The Populist Movement Reborn, At Last, In Occupy

The Populist Movement Reborn, At Last, In Occupy

By Rosalyn Baxandall

October 14, 2011

At last the 99 percent are shaming them: “This is not a Recession; It’s Robbery,” one sign read in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Usually U.S. social movements occur every 30 years: the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1960s. Even with the longest war in history against Afghanistan, and wars in Iraq, Pakistan and Colombia, it was eerily quiescent on the North American front in the past decade. A movement was long overdue.

Occupy Wall Street is the first populist movement on the left since the Populist Movement of the 1870s to 1897, the largest social movement of the 19th century. So, hurray.

When Occupy Wall Street set up in lower Manhattan on September 17th in Zuccotti Park, originally called Liberty Park Plaza, it took back the plaza’s original name, and spawned 400 or more occupations and actions across the U.S.

Back in the late 1800s, the Populists blamed Wall Street and the railroads for bankrupting farmers, forcing them off their land and devaluing their crops. Farmers paid more taxes than the industrial or the financial sectors because they couldn’t hide their land.

As a North Carolina farm journal in 1887 accurately stated:

There is something radically wrong in our industrial system. There is a screw loose. The wheels have dropped out of balance. The railroads have never been so prosperous, and yet agriculture languishes. The banks have never done better or more profitable business, and yet agriculture languishes. Manufacturing enterprises never made more money, or were in a more flourishing condition and yet agriculture languishes. Towns and cities flourish and “boom’ and grow and “boom,” and yet agriculture languishes. Salaries and fees were never so temptingly high and desirable, and yet agriculture languished.

Women were very much a part of the Populists, and the women had strong alliances with women’s suffrage. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a Populist leader from Kansas, famously said, “we should raise less corn and more hell.”

Women are a large part of the Wall Street Occupation today, although men tend to be featured in news clips. The Occupiers of Wall Street, located at the epicenter of global financial power and corruption, have finally focused the attention of the public, as the Populist Movement did. The Occupiers talk about how the one percent profit and the 99 precent languish, and what is essentially rotten, unjust and unsustainable about our contemporary capitalist system.

They understand that for the past 10 years our country was hijacked, not by foreign terrorists, but by rich, greedy homegrown bank robbers and their lackeyed politicians, both Democrats and Republicans. The know that North Americans lost their homes, their savings, their health insurance, their unions and jobs, but banks were bailed and bankers and CEO salaries rose to the millions. However, they also saw that in the last year, huge movements were mounted in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Israel, Spain and England against dictators and against the lack of jobs for young people and the growing gaps between rich and poor.

At Liberty Park in New York City, participants held storyboard signs that testified to the American nightmare. “I went to the University of Chicago, got a MBA, and owe $240,000 and have been unemployed for 14 months,” one said. Others who camped in the park were homeless — they or their parents have lost jobs, as have the other 14 million unemployed. Their issues touch the soul of our economic system.

The Occupiers are participating in an actual democracy — not a representative democracy that favors those with wealth and power. Theirs is a horizontal democracy that gives voice to the participants, not just the leaders. They hold daily meetings of all those assembled, take suggestions and debate them. They are citizens, not consumers. They live simply on contributions. When they asked for socks, they received so many that they had to donate some elsewhere.

The Occupiers also recognized the need for their own newspaper, starting The Occupied Wall Street Journal so they can speak their own piece. They have amplified their voices on blogs, using a hi-tech media crew and donated power source. Most of the signs are handmade, drawn at tables filled with crayons and markers, written on the boxes from pizzas — their “occu-pies.” Each day, the Occupiers remained creative and expanded their reach whether rallying one mile north in Washington Square Park or honoring the appearance of Olympic star John Carlos, remembered for raising his fist at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.

The U.S. is not a democracy; the majority doesn’t participate in the political process and our leaders are corrupt, representing the banks, real estate and oil companies, not the people. The demands of the Occupiers are more basic than a list of legislative proposals to be co-opted and negotiated by politicians. “This is what democracy looks like,” the demonstrators drum and chant.

The Populist Movement of the late 1800s came and went, but much of its platform was adopted by The New Deal. The Occupiers have dreams and a vision, too: of a just, peaceful, diverse, democratic world, where democracy serves more than global capitalism and the greedy one percent.