The New Power on Wall Street

The world’s media have been increasingly focused on a nascent socio-political movement in the past few weeks. Since the middle of September, groups of protesters from various walks of life have begun occupying and protesting the world’s major financial and economic centre—most notably Wall Street. Wall Street is both a literal street and a metonym, a common reference to the great titans of global finance based in the buildings on this small street in Lower Manhattan. The protests started as a call to arms for Americans and for their government to begin upholding ideals that the protesters feel have been violated by the current economic system. Although Canadian parallels are still in the works, this new protest movement nonetheless appears to have Canadian origins.

In July, the Canadian NPO Adbusters, widely noted for their anti-consumerism campaigns and activism, called for a “Tahrir moment” (a reference to the central Tahrir Square in Cairo where demonstrations began that eventually led to the fall of longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak this past year). The goal of Adbusters’ call was to create a protest movement that would, quite literally, occupy Wall Street and the rest of Lower Manhattan’s financial district to broadcast public discontent with the injustices wreaked by the current economic system.

The group was to issue one demand: that the President of the United States would call a commission to investigate the permeation of money—that is, corporate/commercial influence—in American politics. Of course, American issues tend to quickly become global ones, and in time the protests have evolved to include a broader movement. Along with targeting the already large and growing gap between rich and poor in developed countries, the protests have called for an end to corporate greed and the hoarding of capital that is straining economies, and for governments to tackle inequalities in social and class structures. If these goals seem overreaching and broad, well, that’s because they are—but that seems to be part of what’s fuelling the movement.

The extremely generalized nature of the protests is galvanizing large numbers of people in sympathy, and drawing out many first-time protesters. The world has careened through economic crises over the past several years and virtually no one has been left unscathed. Rising unemployment has been exacerbated with rising costs of living, and many people are feeling, frankly, screwed. In their view, the world’s governments bailed out economic and financial systems whose greed caused the economic crisis in the first place. By using the tax dollars of the general population to aid those who had already wreaked havoc on the system, those governments sowed seeds of deep resentment, and these protests are a direct response to what is seen largely as government support of corporate greed.

As Vivian Luk of the Gazette wrote: “Participants are united by a common grievance: that a small group of corporations hold massive amounts of wealth and decision-making power, while the majority of the population suffers from enormous debt, unemployment, and unaffordable health care and housing.” For younger people, this sense of inequality is often magnified by heavy student loans and a lack of experience that make the inability to find work an even more desperate problem. That the majority of the protesters come from this background is becoming increasingly apparent to international news media.

While the developments are interesting, we must hope they do not descend into destructive actions. All too often, a small group of people can derail a legitimate protest movement with violence and destruction; Toronto bore the scars of the G20 because of such people. If the Occupy movements continue to grow as peaceful and relatively calm displays of civil disobedience, they could easily begin to affect the movers and shakers that create government policy and drive action.

Whether the movements will have any effect on decision-making, whether they continue to grow or lose cohesion and flame out, remains to be seen. At the moment, however, the steady accumulation of new protesters and the movement’s spread to other major cities (including major centres like Vancouver and Toronto) appears to indicate that Occupy is gaining steam and exposure, and, most importantly, starting to gain credibility. As more people, from students to union members to plain cash-strapped middle class workers, take notice of what is happening, the power that they can potentially exert grows. As one protester’s sign indicates, they are occupying Wall Street “for a better world.” Whether they will achieve that, only time will tell.

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