Waves of the Anti-Greed Movement in the United States

I was doing some research for the ‘origins’ section of the Occupy Wall Street page on Wikipedia which I have had free rein on for a while now. Doing that research gave me an idea. In my Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies class, a visiting professor came in and told us how the women’s right movement is viewed as three waves, one starting in 1920, another that included the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and the third one that has lasted since the 1980s. She cautioned us that this analysis is limiting. The protests against corporate greed in American history can be categorized similarly as waves up to the present day Occupy movement.

There have been intermittent protests throughout history against greed. These included when workers marched down Wall Street in 1857 shouting “We want work!,” when hundreds of people surrounded the house of speculator William Duer in 1792, when Hoovervilles were set up across the United States by the homeless in order to create homes for themselves, when ACT UP members chained themselves to the New York Stock Exchange, and when the AIDS Coalition demanded lower prices for AIDS drugs in 1980s. However, while these actions are honorable, they cannot be considered part of an organized movement against corporate greed.

You may be asking when the first wave of such an anti-greed movement occurred. Interestingly, the first wave began in the 1750s and 1790s, having an integral role in the nation’s founding. William Hoegland writes, “Amid horrible depressions and foreclosure crises, from the 1750′s through the 1790′s, ordinary people closed debt courts, rescued debt prisoners, waylaid process servers, boycotted foreclosure actions, etc.” Hoegland continues that while these people were “legally barred from voting and holding office… they used their power of intimidation to pressure their legislatures for debt relief and popular monetary policies” and had “high hopes for American independence” since they helped “enable[e]… the Declaration of Independence.” This wave included what was called Shay’s Rebellion by the elites, which took place in 1786 in “western Massachusetts [where farmers]… marched on the state’s armory in Springfield to reverse regressive finance policies that had again plunged ordinary people into debt peonage and foreclosure while bailing out rich creditors.” Eventually this rebellion was crushed but resistance continued. In 1794 people were angry once again, so they “took over the militia and debt-court system throughout western Pennsylvania and western counties of neighboring states, flew their own flag, and tried to secede from the United States and form an economically egalitarian country”; they were eventually crushed by federal troops.

The second wave really began in the 1870s which went beyond isolated actions (since the 1830s) leading up to that point, especially concentrated in tenants. While the Grange was founded in the 1860s, it developed as a force when it helped push laws that would better the life of farmers, but unfortunately it wasn’t that radical and opposed what they called “the lawless, desperate attempts of communism…” As a result, their radical partner, the Farmers Alliance began to expand. This organization became what one could call the economic movement of American farmers. It was able to offer an alternative to the usual farm system in the south by allowing people to join them, form cooperatives, and as Howard Zinn notes “buy things together and get lower prices.” This movement coincided with the struggles of working people which at this time were thinking of living in different ways and engaging in mass direct action including parades and demonstrations. Zinn wrote that “what was astonishing in so many of these struggles was not that the strikers did not win all that they wanted, but that, against such great odds, they dared to resist, and were not destroyed.” Such struggles included a series of strikes spread across the country in 1877 with workers striking in solidarity but people like Eugene Debs at the time criticized them. Other actions included the protest in Haymarket Square in 1886 which a bomb exploded in the midst the police causing them to fire on the crowd. This event sparked an international solidarity, nationwide mourning and caused the radical labor movement to be crushed but kept alive class anger for future young revolutionaries. Still, some of this energy went into electoral struggles when labor candidates ran Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, and other cities in the Texas, Ohio, and Colorado. However, the farmers’ movement kept going and evolved into a populist movement.

In the 1890s, people began to rise again in what could be called the third wave. In 1891, the Populist Party was formed,  starting in Tennessee when mine workers took control of a mine in 1891. The next year it blossomed with strikes across the country in New Orleans, Idaho, Philadelphia, and Buffalo among others. The Depression in 1893, the first economic depression in US history, deeply influenced and caused an upwelling of energy in the movement against greed. People protested en masse in cities nationwide which, according to Zinn, “forced city governments to set up soup kitchens and give people work on streets or parks.” Even the radical feminist leader Emma Goldman told a massive group of unemployed workers in Union Square (New York City) to raid stores and take food. Eugene Debs, who had previously opposed the strike of 1877, became a socialist and led to one of the biggest strikes in American history.  In June of 1894, a strike of the employees of Pullman Palace Car Company began, and they appealed to the American Railway Union led by Debs to not handle Pullman cars which resulted in a nationwide strike. While cars were derailed, the power of the state militia and federal troops crushed the strike, resulting in Debs going to jail and denying he was a socialist in court.

