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 Introduction | 1792 | 1837 | 1857 | 1874 | 1930 | 2011

BEFORE “OCCUPY WALL STREET”

NOTES ON PRIOR NEW YORK CITY PROTESTS AGAINST ECONOMIC CRISES


INTRODUCTION

It's well known that – for more than two centuries – Wall Street has been repeatedly swept by financial panics, and that the American economy has repeatedly crumpled into recession or depression. It's less well known that virtually each collapse has been met by outraged protest, particularly in New York City, Wall Street's home town. In what follows, I describe several of these upheavals.

For all their similarities, each crisis, and each response, was specific to its own historical moment. So too is the current crisis and our response.

Protests were less diverse back then, certainly not marked by the mix of genders, ages, races, ethnicities we’re now seeing in the “this is what democracy looks like” crowds. They were less playful, too: one would not have seen signs like the placard toted on October 5, by a woman, no doubt a Jewish mother, that read: “DEAR WALL STREET, WE SENT CASH TO SAVE YOUR TUSH . . . YOU NEVER WRITE.”

The behavior that sparked the protests seems more familiar, from the speculative binge that triggered the first stock market crash even before there was a New York Stock Exchange (1792); to the cardiac arrest of the credit system in (1837) that sent crowds roiling toward the banks; to the bursting bubble that galvanized a march on Wall Street in (1857); to the hunger and homelessness that provoked the Tompkins Square demonstration suppressed by police in (1874); to the devastation wrought by the Great Depression and the surge of rent strikes and demands for job creation in (1930).

There are no “lessons” to be learned here, history never does repeat itself (though if the economic rules of the game remain unchanged they do tend to produce similar results). But I think it might nevertheless be interesting for Occupy Wall Street participants and supporters to know that our anger and actions are not novel, but rather the latest in a long line of opposition to the inequitable workings of our economic system.

These stories are cribbed from Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin G Burrows and Mike Wallace (which happily won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999), and from Gotham II: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1945, by Mike Wallace (in progress).

At the end, I’ve tossed in a proposal to consider including in any basket of programmatic responses to the current crisis. I've lifted it from my little post 9/11 book A New Deal for New York (2002), available (free) on this Gotham Center site at www.gothamcenter.org/new deal.

Click here for my recent discussion with Prof. Douglas Muzzio on CUNY TV's "City Talk."

Mike Wallace

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