Is Occupy Wall Street The New Civil Rights Movement?
Some say yes, others say no!
The Occupy Wall Street movement began on September 17th in New York City. The movement quickly gained momentum with encampments springing up in over one thousand cities nationwide. Shortly thereafter it spread across the globe with occupies now flourishing in Sydney, London, Paris, and so forth. Inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions that spread across the Middle East last year, Occupy protesters are denouncing economic injustice in the United States and elsewhere. Despite challenges – like winter weather and the destruction of most of the major encampments – the occupiers do not seem to have lost their momentum. In fact, it appears the number of participants is growing. With these new challenges, occupiers’ tactics are continually changing on a day-to-day basis. One tactic, however, that has not changed is the protesters’ commitment to acts of non-violent, civil disobedience. This has led many experts to compare and contrast occupy to that of the civil rights movement and other major social movements.
Activist, investigative journalist, and author of Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich see both similarities and differences when comparing it to previous popular movements in the U.S.
“OWS is much more broad-based in terms of class than the anti-war and feminist movements were initially. In some ways it is, much like the Southern civil rights movement, a movement of the poor,” Ehrenreich stated in an email.
When asked about its particular strengths, Ehrenreich built on this idea of it being a movement for the poor. She wrote, “Its biggest strength is the near-universality of its concerns (the 99%.) Also, their refusal to get involved in politics-as-we-know-it is another strength.” She also does not believe it is just a fad.
Michael McCray, an attorney, civil rights expert, and author (his forthcoming book is ACORN 8: Memoirs of an ACORN Whistleblower) echoed a similar sentiment about occupy’s similarities to the civil rights movement.
In a phone interview, McCray stated, “They are both a people's movements. I actually think that occupy is a continuation of the civil rights movement.”
Unlike Ehrenreich, McCray believes that in order for occupy to succeed, it needs to enter the body politic. Referring to Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals as an important primer for social movements of this nature, McCray stated that occupy has already achieved the first goal in that book: to agitate and disrupt. In so doing, they have gotten the establishment’s attention. However, they have not moved beyond this first stage. If they do not move on to engage the body politic, McCray said, “it's going to wind up being more of a demonstration.” In his view, that means it will eventually lose its effectiveness. But he added, “the movement is still young.”
While McCray and Ehrenreich believe the occupy movement is similar in nature to the civil rights protests, former member of the SNCC, author, and poet Kalamu ya Salaam does not see similarities between the two movements, explaining, “First of all, the civil rights movement grew, as it is often discussed, out of two or three specific currents. One was the effort led largely by NAACP to work through the courts to achieve equal access to public accommodations and public institutions, such as schools. Of course, it is often said that civil rights movement, for some people, marked the beginning with 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court. But that was one current of the civil rights movement. There were many, many people working in that area, not just the schools, but in other areas of public accommodations. There was an established goal, which was the ending of segregation, and an established methodology to try and get it done legally, that is to get the segregation laws overturned and get laws put in place to guaranteeing equal access. That's a very specific goal and orientation. Another current, which many people are not fully aware of, is that after World War II and the Korean conflict you had a large number of black men who had been trained in the military and many of whom had actually fought in the theaters of war in Europe, in the Pacific, and in Korea, and who were returning home and would not take second class citizenship.”
The third current that fueled the civil rights movement, Salaam argued, was the international struggle by people of color.
Although Salaam does not see direct similarities between the civil rights movement and occupy, and has not been involved with Occupy New Orleans, (where he was born and is still a resident), he made it clear that he supports it, he publicizes information about it, and he encourages it. He does, however, see a link between the Arab Spring protests and the occupy protests. But he warns, “To compare the two is, from my way of thinking, an inaccurate analysis. To link the two is important. They are linked, but not comparable.”
Salaam explains why he does not think Occupy and the Arab Spring as being comparable.
“I really don't believe that middle class America is anywhere near ready to confront the issues that face this country. I think people are uncomfortable. I think people, in many cases, are in some really tight situations. A large segment of the population is suffering economically. But that doesn't mean they are ready to confront the seriousness of the issues.”
In other words, the country itself is not ready to assume collective responsibility to carry through with lasting and exceptional change. This is especially true when it comes to economic exploitation.
He pointed to a profoundly difficult societal issue to make this point: sexual molestation and assault.
“This is one example. They have been doing studies, and it is coming out piece by piece by piece by piece, the seriousness of sexual assault in this country on children and women. You can look at television all day and not fully understand the extent of it, and also not understand that it has been this way for a long time in the United States. People are not willing to deal with it. If people are not willing to do deal with that, then they are not prepared to actually fight a resistance and a battle to stop economic exploitation. If you are not willing to fight to end the sexual molestation of women and children in this society, don't tell me you are ready to fight to end economic exploitation. I think very seriously - and this is just one example - that sexual assault against women and children in this society is a very accurate index of how sick this society is. And the fact that that is not at the top of the agenda for people is an indication of people not being ready to deal seriously with issues because sexual assault affects far more people right now than the economic stuff.”