What History Can Teach the Occupy Forces

occupy los angelesWith the protests on Wall Street continuing, historians are being called on to provide perspective on the development and related matters. Gary Gerstle (Vanderbilt—history & political science) compared Occupy Wall Street to earlier social movements in a Salon.com interview, available here.  Beverly Gage (Yale—history) discussed protests on Wall Street during the Gilded Age and the Great Depression on NPR. At the History News Network, Jonathan Zimmerman (NYU—history) tied the Occupy Wall Street protests to the country’s revolutionary founding, Juan Cole (Michigan—history) linked the protests to the Arab Spring, and others provided informed commentary.  In an interview with an NPR affililate, Steven Reich (Washington & Lee—history), Michelle Drumbl (Washington & Lee—law) and I, along with Chris Saxman (formerly of the Virginia House of Delegates), discussed political leveraging of the concept of “class warfare” in U.S. history.

History shows that American political activism has never been limited to the form that it conventionally takes today—electoral politics.  Citizens have historically employed an array of tools to influence public policy; non-electoral forms of political participation have been especially necessary, given restrictions imposed on so many citizens’ voting rights for so much of American history.  See Alexander Keyssar’s magisterial treatment, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in America (Oxford, 2009), for more on the advent of universal voting rights in the United States.

Far from signifying social dysfunction (“anarchy,” as some commentators suggest), mass political protest is conventional. It is as old as the nation itself. Participatory democratic action of the sort seen today on Wall Street exists along a spectrum of political forms that includes boycotts, demonstrations, strikes, and town hall meetings, among myriad other ways that citizens make their voices heard in public policy debates. The country has sometimes even witnessed violent rebellion against titans of industry—real, not figurative, class warfare.

Then there is the question of whether political protest is futile. History says no, or at least, not necessarily. Mass political action has given rise to momumental changes in law and society. Industrial strife and social unrest during the early twentieth century yielded legislation during the New Deal that fundamentally changed Americans’ relationship to the workplace. The right to collectively bargain and the eight-hour workday, among other innovations, grew out of these protest movements. Citizen protests also produced revolutionary socio-legal changes in American race relations.

Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the wake of widespread social protest. That historical moment is now so acclaimed that the nation has seen fit to memorialize the likeness of the movement’s foremost leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, on the national mall. Of course, citizen mobilization certainly can come to naught. However, the most striking feature of the American political landscape in recent decades has been the failure of citizens to even engage in sustained public protest—about anything.

This is not to say that Occupy Wall Street shares very much of the lineage of either the labor or the civil rights movement, or that it even is a movement. Rather, the Wall Street protesters are employing a tactic successfully used by labor movement and civil rights movement activists in the past. Movements require structure and organization, unifying themes, concrete goals, effective symbols, tools for engagement with the public, and methods to influence policymakers. Thus far, these protesters do not appear to constitute a full-fledged movement.

The target of the protesters’ anger and their basic grievance are, however, perfectly clear: Wall Street bankers and the perceived unfair advantage of the wealthiest (the top 1 percent) in economic policy. It is not unusual for it to take some time for citizens’ discontent to crystalize into a concrete political agenda.

Going forward, one characteristic of the protesters is striking and problematic if they hope to form a credible change movement. The dearth of racial and ethnic diversity among the protesters is remarkable given their focus on economic inequality and unemployment, matters with disproportionate impact on blacks and Hispanics. In recent history, protest movements have lost credibility when their membership and leadership sent different messages than their advertised principles. If these protesters are unrepresentative of the Americans whose plight they seek to voice, they cannot expect to be taken seriously among key constituencies in the court of publilc opinion.

Yes, Americans always have engaged in political protest unmediated by the state. What these particular protests will yield, if anything, is anyone’s guess. The endgame here certainly is made more unpredictable because the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon is just dawning, its organizational structure is lacking, and its goals are amorphous.

tomiko brown-naginEven if the protesters develop a coherent agenda, organization and so forth, the resulting structure will not function like an interest group or political party—as some commentators seem to expect. By their nature, protest movements are spontaneous and unpredictable rather than poll-tested and packaged. Social movements gain leverage precisely because they are unscripted and exist outside of the normal political channels. Observe the Tea Party movement. This historical moment is pregnant with possibility.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Tomiko Brown-Nagin is T. Munford Boyd Professor of Law, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, and Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Crossposted at Legal History Blog.

Published by the LA Progressive on October 10, 2011
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