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Occupy Wall Street, 1979

Before there were hashtags, more than a thousand protesters were arrested for trying to shut Wall Street down for a day ...

MLK Tent photo by Robin Broad

Today's Occupy movement is rooted in decades of activism—from civil rights to gay rights—for a fairer world.

Photo by Robin Broad.

Thirty-two years ago, the two of us and 1,043 other protesters were arrested for what one would now call “occupying” Wall Street.  It was October 29, 1979, the 50th anniversary of the Wall Street crash that ushered in the Great Depression. We two were then graduate students at Princeton, and we had trained for weeks as part of an “affinity group” of about a dozen people prepared to commit acts of civil disobedience to prevent what we saw as a greater evil. It was about six months after the catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. And so, on the 29th, thousands of us blocked off the entrances to Wall Street to protest the corporate funding of the nuclear power industry.

But the protests were not only about the nuclear industry. The day before, we had joined a giant rally against corporate power at the World Trade Center.  Then, in the early dawn of the 29th, our affinity group and hundreds of other such groups from across the country gathered to surround Wall Street and shut it down.  Our group went to its assigned street corner where we sat down and linked arms.  Police were everywhere, many of them seated menacingly atop horses; they were equally determined to keep Wall Street open that day.


The smell of those horses comes back vividly to us both now in October 2011, as we join the protesters of Occupy DC. We remember our aches from the horses’ painful butting as we revel in the vibrancy of the new Occupy Wall Street movement spreading to cities across this country and around the world. 

Journalists have been asking us where this new movement comes from. We tell them our Wall Street story of 32 years ago, which none seem to know. And we do our best to impress upon them the reality that this new “occupy” movement has very deep roots.

Occupy DC photo by Robin Broad

Occupy DC.

Photo by Robin Broad.

These roots were planted over the past century by the millions of workers who stood up to exploitation and won basic labor rights and convinced governments to raise taxes on the very wealthy to create a middle class. 

That fight sprouted a new root—the struggle for civil rights—a battle that melded with other efforts to end an unjust war in Vietnam.

Then, in the 1970s, women came together to change how the Unites States thought about sexism. They created the space for new movements to later ask, if you think sexism is wrong, why is homophobia okay?

Then environmentalists across the globe started asking why it was okay to bequeath our grandchildren a polluted planet. In Kenya, a young woman named Wangari Maathai (a woman whose recent death we mourn) began planting trees with other women as they claimed control over their lives. These are deep roots indeed.

We sent a potent message that people organized across issues could stand up to corporate power and change the course of history.

Two decades ago, these movements gave birth to the global justice movement, and millions united to oppose corporate greed and corporate rule. In Chiapas, Mexico, in the mid-1990s, indigenous people stood up to free trade rules configured to make them anything but free.  And they said—enough. 

Twelve years ago, 65,000 people converged on Seattle to say no to global trade rules structured to give expanded power to corporations while undermining regulations created to protect people and the environment. On the streets of Seattle, unions and environmentalists linked arms, as did global justice activists from South and North.  During that fateful week, we shut down the meetings of the World Trade Organization and sent a potent message that people organized across issues could stand up to corporate power and change the course of history.

Nine years ago, 15 million people in 600 cities said no to war against Iraq.  Three years ago, millions poured into the streets to fight for immigrant rights.

This is the Peoples’ History that informs today’s protests.

Bull photo by Sabarishr
Occupy Everywhere

How what started as an idea
became a global reality.

And if the great peoples’ historian Howard Zinn were alive today, he would be busy writing a new chapter at this very moment. That new chapter might well start in the spring with the fruit vendor in Tunisia who said: enough. It would describe the millions of Egyptians who said: enough. 

It would include the brave people of Wisconsin—who ate pizzas and other food donated not just by supporters across the U.S. but also by some of those very Egyptians—as they took over the state capitol building in February to say “enough” to the Wisconsin governor who tried to roll back sixty years of hard-won protections for workers and ordinary people.

Yes, a part of our history is one of war, racism, genocide, and violent inequality. But an equally important part—the part that is too-often not retold—is the history of people coming together, fighting back, and creating a more decent and humane union.


John Cavanagh and Robin Broad

John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. This article expands on remarks by John Cavanagh at the Institute for Policy Studies’ 35th annual Letelier-Moffitt awards on October 13, 2011.

Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is director of the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first lived in 1977-78.

Interested?

  • Follow our ongoing coverage of Occupy Wall Street.
  • Every Great Social Movement
    David Korten: The biggest shifts of our time have been sparked by ordinary people rejecting the cultural stories that dominated them.
  • A Conspiracy of Hope
    Many thought the global movement against unfair trade started in Seattle 1999. But going back over 200 years, people have reached across borders to end the slave trade, shame a brutal colonial regime, and bring respite to laborers of the industrial revolution.
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