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OWS Has Lessons to Learn From Past Movements

Occupy Wall Street is reminiscent of the mid-20th century civil rights, women's lib, and peace movements, as well as the great labor battles of the '30s and '40s that brought unions and shared prosperity broadly to the working class.
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The Occupy Wall Street action in lower Manhattan has unleashed the energies of hundreds of thousands of people across the country and changed the national conversation. The heart of its appeal lies in the formulation: "We are the 99%." For the first time in years, the finger of responsibility for our country's troubles is pointing up at the 1%, rather than down at the ordinary people who do the work of business and government.

In challenging the 1%, OWS has taken the moral high ground at a time when our country seems to have lost its moral compass. The growing movement holds corporate elites and their political representatives responsible for the moral failings exposed by the great and growing inequalities between the 1% and the 99%, and the widespread suffering of mass unemployment and home foreclosures in the midst of highly concentrated personal wealth and political power. OWS challenges the deep immorality and total unacceptability of the economic and political arrangements that generate and secure this inequality.

This challenge is reminiscent of the moral foundations of the mid-20th century civil rights, women's liberation, and peace movements, as well as the great labor battles of the 1930s and 1940s that brought unions and shared prosperity broadly to the working class. Despite the complex difficulties these movements faced, they carried the day on the basis of their clear moral vision.

In fact, the OWS protest parallels earlier movements in several ways. I was a minor figure in the founding of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 but knew many of the leaders and participated actively in its development, plunging first into civil rights, then into opposition to the Vietnam War and support for women's liberation. As with OWS, in SDS and the overall civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, women's and labor movements, leaders were articulate and politically astute as well as morally grounded. Then, as now, the movement aspired to "participatory democracy" through broad engagement in decision-making and subsequent action. Then, as now, the movement thrived on imaginative tactics that engaged a wide audience. Then, as now, the crusade often grew spontaneously and without coordination as people around the country took up the issues and built the movement in their own ways.

OWS carries forward another feature of early SDS -- close connections with labor. The Port Huron Statement, the founding document of the student movement of the 1960s, was hammered out in June 1962 at a camp outside Port Huron, Michigan, used as a retreat by the United Auto Workers. The connection with labor remained strong in the early civil rights movement but became strained at the 1964 Democratic national convention when the UAW and other unions, in deference to President Lyndon Johnson's political agenda, blocked the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation. SDS went from mild support of Johnson in the 1964 election -- "Part of the Way with LBJ" -- to outright hostility, and nearly total estrangement from labor, as the Vietnam War escalated.

Today, national labor leaders have spoken in defense of OWS, and many New York City locals are providing material support. We do not know how long this friendly alliance will last as the movement seeks to grow in the turmoil of the presidential campaigns.

We can, however, draw lessons from the earlier mass undertakings that are relevant today. By holding to its principle of non-violence, OWS will secure its moral high ground. The current movement, still in its infancy, has not developed a key feature of earlier ones, central to their success: disruption of the institutions they challenge with words, as with strikes or sit-ins. If Occupy grows into a movement that seriously challenges the 1% for power, it will inevitably face ferocious opposition, as did all its predecessors.

We look back on the successes of the civil rights, anti-war, labor, and women's struggles with pride. But to prevail, many participants suffered arrests, blacklisting, and other forms of intimidation, including killings, as they continued on the path to victory. Still, as the appearance of over a thousand New York City allies at Zuccotti Park at 6 a.m. on October 14 showed, police repression can be forestalled when the 99% make clear they will not accept or tolerate it, but will instead join in and support a movement that is in their own interests.

Michael Zweig is a professor of economics and director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at Stony Brook University. The second edition of his book The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret will be published in December.

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