Also this year, Coxey’s Army, made up unemployed workers, engaged in the first major popular march on Washington in 1894. Ideas of socialism began to influence those in the labor movement and radicalism spread. The farmers’ movement got even stronger, bringing in many from across the country and across races to create a huge rebellion of farmers surpassing past farmers’ activism. Even so, the poverty of farmers made it hard for them to support themselves, so they changed strategy.

Being part of the new populist movement, new ideas were thrown around including government-owned warehouses where farmers could store their produce, the pushing of greenbacks to make more currency available which would be based on how much farm produce one had, and in Dakota what Zinn calls a “great cooperative insurance plan for farmers [that] insured them against loss of their crops.” Different groups across the country were united in this new movement and despite the differing situation of blacks and whites, to some extent they were able to unite together while the establishment tried to keep them apart. This is an accomplishment in and of itself. There were attempts to create a separate farmers culture which included books, pamphlets, lectures, populist journals, poems and even songs! The class-based nature of their thinking caused Norman Pollack to draw parallels between the ideas of Marx and the populists.  Unfortunately, in 1896, the populist movement was sucked into political process, making alliances with the Democrats. When the Republican, William McKinley, won, in the first massive use of money during an electoral campaign, populism that had been absorbed into the Democratic Party began to disappear.

With the collapse of populism as a movement, a new movement developed. This was the socialist movement which still exists today, but it is kept marginalized through the influence of the corporatists. Herein began what can be considered the fourth wave. This movement began in the late 1890s with books like Edward Ballamy’s Looking Backward, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, and Jack London’s The Iron Heel. What people forget is that The Jungle expressed the need for a socialist society where people worked together cooperatively. A number of people were involved in such a movement including radicals Emma Goldman and W.E.B. Du Bois, socialists Jack London and Helen Keller and muckraker journalists like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens. In this time of radicalism, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union was formed in 1909 which gained thousands of members every day and unionization of industries began to grow. However racism was rampant through the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and those at the top had huge salaries and were part of the ‘high society’ who had goons to protect them and intimidate opponents. Such a situation led to the creation of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which is still around, with its members famously called “Wobblies” that wanted to organize all of those in one industry into one big union instead of smaller craft unions that the AFL was doing. The IWW advocated militant direct action to put in place economic democracy in workplaces, what they called “industrial democracy,” and they saw that strikes were only parts of the overall class war, being training for a massive general strike to push out the employers. Around this time as well the leader of the Socialist Party, Eugene Debs, and Mother Mary Jones, a United Mine Workers of America organizer drew up a constitution which stated in its preamble: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.” This radicalism was repressed by the state when it used all it could to stamp out IWW, but instead they continued to spread bit by bit. They organized parades and mass meetings, and groups began organize, but still the concentration of wealth remained.

Eugene Debs expressed what people felt at the time and used the resources of the Socialist Party to propel his message. As the party became more successful at the polls, they became critical of the tactics of the IWW, so they pushed Big “Bill” Haywood out of the Socialist Party. Some advocating for women’s rights began to tie their aims to socialism and radicalism, some even becoming skeptical of the push for suffrage saying it didn’t free women. Later some of this energy was channeled into the system to pass what is called by textbooks “progressive” legislation which really just helped maintain the capitalist system that favored big business, as the government was controlled by Wall Street. Additionally, politicians like progressivist Robert LaFollette fended off socialism (until the election of 1924) while others masqueraded as progressives like Theodore Roosevelt. Still, the Socialist Party began to grow and the IWW continued to agitate. Worker’s struggles continued.

