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The Occupy Wall Street Movement
Demos and rallies sweep across the world

Toru Shinoda
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Demonstrations and rallies have been spreading all over the world, from North Africa and the Middle East to Southern Europe, North America and Japan. The aims of the demonstrators vary, however, with some calling for democracy and others opposing austerity measures, worsening labor union laws, wealth disparity, or nuclear power generation. Looking in more detail at the behavior of the various movements, we can catch a glimpse of the movement culture, that is to say, the whole tradition of movements that has grown up over many years, within which it is also interesting to consider the various national characteristics. This is particularly striking in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in New York and has spread to all major US cities. Here I would like to point out three of the traditions of that movement culture.

Principle of a country built on labor

The Occupy Wall Street movement is a protest against the excesses of financial capitalism. It is also fueled by the continuing high level of long-term unemployment in the US, the rise in the partially employed, and concerns about the potential unemployment of the young and their future unemployment, which are all seen as immoral and unacceptable. Collaboration with, and empathy for, the movement is being seen in the labor movement and within high-unemployment minority communities, which has been beleaguered by the drain of work to overseas and the increase of non-regular employment accompanying recent globalization. American society is engulfed in a mood of sympathy for the demonstrators.

It may be surprising to know, but presidents of the US have, at each point in its history, attributed the greatness of their country to the labor of its people who work by the sweat of their brow. President Lincoln is one example. In his State of the Union address in 1861, just as the American Civil War was starting, he proclaimed that labor was prior to capital because capital could never have existed if labor not first existed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in his inaugural address in 1933 that the joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. Later on, President Obama, in this passage from his augural address, concurred fully with the statements of the above two presidents about a country forged by labor. He emphasized that American journey had not been the path for those who preferred leisure over work or sought only the pleasure of riches and fame but the path for the doers and the makers of things.

Free spaces

A friend of mine currently studying in New York has seen demonstrations and rallies spring up all over the city since the movement began, as if people were "stitching the divisions created by capitalism back together with the threads of humanity." Indeed, the living spaces in our modern society with its traffic rules due to street planning, and even its discrimination and prejudice, turn us into employees, customers or passersby, restricting our behavior by forbidding certain activities from particular places or restricting other activities to other places. By occupying the park along a section of Wall Street, the ultimate symbol of modern society, the movement has turned the tables by changing the rules of use of that space, giving previously timid people a sense of liberation, confidence and self-respect, forming bonds between previous unrelated men and women, and changing the usual landscape into a vivid, albeit temporary, memory of a free and ideal society. Because Wall Street is regarded as the control tower of the modern global system, the scenes there of the tables being turned have given countless people the strength to envision an alternative society.

In the US, there are movement historians at a grassroots level who call this kind of place for movements a "free space", and who relate past examples in an attempt to help modern day people rediscover this tradition. The records of these people are fascinating to read, as they illustrate the many cases of occupation and give a sense of the creativity of the movement culture of this country. For instance, there were times when whole towns in various areas would fill up with people who had abandoned their work and come to gather freely and fraternize. To not work means to strike, but in the US it was called a "working holiday" or, in the rural version, a "farmers' holiday". The current movement has called for a revival of the famous occupation movement in Oakland, California led by female employees at a department store, which occurred amid the commotion of the general strike that spread across the country in the aftermath of World War II. Also, in the frequent labor disputes that broke out after the Great Depression, factory occupations called "sit downs" swept through car plants and other workplaces. But occupation movements are not restricted to the labor movement. The creation of free spaces continued during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and then the anti-Vietnam War movement and the student movement.

Movement songs

Something struck me as I was researching the genealogy of these movements of occupation. The people involved were probably singing. The history of movements of occupation is one of movement songs, which is to say, folk songs. An internet search for related items gives the expected results. First is traditional folk singer Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land. Although he wrote this song in 1940, it was covered numerous times during the folk boom of the 1960's. It is still learned today by American elementary school children because of the sense of coexistence produced by its lyrics, This land is your land, this land is my land. The famous activist rock singer Tom Morello has sung this song on Wall Street. Next is We Shall Not Be Moved. Originally a black spiritual, it was sung in the occupations of the labor movement that rose out of the Great Depression and was revived in the civil rights movement and anti-war movement occupations of the 1960's. The well-known song We Shall Overcome followed a similar route. It has been sung at Wall Street by Peter Yarrow of the group Peter, Paul and Mary, famous in Japan for their hit Puff the Magic Dragon. Folk icon Pete Seeger has also appeared at Wall Street. Incidentally, it was no surprise to find Sean Lennon there whose father, John Lennon, sang Imagine, a timeless masterpiece perfectly capturing the spirit of free spaces.

Toru Shinoda
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Born in 1959. Graduated the Department of Chinese Literature, Faculty of Arts, Waseda University. Pulled out of the doctoral course at the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University. He held the posts of full-time lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Kitakyushu and full-time lecturer and assistant professor at the School of Social Sciences, Waseda University before taking up his current position in 1997. He has written and edited Seikimatsu no rodo undo [The labor movement at the end of the century] (Iwanami Shoten), co-edited Rodo to fukushi kokka no kanousei [The Possibilities of Labor and the Welfare State] (Minerva Shobo) and many more books.