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Occupy Wall Street, the ongoing demonstration-cum-sleep-in that began a month ago not far from the New York Stock Exchange and has since spread like wildfire to cities around the country, may be a game-changer. If so, it couldn’t be more appropriate or more in the American grain that, when the game changed, Wall Street was directly in the sights of the protesters.
The fact is that the end of the world as we’ve known it has been taking place all around us for some time. Until recently, however, thickets of political verbiage about cutting this and taxing that, about the glories of “job creators” and the need to preserve “the American dream,” have obscured what was hiding in plain sight—that street of streets, known to generations of our ancestors as “the street of torments.”
After an absence of well over half a century, Wall Street is back, center stage, as the preferred American icon of revulsion, a status it held for a fair share of our history. And we can thank a small bunch of campers in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park for hooking us up to a venerable tradition of resistance and rebellion.
The Street of Torments
Peering back at a largely forgotten terrain of struggle against “the Street,” so full of sound and fury signifying quite a lot, it’s astonishing—to a historian of Wall Street, at least—that the present movement didn’t happen sooner. It’s already hard to remember that only weeks ago, three years into the near shutdown of the world financial system and the Great Recession, an eerie unprotesting silence still blanketed the country.
Stories accumulated of Wall Street greed and arrogance, astonishing tales of incompetence and larceny. The economy slowed and stalled. People lost their homes and jobs. Poverty reached record levels. The political system proved as bankrupt as the big banks. Bipartisan consensus emerged—but only around the effort to save “too big to fail” financial goliaths, not the legions of victims their financial wilding had left in its wake.
The political class then prescribed what people already had plenty of: yet another dose of austerity plus a faith-based belief in a “recovery” that, for 99% of Americans, was never much more than an optical illusion. In those years, the hopes of ordinary people for a chance at a decent future withered and bitterness set in.
Strangely, however, popular resistance was hard to find. In the light of American history, this passivity was surpassingly odd. From decades before the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression, again and again Wall Street found itself in the crosshairs of an outraged citizenry mobilized thanks to political parties, labor unions, or leagues of the unemployed. Such movements were filled with a polyglot mix of middle-class anti-trust reformers, bankrupted small businessmen, dispossessed farmers, tenants and sharecroppers, out-of-work laborers, and so many others.