We’re at a curious moment in this remarkable movement. Has there ever been one so widespread that has not yet made demands? Yet at the same time, Occupy Wall Street has accomplished something that takes other movements years. It has crystallized a sense of outrage — and made clear that this outrage is shared by tens of millions.
I think about other moments in my lifetime when it suddenly became thrillingly clear that millions of people felt the same way. One was in the late 1960s, when huge crowds poured into the streets, again and again, opposing America’s war in Vietnam. It took years more to stop that war, and an appalling amount of bloodshed by the Vietnamese. But something changed after those demonstrations began. All of us who had vowed never to fight in Vietnam looked up and down the long lines of fellow marchers and knew we were not alone.
Another exhilarating moment came in East Germany in the fall of 1989. Wanting the freedom to travel, to read and speak as they chose, and to be rid of constant surveillance and threats by the secret police, thousands of people began massing one Monday evening in a public square in Leipzig. Quickly the Monday demonstrations spread to other cities, and the crowds grew to tens of thousands. Within two months it became hundreds of thousands, and the Berlin Wall came down.
Don’t imagine, though, that real change will happen so quickly here. We are up against a system of deeply rooted, widening inequality that is a veritable Berlin Wall of corporate power. I think our progress, our pattern of defeats and advances, will be more like that of another movement.
Roll the clock back about 220 years. Up through the late 1700s, most people in Britain accepted slavery as unthinkingly as most Americans until now have accepted the rule of giant corporations. British ships dominated the Atlantic slave trade, and on occasion reaped hedge-fund-sized returns: a single voyage by the Hawke of Liverpool in 1780 made a 147% profit. Some half million slaves toiled 12-hour days on the lucrative sugar plantations of the British West Indies. The profits from their labor built many a mansion in London’s most exclusive neighborhoods, and country estates whose grandeur rivals anything in the Hamptons today. Jamaican sugar mogul William Beckford could afford to hire Mozart to give his son piano lessons.
Yet this was an era when the French and American Revolutions put new ideas about human equality into the air. When a brilliantly organized antislavery movement began in London in 1787, it quickly found a following. As often happens, the grassroots outpaced headquarters, and, unorganized by anyone except a couple of pamphlets suggesting the idea, by 1792 at least 400,000 people in the British Isles were refusing to eat slave-grown sugar. It was the largest consumer boycott the world had yet seen — and one of those moments when people who cared deeply about something looked around and saw they were not alone.
Sugar planters and their lobbyists were as taken by surprise as Wall Street was when people began pouring into Liberty Square in September. They fulminated, they issued counter-pamphlets, they claimed that ending slavery would throw thousands of Britons out of work. And for a time they prevailed. But in the end the antislavery activists won. They discovered the strength of their numbers through the sugar boycott, through vast petition campaigns, and, in later years, in mass meetings. In 1807 they succeeded in abolishing the British slave trade. Stimulated by news of the ongoing movement, a series of ever-larger slave revolts broke out in the British West Indies, and in 1838 British Empire slavery came to an end — a full quarter century before that happened in the United States.
In combating entrenched power of a different sort—a system with obscene profits for the 1% and hardship and a downward slide for many of the rest—I think we’re now at about 1792 in this process. We have a long way to go. But we know we’re not alone.
This article was published in our fifth print issue on November 18, 2011.
This post is also available in: Spanish