All across the world people are rising up against their government, unwilling to accept inequalities and injustices. In mid-September 2011, a group of concerned citizens took to Zuccotti Park, a pedestrian plaza in the middle of New York’s financial district, to hold what has been dubbed Occupy Wall Street (OWS). The aim of the protesters is to hold Wall Street, regarded as the driver of an increasingly plutocratic and oligarchic system, accountable for it’s fiscal recklessness. They believe this recklessness is the cause of our country’s lopsided wealth distribution, where 1% of Americans control 40% of the nation’s wealth. The rich operate independently of others, owning the biggest homes, receiving the best healthcare, and getting the best educations. For those most harshly effected by the decisions of the 1%, job opportunities are scarce, healthcare and education are inferior, and many of people feel alienated by the police rather than protected. Demonstrators in Zuccotti Park refuse to remain silent as disparities between the rich and the rest continue to grow.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is defined by, “direct action and leaderless, consensus-based decision-making,” as Dan Barrett describes. This is a model for the type of democracy that the demonstrators want, a true participatory one in which each person’s opinion counts. Protestors have accomplished this goal on a small scale through their “call out” system of speaking to each other during group deliberations. Those occupying Zuccotti Park call votes for even the smallest decisions, such as how they will keep warm at night. The demonstration serves as a vision of how they believe things should be in the United States. Unfortunately, our current political system is heavily influenced by big business and the dollars of the wealthiest Americans.
The structure and vision of Occupy Wall Street has spread throughout the country and across college campuses (see map 1). Participants include college-aged students and older, both men and women, the employed and unemployed, and members of all political parties. Even those who reside in the 1% have become involved in protests. Amongst OWS protestors, however, African Americans are in the minority. This stems from the fact that the problems OWS protesters are expressing dissatisfactions with have existed in African American communities long before OWS protests began. Yet, it has only been until recently that these issues have received media attention. The OWS movement has garnered attention and received widespread support across the country. In all cases, people are no longer willing to remain silent while inequalities and injustices persist.
The OWS movement was inspired by the events in North Africa and central Asia, where millions of people have taken to the streets in their own societies to protest oppressive political, economic and social conditions. In January 2011, thousands of anti-government demonstrators poured into the streets of Cairo, demanding the end of the political corruption, police brutality, poverty and unemployment that has caused thousands of suicides across the country. Demonstrators also called for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of power, holding him accountable for these oppressive conditions. As reported by the Associated Press, and witnessed by hundreds of Youtube videos, protesters were met with “blasts from water cannons . . . batons and acrid clouds of tear gas.” On February 11th, after 18 days of protest, President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, responding to his own peoples desire for change.
Encouraged by demonstrations in surrounding countries (see map 2), protestors in Libya took on the country’s government in February 2011. Col. Muammar Gaddafi was appointed as Prime Minister following a 1969 coup, in which the resource-grubbing King Idris was removed from power. During his 42-year rule, Libya experienced substantial development and Gaddafi earned the respect of other world leaders. At the same time, he was a ruthless autocrat who punished his opponents, forbade the private press, and banned political parties. As stated in the Economist, “If his enemies fled abroad, his hired assassins found these ‘scum’ and killed them.” In a speech given during the February demonstrations, Gaddafi claimed that protesters were “serving the devil,” and urged his supporters to attack those rallying against him. Demonstrations started in Benghazi, then spread across the country following a series of vicious killings. Gaddafi said he would “fight and die a martyr,” which (in his own eyes) he did after being killed on October 23, 2011 in an uprising aided by NATO intervention. Now, under the National Transitional Council, people in Libya may have an opportunity to decide their own future. President Obama and many other political leaders have applauded the Arab Spring, praising the death of Gaddafi and the fact that Egypt’s Mubarak has stepped down from power. Still, according the many of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, oppressive systems are allowed to continue here in the United States.
At home and abroad, the demonstrators of both the OWS movement and the Arab Spring have similar concerns. In both cases, protesters want to change systems that they believe allows a rich minority to make decisions that adversely affect the rest of society, leaving many people poor and without job opportunities. In these countries and our own, as Joseph Stiglitz writes, “a minuscule fraction of the population—less than 1 percent—controls the lion’s share of the wealth; wealth is a main determinant of power . . . the wealthiest often stand actively in the way of policies that would improve life for people in general.” In each case, there is somebody to be held accountable for the creation of vast inequalities. In the case of America, the decisions of those on Wall Street, coupled with the irresponsibility of politicians who refuse to confront the 1%, are driving our increasingly undemocratic system. In the case of the Arab Spring, corrupt political leaders are being held accountable and called to step down. Conclusion
While the aspirations of OWS and the Arab Spring have similarities, it is important to note that there are ways in which the two are incomparable. In the United States, people have a voice that can be expressed through the country’s own brand of democracy. This has not been the case in many North African and Central Asian countries. In Libya in particular, dissention against the government has been punishable by death. Across other countries, a blatant disregard for human life has been common. Death tolls in both Libya and Egypt sharply increased after uprisings began. Protesters in the Arab Spring have been willing to go to great extremes to get their point across. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are generally far from extreme, as many participants seemingly sit around complaining while others go to work. If protests in America were met with death, as is the case in many countries abroad, the burden of the protesters may be taken more seriously.
Protesters in the Arab Spring have been willing to go to extremes in order to get their point across. These extremes include burning themselves, taking bullets, and getting hit by cars. This has proven to be productive in Libya and in Egypt, as their political leaders no longer hold power. All this while it seems like the OWS movement has had limited progress. While the awareness of issues of inequality and injustice has grown across the country, there has been little governmental change. Perhaps real change to government requires more drastic circumstances, as seen in the Arab Spring.