Pre-Occupation with the Past: How Occupy Wall Street could and should have Learned from earlier Protest Movements


by Beth Malouf


Executive Summary

  • This article argues that, to date, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has been largely unsuccessful in achieving its goals of bringing awareness to and usurping the power of the ‘1%’ of the world who they believe to be abhorrent.
  • It first explores some lessons that can be learned from the French Revolution, particularly the effectiveness of violent means to achieve a lasting political change. This is an especially persuasive example due to the analogous goals of the two movements.
  • Continuing its focus on violent means, the article then briefly discusses the IRA.
  • The second part of the article then discusses some specific tactics used by successful non-violent protests, arguing OWS could have utilised similar approaches to increase its effectiveness. This includes selecting a leader or spokesperson for the cause, and having the target of the protest more clearly identified.

Before discussing the shortfalls of OWS, it is first necessary to define the group and its goals. According to the movement’s mission statement:

Occupy Wall Street is a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colours, genders and political persuasions…the one thing we all have in common is that We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.

The key focus of the OWS resistance is to use ‘people power’ to resist the destructive power that major banks and multinational corporations have over the democratic process, and the role that Wall Street played in causing the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Furthermore, its greatest concerns are that large corporations and the global financial system control the world in a way that disproportionately benefits a tiny minority, undermines democracy, and is unstable. OWS began on 17 September 2011, in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District; its cause soon spread around the world. The movement utilised media and social media in an attempt to promote its cause internationally. Protesters picketed, re-routed traffic in New York City, and erected a community of tents in order to make a stance in a non-violent way. Late 2011 has so far proven to be the height of the OWS movement, and although there remains to be a continual monthly process of ‘global action’, it is clear that the long-lasting effect that was once intended has at least stalled if not failed.

The first part of this article focuses on the OWS and how it could have learnt lessons from earlier movements, which, although were like-minded, used violence as a key method to further their ideals. A suitably analogous example to demonstrate this is the French Revolution, a period of great social and political unrest in France during the years 1789-1799. French society successfully achieved its goal of a secular system of governance in revolt against a system of monarchy, and aristocratic and religious privilege that had hitherto prevailed. It was the upheaval of the peasantry, with their principles of equality and citizenship, which made the revolution a triumphant effort and whose ‘people power’ was able to overthrow dictatorial King Louis XVI. The enraged populace used violent tactics in order to conquer their king; such drastic measures resulted in infamous days of bloodshed, including the Storming of the Bastille and the attack of the Tuilleries Palace. It is this aspect of the French Revolution — the uprising of the peasantry and lower class — that will come into discussion in this piece due to its resemblance to OWS.

OWS has a similar complaint to the French peasants inasmuch as they belong to the 99 percent at the hands of the powerful 1 percent. In other words, they both oppose the small proportion of rich and privileged willing to undermine democracy and selfishly benefit themselves at the expense of the average and underprivileged majority. Similarities can be drawn between OWS protesters and the French revolutionaries in that they were seeking the downfall of their respective tyrannous leader(s). The success of their perspective outcomes, however, is where the two diverge. One of the major reasons behind this is that the violent and drastic movement of the French peasants had a much greater and lasting effect than the OWS peaceful protesters. Therefore, this article is underpinned by the premise that, for the OWS movement to be successful, one of the lessons it could and should have learned from history (in this particular case from the plight of eighteenth century French peasants) is the power that violence can unleash in reaching political goals.

The French Revolution was notoriously violent. Looking at this in more depth, two of the most ‘celebrated’ events during the overthrow were the storming of the Bastille and the flight of the King from the Tuileries Palace. The Storming of the Bastille, on 14 July 1789, saw hundreds of citizens of Paris called to arms where they barraged and seized the fortress of Bastille. They sought revolutionary prisoners and stocks of gunpowder in an attempt to prevent a coup against the National Assembly, which promised the nation a free and fair constitution. Some 100 Parisians died during this particularly vicious event. An example of such violence included the capture and decapitation of the governor of the fort and the mayor of the city, followed by the display of their heads on stakes. The pinnacle of their revolution came when King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, in response to growing violence and hatred towards them, fled the Tuileries Palace in an attempt to find safety away from the threat of the revolutionaries. Professor David Andress, in his 2005 account of civil war in the French Revolution titled The Terror, states:

What was happening was amazing and traumatic. Not since the religious and political strife of the early seventeenth century had a king of France had to flee his people, and never had one made so brazenly — or so desperately — for the frontiers.

This result shows the stark difference between the success of the French Revolution in toppling the leader, and that of OWS whose intentions of usurping the power of the 1 percent by peaceful means has failed. The lesson that OWS organisers should take from the French Revolution is that, whilst they may not be the most moral methods, violence and rebellion can achieve better results than peaceful protest. OWS used tactics such as picketing, social media, and the formation of tent communities, and evidently the 1 percent did not take notice.

The French Revolution is not the only instance of successful violent protest from which OWS could take lessons. One of the most violent instances of protest and civil discord was ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland between 1963 and 1985. The conflict involved Northern Ireland’s nationalist community, which had an Irish/Roman Catholic base, seeking independence from British rule, whereby the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) utilised armed campaigns to portray their desire for a republic. This violence peaked in 1972, when close to 500 people (the majority civilians) died, and then again in 1982 when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton, which at the time housed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The sheer duration of the impact of the IRA and its presence in Northern Ireland is a success in itself and, whilst the ultimate goal of independence has not yet occurred, the IRA’s presence and impact over multiple decades demonstrates its continued potential. This is in stark contrast to OWS, which, after a mere 12 months of protest, has downsized significantly and the intensity and power of the movement seems to have all but vanished. If the OWS movement fades out after little more than a year, then its hope of taking down the 1percent in years to come is very doubtful.

