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Occupy Protests Reflect Global Angst

ViewPoints: Sociology professor Hank Johnston discusses how the United States-based movement measures up against other protest movements.
A young man protests corporate greed as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Photo by David Shankbone.
A young man protests corporate greed as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Photo by David Shankbone.

Occupy Wall Street started as many social movements do – with young people largely free from family responsibilities, said Hank Johnston, sociology professor and publisher of the international journal, Mobilization.

What distinguishes this movement, however, is how quickly it has been embraced by all ages.

“My impression is that, especially recently, the numbers have swelled because the claims and the ideas that the movement is putting forth have resonance with a much broader segment of the population. These are people who, for example, have been unemployed or union workers whose benefits or wages have been cut,” Johnston said.

The movement’s “We are the 99 percent” slogan has also worked well and is an “attempt to broaden the claims of the movement,” he noted.

Reflective of Western Europe

The fragmented American protests, with cities across the country hosting Occupy Wall Street off-shoots, are reflective of other movements seen throughout Western Europe in the past year.

“This has been going on worldwide — at least in terms of developed countries in Western Europe — going on for several months,” Johnston said. “There was a movement called los indignados in Spain, meaning ‘the indignant,’ that started in the spring. There were also movements in London and France; again, student movements expressing concerns about the kinds of future that young people faced in the light of fundamental changes that are occurring in advanced Western economies.

“Young people know that the future that they are facing is not the same as what they’re parents have spoken about, not the same future that was the predicate of their pursuit of higher education, of trades. It’s an upsetting kind of situation that a lot of young people find themselves in now.”

Comparisons to the Tea Party

According to Johnston, while Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements both grew out of dissatisfaction with government, that’s where the similarities end.

The Tea Party seeks to work within the Republican Party by advancing certain candidates and policies. Occupy Wall Street and its progressive ideals are not yet aligned with any political party, he said.

“The question is: will there be a parallel responsiveness within the Democratic Party to the kinds of the demands that they have?”

Future of the movement

For now, it’s a wait-and-see game as to whether the fragmented Occupy Wall Street movements across the country and their non-specific list of demands grow into anything bigger.

“In order to be effective, movements often need to articulate their goals clearly and articulate the strategies and tactics to bring about their goals. The question then is whether the anger and the dissatisfaction that we see in the Occupy Wall Street movement can be channeled in a way that gets the attention of politicians.”

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