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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How We Came to Occupy Wall Street

The roots of Populist opposition to tyrannical management and big money abuse were planted in a 19th century American garden.

The Occupation, as this most technologically sophisticated protest in history has come to be called, was inspired by a martyred street vendor in Tunisia. But as “We Are the 99 Percent” continues to grow with more people swarming to New York’s Zuccotti Park and as protests keep spinning off worldwide, it has taken on a traditional grass roots American push back against big business excesses.

Today’s Angry Americans are people who are falling out of the middle class. They took out mortgages to pay for education. They took out mortgages to buy their American Dream houses. They worked hard at whatever jobs they could find and who now find themselves standing on the narrow edge of ruin.

Yesterday’s Dreaded Populists

In the closing decades of the 19th century, the Angry Americans were those who had been displaced from farms and workers who sweated away in the drudgery and humiliation of factories and mills. Their enemies were the men who were turning the U.S. into the world’s greatest marketing giant – bankers, sweatshop operators, meat packers, mill owners, railroad executives, and steelmakers who were out to capitalize on capitalism, to make the most money possible without restraint, and to keep it wadded up and lining their own pockets.

At the end of the 19th century, these two sides went at each other with guns, dynamite, black lists. Thousands died as the labor movement developed and slowly grew. During the acrimonious presidential campaigns of 1896 and again in 1900, the have-not candidate was William Jennings Bryan. He represented rural Populists and free-silver Democrats.

The man of the haves, the urban banks and big corporations in both elections was Republican William McKinley. Although he was a decorated hero of the Civil War, McKinley was a mild-mannered “go along to get along” politician. The former Ohio Congressman and Governor first ran for and won the presidency in 1896. Their major issue in that election: should gold (Bryan) or silver (McKinley) support America’s currency? McKinley’s running mate in 1896 was Garrett Hobart. The team was backed by industrialist Mark Hanna, a man who loved politics, but not people.

McKinley and unbound capitalism won against Bryan again in the election of 1900. Their point of contention in 1900 was imperialism and an expanded American role in world affairs, which was much touted by the young new Vice Presidential nominee, Theodore Roosevelt, of New York.

Roosevelt was competing with Hanna for GOP power. He recognized his rival’s special campaign skills. Hanna’s strategy called for unlimited spending and anything goes malice. It was Hanna who organized the first political mass mailing, for example. His campaign was the precursor to every election to follow. And it marked the fixed alliance between capitalism and the GOP.

The New York Republican machine hated “that damned cowboy” and believed the best way to deal with him was to put him out to pasture as the V.P. McKinley was healthy, young, and destined for four more years. Roosevelt was tagged as an ambitious nuisance reformer out to restrain (modestly, for sure) big business.

Roosevelt, who claimed that McKinley “has no more backbone than a chocolate ├ęclair” (according to historian H.W. Brands), was eager to go to war with the declining Spanish Empire. He believed that moderate controls on capitalism would effectively mask it from its victims. He was aggressively ambitious. And he went along with nobody, which surprisingly got him along pretty far and pretty fast. Several months after the 1900 election, McKinley was assassinated.

The Assassination of William J. McKinley

Only weeks into his second term, President McKinley was gunned down in Buffalo by a newcomer to anarchism, Leon Czolgosz. Ironically, the first American anarchist was also the first Libertarian and a socialist reformer, Josiah Warren. He formulated the basic idea central to anarchism at the time – “each being a law unto himself” without violating the freedom of anyone else.

Warren posited his ideas about individualist anarchism in the mid-1800s, before Populist anger about the abuses of the exploding Industrial Revolution had taken form. Later, anarchism became remarkably violent.

Forty-five anarchists met in London in 1881 and agreed that violence was the only way to bring about change and their revolution. They pledged to a doctrine that all rulers and substantial property-owners must be exterminated. In 1894, they stabbed to death the president of France. Two-years of terror followed.

For the mild and unfortunate McKinley, as with President James A. Garfield fifteen years earlier, medical treatment proved to be more lethal than the anarchist’s bullets. Only eight weeks later, Czolgosz was also dead, electrocuted at Auburn Prison. The cause of anarchism would never recover. Even its first American proponent, Josiah Warren, faded into history.

For the new 26th President Theodore Roosevelt, who was just 42, reform was a smart way to shelter capitalism from angry Americans who felt victimized by the abuses of big business and from Populists and ever-expanding labor unions. He saw to it that regulation would become respectable and an accepted part of the Republican Party’s alliance with capitalism. The old-guard, who controlled Congress and Republicans who managed business, believing controls were an unfair intrusion on their right to profit to the maximum, hated Roosevelt.

As Republican leaders feared, Roosevelt emerged as a trust buster, proving his commitment to bringing labor and capital together without granting favors to either. As a crusader, he became most famous as a conservator, adding to the national forests and reserving lands for the public use, to the consternation of big business interests.

The 99% versus the Property Party

History teaches us that violence fails but peaceful demonstration works to bring change. Occupy Wall Streeters are modern Populists who are protesting the greed and corruption that benefits only the one percent just as 19th century Americans protested the abusive capitalists of their day. Violence failed to change the status quo then. Can peaceful disruption win greater social and economic justice today?

Unlike the Populists of the past, today’s have-nots may no longer feel represented by the Democratic Party, however. An Occupy Wall Street spokesperson, Bill Dobbs, said on October 17, 2011, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party, and it has two right wings, Republicans and Democrats.”

This view sounds similar to position statements made by that other modern grass roots Populist group from the far right, the tea party. Its members managed to get people into positions of power by allying with the reactionary side of the Republican Party, but its ability to continue to grow remains in doubt.

The Occupation is not limited to the tea party’s simple, rural American notions. Nor are the occupiers attempting to make religious faith part of any election. They don’t come armed to Zuccotti Park. Their anger is not directed at gays or lesbians, Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, or any religion, and they don’t seem to care whether Mormons attempted a conversion after death of Anne Frank or George Washington. Signs do not broadcast hate. Instead, they are more along the lines of “Up Against the Wall Street.”

As it spawns similar protests around the world in the manner of the Arab Spring, the gathering in Zuccotti Park may grow into a new Third World. But to break the Republican Party alliance with capitalism in America and to effect lasting economic and ecological change in the world, the occupiers must recognize that all the world’s popular struggles are connected. To succeed, we all must come together.


Miller, Scott, The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century, Random House, New York, NY, 2011

“Occupy Wall Street: The New Populists”, Los Angeles Times, October 6, 2011 Issue, Los Angeles, CA, 2011

“Tea Parties = Populist Movement?”, Campus Progress, April 30, 2010, The Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., 2010