When World War I came, the Socialist Party was weakened. Under the war effort, these radicals were repressed and their message was silenced by using the Committee for Public Information, the first government-created propaganda effort in American history. Much of the IWW was arrested and thrown in jail, and it didn’t recover for years. Toward the end of the war and afterwards, a Red scare began in America, and radicalism was suppressed.

In the 1930s there was a flicker of hope for radicalism. People looked more than ever to socialism and there were strikes that dotted the country as radical solutions were demanded. But such “madness” was weakened with the New Deal which while providing some jobs, didn’t do much to end the underlying conditions, rather it reshuffled the cards, and is basically saved capitalism. Radicalism continued, but there wasn’t any major movement other than the socialists, the communists, and other radicals which challenged corporate greed. In the 1940s such a movement was absorbed into the national mobilization as part of the war effort. When the Cold War began, those on the radical Left were persecuted by people in government, feelings which extended throughout the 1950s.

Then came the turbulent 1960s. These years led to a spurring of new knowledge and the blossoming of left once again. Mainly this was focused on opposition to the Vietnam War, but some connected this with other struggles. Martin Luther King was one of these people. In 1968 he helped organize along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) what could be considered the fifth wave. This was called the Poor People’s Campaign. King wrote that “civil disobedience has never been used on a mass scale in the North… If they are developed as weekly events at the same time that mass sit-ins are developed inside and at the gates of factories for jobs, and if simultaneously thousands of unemployed youth camp in Washington… without burning a match or firing a gun, the impact of the movement will have earthquake proportions.” King outlined specific demands and said that the campaign will be non-violent in all its regards. Sadly, he didn’t live through to this dream. Still, marchers descended on Washington D.C. and the SCLC came up with five demands including living wage jobs, popular involvement in government, capital for low-income people. Coretta Scott King expanded this, demanding what was called an Economic Bill of Rights along with others on the first day of protest (May 12, 1968),  which meant increased economic and human rights for numerous groups including whites, blacks, Latinos, and Indigenous peoples. On May 21, 1968, a shantytown called Resurrection City was set up, like the Occupy tent cities. It was under surveillance by the FBI just like the current occupy movement. However, this city barely lasted a month, as on June 24 police came in to remove the protesters after their permit expired the day before. As a result, this movement was criticized by the corporate media, and some involved regretted the occupation all together. This, basically, ended this movement after six weeks.

While activism continued into the following decades, the 1970s, the 1980s, and 1990s, there was little of an organized movement. The only movement that would be of note in opposing corporate greed would be the anti-corporate-globalization movement which began in the 1980s worldwide but did not come to America until 1999. From Oregon, it later culminated in what was called “the Battle for Seattle.” This constitutes the sixth wave. While this movement continues to this day, it has been partly absorbed into the Occupy movement.

In 2008 a new slew of protests occurred nationwide. This originated from large opposition to the 700 billion dollar bank bailout and other smaller bailouts of financial firms. Reporter Arun Gupta of the New York Indypendent started the call for protest by directing some of his activist friends to send out an email to tell people or organize actions against the bailout. Organizations like Democracy for America, the AFL-CIO, United Federation of Teachers and ACORN participated in the protests, among others. But, like Occupy, while the protest was organized by TrueMajority and USAction members, it had according to one CNN article “no agenda, no leaders, [and] no organizing group”; it just wanted to make the fat cats pay. This made people like Ralph Nader comment that they should develop some concrete demands or else they will collapse. Protests started on September 26 at 100 locations and by September 28 it has spread to over 251 places including Los Angeles and Rochester.  By October, the movement had spread to other cities with protests in Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay.  Protests were even planned for Washington D.C. to confront legislators. Of these protests, the largest was in New York City in front of Wall Street where people yelled, “The bailout is bullshit!,” “No more bail, send them [the bankers] to jail!,” and called the bailout a “class war crime” as the LA Times reported. Others carried signs calling for taxing of the rich, ending the blind transfer of wealth to Wall Street, and calling for the government to spend money to help people (education, healthcare, housing) like they were going to help Wall Street. As it turned out, the seventh wave died when the bailout was passed. However, people were still mad.

