Occupy Wall Street: Crowd Action as American Tradition

Friday, October 14, 2011

On Oct. 6, a group of Philadelphians gathered at Dilworth Plaza by City Hall in the name of Occupy Philadelphia. The demonstration was organized in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, which began in September and has since gone national. Jeffrey Hyson, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and director of the American studies program at Saint Joseph’s University, says that historically, a key component of revolution is the action of crowds taking to the streets.

Powered by ordinary people from all levels of society, the Occupy crowd action is demanding that the government address the economic inequality experienced across America. According to Hyson, these grassroots movements are not new to the American scene.

“There’s a long history of crowd actions being taken to assert citizens’ political opinions, particularly when those citizens believe political leaders aren’t listening,” Hyson says.

When following established channels don’t yield their desired effect – carrying out change at the ballot box or writing letters to legislators, for example – a common reaction is to take mass action against the system.

“It’s a long-standing tradition in American history,” says Hyson. “Popular movements against economic inequality have happened before, from the attacks on wealthy Loyalists during the Revolutionary era to the late-19th-century Populist protests against corporate excess and influence.”

Occupy Wall Street has met criticism for what some see as a vague mission and the stereotypical image of protestors. According to Hyson, the loosely defined and multilayered goals presented by the group, along with their younger demographic, musical choices and manner of dress has led some media outlets to question their efforts. Hyson says that these are unreasonable criticisms, because even if their style of protest is too reminiscent of pop culture representations of 1960s radicals, these events are about getting attention.

“Ultimately, it’s not the responsibility of the ordinary citizen – or these protesters – to figure out how to fix the issues they stand against. To expect a fully formed plan of action is unfair, when what they are asking is for leaders to be held accountable,” he says.

Media Contact

Hyson can be reached for comment at jhyson@sju.edu, 610-660-1746, or by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-660-3240.

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