This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
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Last weekend, in Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan at a giant mill-in, teach-in, whatever-in-extension of Occupy Wall Street's camp-out in Zuccotti Park, there was a moment to remember. Under what can only be called a summer sun, a contingent from the Egyptian Association for Change, USA, came marching in, their "Support Occupy Wall Street" banners held high (in Arabic and English), chanting about Cairo's Tahrir Square (where some of them had previously camped out). The energy level of the crowd rose to buzz-level and cheers broke out.
And little wonder. After all, it was a moment for the history books. An American protest movement had taken its most essential strategic act directly from an Egyptian movement for democracy: camp out and don't go home. It had then added (as one of the Egyptians pointed out to me) a key tactic of that movement, the widespread and brilliant use of social media to jumpstart events. And keep in mind that some of the Egyptian organizers at Tahrir Square had been trained in social networking by organizations like the International Republican Institute and the Democratic National Institute (created and indirectly funded by the U.S. Congress). Now, the American version of the same is being re-exported to the world. Try to unravel that one if you will -- and while you're at it, toss out the great myth of American non-protest of these last years: that going online, Facebooking, and tweeting were pacifiers that suppressed in the young the possibility of actually heading into the streets and doing something.
By the way, the Egyptians weren't the only ones there. As reporter Andy Kroll points out, from the beginning there were Greeks, Spaniards, Japanese, and others involved in Occupy Wall Street, all representing a new era of global activism. And better yet, the growing American movement isn't denying these foreign influences; it's hailing them, it's cheered by them!
If that isn't myth-busting, what is? Think of it as blowback as neither the CIA, nor even Chalmers Johnson, ever imagined it. Or maybe it's some kind of modern export-import-export business. In any case, standing in Washington Square Park watching what could only be called the festivities (if you ignored a police lock-down in the vicinity more appropriate for Kabul, Afghanistan), it wasn't hard to believe that the very idea of American exceptionalism was expiring right in front of our eyes. It had, of course, already worn desperately thin, or all those Republican presidential candidates and our president wouldn't be insisting on its reality every five seconds. All I can say is that when the neoliberal globalizers of the 1990s first proclaimed the world to be one, this was surely not what they had in mind!
And yet, consider something else as well (and for those of you who don't feel comfortable holding two seemingly contradictory thoughts in your head at one time, stop here): Foreign influences or no, Occupy Wall Street couldn't be a more homegrown or traditionally American movement. As our preeminent historian of Wall Street, TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America's Dream Palace, points out, the young occupiers of Zuccotti Park caught the zeitgeist of the moment by mainlining directly into the central vein of American oppositional movements for more than a century before the Great Depression ended. No wonder their movement is spreading fast. They may not have known their history, but they sensed it and so went right for that essential strand of American protest DNA: the "street of torments" at the bottom of Manhattan Island. Tom
The All-American Occupation
A Century of Our Streets Vs. Wall Street
By Steve Fraser- Advertisement -
Occupy Wall Street, the ongoing demonstration-cum-sleep-in that began a month ago not far from the New York Stock Exchange and has since spread like wildfire to cities around the country, may be a game-changer. If so, it couldn't be more appropriate or more in the American grain that, when the game changed, Wall Street was directly in the sights of the protesters.
The fact is that the end of the world as we've known it has been taking place all around us for some time. Until recently, however, thickets of political verbiage about cutting this and taxing that, about the glories of "job creators" and the need to preserve "the American dream," have obscured what was hiding in plain sight -- that street of streets, known to generations of our ancestors as "the street of torments."
After an absence of well over half a century, Wall Street is back, center stage, as the preferred American icon of revulsion, a status it held for a fair share of our history. And we can thank a small bunch of campers in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park for hooking us up to a venerable tradition of resistance and rebellion.
The Street of Torments
Peering back at a largely forgotten terrain of struggle against "the Street," so full of sound and fury signifying quite a lot, it's astonishing -- to a historian of Wall Street, at least -- that the present movement didn't happen sooner. It's already hard to remember that only weeks ago, three years into the near shutdown of the world financial system and the Great Recession, an eerie unprotesting silence still blanketed the country.- Advertisement -
Stories accumulated of Wall Street greed and arrogance, astonishing tales of incompetence and larceny. The economy slowed and stalled. People lost their homes and jobs. Poverty reached record levels. The political system proved as bankrupt as the big banks. Bipartisan consensus emerged -- but only around the effort to save "too big to fail" financial goliaths, not the legions of victims their financial wilding had left in its wake.
The political class then prescribed what people already had plenty of: yet another dose of austerity plus a faith-based belief in a "recovery" that, for 99% of Americans, was never much more than an optical illusion. In those years, the hopes of ordinary people for a chance at a decent future withered and bitterness set in.
Strangely, however, popular resistance was hard to find. In the light of American history, this passivity was surpassingly odd. From decades before the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression, again and again Wall Street found itself in the crosshairs of an outraged citizenry mobilized thanks to political parties, labor unions, or leagues of the unemployed. Such movements were filled with a polyglot mix of middle-class anti-trust reformers, bankrupted small businessmen, dispossessed farmers, tenants and sharecroppers, out-of-work laborers, and so many others.