This is where the next movement came into being. Many on the Left dislike the Tea Party Movement — the eighth wave. As it turns out, popular anger about the bailout created this movement which protested Barack Obama’s bailouts, his huge stimulus package and other actions that benefited big banks. Unlike the protests against the bailout of 2008, they had a political wing and they began drafting candidates. Unfortunately for everyone, this movement was basically co-opted by Big Business and it devolved from its origins by focusing on the electoral struggle instead of direct action meaning that this wave came to an end.

In 2010 anger was still brewing. Investigative reporter David DeGraw tapped into this anger with videos in late 2009, and it culminated with a report in February of that year in which he criticized the economic elite saying it was time “for 99% of Americans to mobilize and aggressively move on common sense political reforms,” basically calling for a movement for the 99 percent, beginning the ninth wave. This movement had set goals which DeGraw proposed himself as “common sense reforms.” Over the next ten months DeGraw kept giving interviews calling for peaceful civil disobedience and it seemed that those in the elite were not happy so the site was repeatedly knocked offline. Eventually, as he puts it in a post on Washington’s Blog: “As AmpedStatus was pushing for a decentralized global rebellion against Wall Street and actively supporting the Egyptian uprising against the IMF and Federal Reserve, the attacks on the site escalated. In what appeared to be a fatal blow, the entire ISP network that the AmpedStatus.com site was hosted on was knocked offline… With a very limited budget, and in complete desperation, AmpedStatus put out a call for help… As AmpedStatus.com came under attack, Anonymous was playing a key role in supporting the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. When no one else with the needed technical expertise would help us and it became apparent that we would have to shut down our operation, several Anonymous members stepped up and offered to support and defend AmpedStatus.com from further attacks. They assisted in setting up a new hosting account and helped develop a new Independent social network for the 99% Movement.”

This was a turning point and showed that others wanted to organize together and create a mass movement against corporate greed. A new broad platform was proposed. In February 2011, Anonymous called for “an occupation of Wall Street… ‘The Empire State Rebellion’” and after which “A sub-group within Anonymous then joined with the AmpedStatus 99% Movement and we began a collaborative effort known as A99” which announced their “first operation by posting a video to the AmpedStatus YouTube page.” This was picked up by Zero Hedge, an economic news site and it quickly went viral. After this Anonymous called for a “Day of Rage” in the United States and “throughout April and May, members of A99 were organizing and debating possible future actions [and] they decided that Flag Day, June 14th, would be an appropriate time to launch actions.” On that day in Liberty Park, only 16 showed up and four planned to occupy it indefinitely, so they went back to the drawing board. It was the first stint at Occupy. However, nearby there were activists setting up Bloombergville to protest the budget cuts by New York City Mayor and Billionaire Michael Bloomberg which some from the Liberty Park protest joined. Then when Adbusters magazine made the call to Occupy Wall Street and bring a tent, a new chapter opened.

On September 17th, 2011 the world changed. A world revolution and the tenth wave had begun. It started with people angry as hell but over time it became more and more radical. The media will have you believe that the movement was crushed and “died” in December 2011. This is completely incorrect. The movement lives on. The tenth wave of the American anti-greed movement has been upon us and has spread worldwide as had the anti-corporate-globalization movement.

This rich history is an asset to the Occupy Wall Street movement. There is much more action than just these then “waves,” but this analysis makes known the history of challenging greed in this country. This analysis is confined to anti-greed and therefore does not discuss the peace movement, the anti-nuclear movement, and the movement to combat climate change. A Facebook event possibly by an Anonymous member is proposing an eleventh wave in later 2013. Adbusters has suggested making a whole new movement called the World Pirate Party. However, we should instead reinvigorate the base — the Occupy movement — by making it more powerful through forming new chapters and uniting with other movements.

Burkely Hermann is an activist who wants to change the world for the better by imagining alternatives to the status quo of neoliberal global capitalism. In order to illuminate these alternatives and outline the status quo, he runs numerous online blogs, writes numerous articles, and uses his tech savvy skills to fight for social justice. Read other articles by Burkely.