Taking the Long View of a New Protest

Professor of History Daniel Czitrom

Professor of History Daniel Czitrom sat down with Questioning Authority to talk about the Occupy Wall Street movement and what it has in common with and where it differs from past protest movements in America.

Questioning Authority: In what ways do you see Occupy Wall Street as being similar to or different from protest movements in the past?

Daniel Czitrom: I see Occupy Wall Street (OWS) as part of the long and deep tradition of “extra-electoral protest”: People with serious grievances, expressing outrage, calling attention to issues, but not beginning with electoral politics. These kinds of movements have been quite influential in American history, but they rarely begin with neat lists of demand. And looking at the truly transformative social movements—the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement—none began with electoral politics, in a large part because electoral politics were closed to them. But they all eventually produced landmark legislative and legal changes and reshaped American cultural and political life.

There is also a long history of protests around Wall Street, as both the location and symbol of finance capital. Booms and busts are part of capitalism’s DNA, and the busts of the 1870s, 1890s, and especially the 1930s all spurred powerful movements critical of the system. It’s hard to imagine the New Deal happening without the great surges of labor organizing and radical activism spurred by the Great Depression.

QA: Let’s talk about how movements begin. One of the criticisms of OWS is that the protesters are not laying out their demands clearly and therefore the movement lacks focus. As a historian, do you think that is the case? Is this how other movements started?

DC: The establishment talking heads and experts are in a difficult place because what’s happening with OWS does not fit neatly into their standard framework. There have been many movements that began in unconventional ways, and it’s that very challenging of convention that can make it difficult for observers, especially unsympathetic ones, to figure out what’s going on. In February 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, four African American college students dreamed up the idea of a sit-in at the downtown Woolworth’s lunch counter, a direct challenge to local segregation ordinances. They were met at the counter with stony silence and were refused service. The next day they came back with a few friends. The day after that they came back with even more friends. Over the next 18 months, tens of thousands of people participated in sit-ins throughout the South, over 3,000 were arrested, and their courageous activism injected a whole new energy into the civil rights struggle. No one told them to do it—they acted on their own. That kind of determination to challenge traditional authority, sometimes spontaneously, has been an important part of protest politics in America.

OWS has now spread to cities beyond New York and beyond the United States. I’m not in the business of predicting what they’re going to be doing or telling them what they ought to be doing. At some point, the protesters may move toward a list of political demands, but they don’t seem to be at that point yet. Am I concerned about that? Not really. I say, let it continue to evolve, to percolate, to figure itself out.

QA: Can you talk about a movement that was successful in the past? What were some of the hurdles that had to be overcome?

DC: Look at the women’s movement in the late 60s and 70s. I can think of any number of protests, sit-ins, “zaps,” and other political actions by feminists at the time that did not have a simple or clear endgame. So, for example, when women who worked at magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal, Time, or Newsweek decided to occupy their offices and confront management over institutional sexism in the workplace, that was shocking. These protests were new, they threatened power structures, and they did not fit into the conventional politics of the day. And many people at the time dismissed them, saying, “They’re not serious.” Or, “They’re just frustrated because they can’t get men.” There is some of that same kind of dismissal today with OWS: “They don’t know what they’re doing.” “They’re just a bunch of hippies.” “They have no clear demands.” And so on.

Most importantly, I think, Occupy Wall Street has given voice to the rage and frustration that so many millions of Americans share over two closely related issues: the dangerous abuses by the financial and corporate elite and the shocking growth of economic inequality. Today, the top 1 percent of Americans take in 24 percent of all income and own 40 percent of all wealth. Twenty-five years ago those figures were 12 and 33 percent. One in every five American children grows up in poverty. Total student debt is now greater than total credit card debt. We should be addressing these issues rather than disparaging the protesters.