apparatus.

Additionally, the movement's cri de guerre is far from codified. Its demands are all variations of politico-corporate reform, yet they still vary, ranging from the modest goal of a implementing a Federally appointed oversight committee to the more radical call for a one dollar, one citizen, one vote system in which only citizens could make campaign donations exceeding no more than $1. 

Of course, just because various international protests are different does not mean that the Occupy protests aren't important. In the weeks since their action began, the protesters' cause seems to be gaining ground.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. The reading discusses several recent protests that occurred in other parts of the world. Are students aware of protests in countries not mentioned in this reading?

3. What are some of the similarities between the protests in other countries and the Wall Street occupation? What are some of the differences?

4. The idea of taking over or "occupying" public space has had a great deal of resonance in the past year. What do you think about this use of public parks and plazas? Do you think that ongoing protest encampments in public spaces are a good way of voicing a political message?



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org by Mark Engler with research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.

We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.