Occupy Wall Street: It Worked Before—Here's Why It Won't Work Now

ACT UP's 1987 Wall Street protest launched five years of highly successful activism. Why the new movement on the street is so different.


Hundreds of angry demonstrators on Wall Street. Traffic snarled, cops riled up. Occupying Wall Street has a big place in the history of American social movements.

It's been almost exactly a quarter century since the newly formed AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) launched its first demonstration on March 24, 1987, choosing Wall Street as the symbol of drug profiteering and other social evils. Often goaded on by the inspired polemicist and playwright Larry Kramer, ACT UP went on to five years of brilliant political protest, combining street theater with guerrilla research, transforming the way clinical research was done not just on AIDS but across the board. National Institutes of Health AIDS research chief Dr. Anthony Fauci says there are two eras in American clinical trials: before Larry Kramer and after Larry Kramer.

The protestors now occupying Wall Street inveigh against other wrongs -- economic inequality, corrupt government, stultifying loads of student debt. Like ACT UP, they benefit from being at the media center of the United States, New York City. Like ACT UP, they are propelled by a media-savvy strategy of leveraging police efforts to remove them into camera-ready images for the news. If they are half as successful as their predecessors in ACT UP, in five years, America will be transformed.

But that's not likely. Not even with cellphones and Facebook.

ACT UP in its glory years had two signal characteristics the current movement lacks. Its members were overwhelmingly focused, in that case on the epidemic that was ravaging the gay community. Although they sometimes talked about topics other than AIDS, the main thrust of the movement was always, as they said, drugs into bodies. And they came not at the power centers of the society, but from them. When ACT UP took to Wall Street its members brought with them an effigy of Frank Young, head of the federal Food and Drug Administration -- made by the prop shop at the Public Theatre. The morning they arrived there, a copy of The New York Times was delivered to probably 90 percent of the homes of the people they were picketing, complete with an Op-Ed written by Larry Kramer. Harvard graduates and financial analysts did their research. Legendary graphic artists and red diaper babies did their posters. Silence = Death. It is the nature of gay sexual orientation that it falls across lines of class and power. When they finally organized, they were a naturally formidable political force.

Occupy Wall Street encompasses a sprawling set of interests -- people who lost their homes, students burdened by debt, anarchists driven by ideology, what remains of the union movement after 40 years of decline. Keeping such a coalition together long enough to make social change is an almost unprecedented undertaking. Conventional social movement theory suggests that coalitions of this sort do not attract followers from every affected sector at the beginning, when they are at their weakest. They attract mostly people who support the full grab bag of interests named. The number of such catholic activists is diminishing small. And they are the bottom of the social class structure America denies but reproduces with a rigidity unequaled even in traditional aristocracies like France and England. They may be the 99 percent, but they're the bottom 99 percent. Not for them the workshops of the avant-garde New York theaters and the opinion pages of The New York Times.

Yet the movement, small and relatively powerless as it is, may still be the crucible for critical social change. The opinion media have been overflowing lately with analyses of how the left lost its moxie. Once mighty labor unions on their backs, the Democratic Party is on its knees before centrists and donors, and liberal think tanks and universities seem good only for tree huggers and gay nuptials (the horror). People who once cried out to share the wealth now engage in reinventing government or justifying their policy proposals on the grounds that the Republicans once embraced them.

Underlying all these developments is a crucial loss of confidence in the moral stature of progressive politics. Like ACT UP, Occupy Wall Street stakes a profoundly moral claim, something that has been missing from progressive politics for decades. Its members speak openly not of the technical defects of inequality but of its unfairness. Such claims have been long missing in the precincts of the left, and the left has been weakened by their absence. The history of ACT UP was always available to suggest a different model.

When, long ago, ACT UP occupied the FDA for a day, it protested, "We die/They do nothing." Within weeks the FDA began to change its procedures for testing the drugs.

The Occupy protesters carry signs with every imaginable demand -- break up the banks, forgive the student debt. It won't matter if none of this takes place. The only demand that matters is reflected in a sign that makes no demand. It says simply "I'm a person." In good moral theory, being human exerts its own demands. It is profoundly wrong that we die/they do nothing, whether literally of AIDS or the social death of hopelessness, desperation and inequality. When the moral implications of that are once again at the center of the debate, everything can change.

Image credit: ActupNY.org