The second part of this article is dedicated to the idea that, whilst violent means is not the sole way to achieve the goals of a political movement, OWS could have used more effective non-violent measures. As a preliminary note, however, in order to discuss the merits, or lack thereof, of non-violent resistance it is important to consider what this means in the context of this article. It is the practice of rejecting violence in favour of peaceful tactics as a way of gaining political objectives; this is often undertaken by symbolic protests, civil disobedience, economic or political noncooperation, information warfare, picketing, boycotts, strikes, and other methods that can be used without resorting to violence. OWS is a clear example of non-violent resistance or peaceful protest, but here it is argued that the methods employed were inept. The remainder of this piece, then, is a discussion about some alternative tactics that past successful protesters have utilised and which OWS could significantly learn from.

One of the key features that is common amongst the more successful peaceful protests, and which could prove to be helpful for OWS, is the appointment of a leader or a figurehead to be a face for the cause. For instance, Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr were iconic figures of the non-violent civil disobedience of Indian nationalists against British rule and the African-American civil rights movement respectively. Both men became leaders of their respective movements and were able to move masses of people with their words and ideals. This is a significant omission from the OWS movement. Whilst it is understandable that, since those involved in OWS want to identify as the 99 percent and thus may not want one person speaking on behalf of them, it is probable that having a leader for the cause would have proven useful. Instead, the crowds that amassed in New York City and cities across the world faded into oblivion. Whilst a lack of leadership has been a significant downfall for OWS, a clear identification of the target of the protests was a further omission on its behalf.

The identification of a clear opposition is a notable absence in the OWS approach, and which is clearly evident in many of the successful non-violent approaches in history. OWS merely goes to the extent to identify ‘the 1 percent’ as the target for its actions; there is no specific group, person, or government focused upon. Rather, it has lumped together the likes of the rich, capitalists, banks, and multi-national corporations. Lessons from the past have shown that some of the most successful non-violent protests have had a clearly identified target, for instance: President De Gaulle in the May 1968 French student demonstrations; President Nixon and the US Government in the student protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War; and, in more recent times, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Having an identified target to aim protests at give the movement purpose and allows the public to easily identify what the protesters are opposing; this is clearly lacking from the OWS approach.

Finally, it is possible that OWS’ lack of success to date can be attributed to the cause that it is pursuing. Successful revolutions, such as the French Revolution discussed above, require a state of entire political and social disorder to the extent that the status quo has become unsustainable. Whilst OWS may believe this is the case, the situation that the movement is opposing has little risk of leading to a complete systemic collapse that often correlates with a successful revolution. According to Professor David Andress, unless this is the case:

Like Europe’s ‘Springtime of Peoples’ in 1848, or Germany in 1918, any uprising will be a damp squib, and the old order will have its revenge.

Complaints by OWS protesters seem to fall significantly below the heights of such a societal downfall. A strong cause is even more important for the case of OWS since it is an international movement with transnational goals, thus an unstable environment would need to be on a much larger scale. Therefore, the seemingly tenuous complaints that OWS has, whilst justified and understandable, are lacking the immense social unrest that is needed for the goals to be achieved — namely, to take back the power from the 1 percent controlling the world’s economy.

In conclusion, it is clear that the OWS movement has been far from effective. There are various lessons from history that could have improved its chances to succeed in challenging the ‘1 percent’ of the world. The effectiveness of violence is evident, particularly in light of the successful example of the French Revolution. Whilst this is not necessarily the most moral tactic, it could have proven to be a much more successful one. Furthermore, it is clear that even if OWS continues down the path of peaceful resistance, there are better ways to harness such opposition. For instance, selecting a figurehead for the cause, and making the target(s) better known to the populace. In short, whilst there is little to be said of the success of OWS in achieving its aims, it is clear that lessons from past more effective protests certainly could have increased the chances of triumph.

Selected further reading:

Andress, D, 1789: The Threshold of the Modern Age, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York, 2011.

Andress, D, The Terror: The Civil War in the French Revolution, Abacus 2005, London.

Andress, D, ‘The Wall Street Journal Speakeasy’, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity…Zucotti, retrieved 28 September 2012, http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/10/18/is-occupy-wall-street-similar-to-the-french-revolution/

Carter, A, Peace Movements: International Protest and World Politics Since 1945, Longman Group, New York, 1992.

Garton Ash, T & A Roberts (eds), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.

Hennesy, T, The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Ending the Troubles, Palgrave, New York, 2001.

Hertzberg H, ‘A Walk in the Park’,  The New Yorker, 17 October 2011,  pp12-13.

King, M, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr: The Power of Nonviolent Action, 2nd ed, ICCR/Mehta Publishers, New Delhi, 2002.

Occupy Wall Street, retrieved 2 October 2012, http://occupywallst.org/

Reynolds, D, One World Divisible: A Global History Since 1945, Penguin Books, London, 2000.

Smith B, ‘The Politics of Protest: How Effective Is Violence?’, Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, vol. 29, no. 1, pp.111-128.


© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Beth Malouf, Pre-Occupation with the Past: How Occupy Wall Street could and should have Learned from earlier Protest Movements. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/pre-occupation-with-the-past

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/pre-occupation-with-the-past