Occupy Wall Street Heralds a Global Counterculture





Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002

I spent about an hour in Liberty Plaza the other day sitting, walking around, and talking to people before the event I had come for—a Grade-In organized by teacher activists—finally began, and was stunned by how different the occupation was from any demonstration I had attended recently.

First of all, in contrast to the last two protests I participated in—a Wisconsin Solidarity rally at City Hall and the Save Our Schools March on Washington—I saw few people my own age and no one I recognized, at least until the Grade-In started.  When I arrived, at 11:00 am, most of the people in Liberty Plaza were the ones who had slept there overnight, and the vast majority were in their 20s and 30s.  They were drumming, sweeping the sidewalk, talking to curious visitors—who were still few in number—eating or chilling with one another.  Their relaxed demeanor blew me away given the tumultuous events of the day before, when more than 700 protesters had been arrested by the NYPD after marching onto the Brooklyn Bridge.

They were also, to my surprise, thoroughly international.  Many of the people I met at the information desk, or who spontaneously started conversations with me, had accents which indicated they had come from countries outside the United States.  I felt like I was in Berlin or Barcelona, where you could always count on meeting young people from all over the world at any music performance or cultural event, only this was a political action in the heart of New York’s financial district.  I felt like I was in the midst of the global youth community that I had seen emerging during my travels and teaching, but I had not expected to see at this particular protest.  It definitely made the discipline, determination and camaraderie of the protesters that much more impressive.

But as much as the age cohort and global character of the occupation seemed strange, it also seemed oddly familiar, though it took a while for that familiarity to sink in.  The longer I stayed at Liberty Plaza, the more it felt like the countercultural communities of the 1960s, where discontent with war and a corrupt social system had bred a communal spirit marked by incredible generosity and openness to strangers. 

I had feared those days would never return—erased by decades of consumerism, materialism and cheap electronic devices—but when I visited Liberty Plaza, I realized that the global economic crisis had recreated something which I often thought of as an artifact of my own nostalgia.  Because right here in New York were hundreds of representatives of a whole generation of educated young people around the world, numbering tens if not hundreds of millions, who might never land in the secure professional jobs they had been promised or experience the cornucopia of material goods that came with them.  Described as a “lost generation” by economists, a critical mass of these young people, in cities throughout Europe and Latin America—and now right here in the United States—had decided to build community in the midst of scarcity, challenge consumerism and the profit motive, and call out the powerful financial interests whose speculation and greed had helped put them in the economic predicament they were in.

Serious questions remain about the long-term significance of this global movement.  Can these middle-class (or ex-middle-class) protesters connect with the even larger group of people in their own countries—workers, immigrants, minorities—who had been living in poverty well before the current crash?  Will their communities survive even a modest revival of the world economy, sending them back into a lifestyle of acquisitive individualism which the global consumer market depends on to yield profits?  Can the protesters connect with the people in poor or working-class neighborhoods who were already practicing communalism and mutual aid to create a truly multiracial, multiclass movement?

The jury is still out.  But there are some promising signs.  The chants of “We are all Troy Davis” during several of the movement’s marches.  The increasing participation of labor unions in the protest.  The involvement of more and more activists from the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods in support for the occupation.

And those who lived through the 60s should remember this.  Oppositional cultures of all kinds—ranging from hippie communities to the black arts movement—represented the soil in which political protest flourished during those heady years.

And the same is true in this era.  The emergence of a global youth counterculture should be be seen as a powerful complement to, if not an actual component of, a global movement for freedom, democracy, and economic justice.

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