Occupy Wall Street and the rise of the 99%

It’s hard to believe a year has passed already, but today marks the first anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement that started on 17 September 2011 in Zuccotti Park in New York City’s Wall Street financial district.

The protest, organised by Adbusters, a Canadian activist group, started with a group of 200 people overnighting in Zuccotti Park, with sleeping bags and blankets. The group grew rapidly and the protest sparked similar actions around the world, becoming one of the most visible and high profile international peaceful protest actions in recent memory.

The original occupation of Zuccotti Park lasted less than 2 months (protesters were forced out of the park on 15 November 2011) but the larger movement continued for three more months, with occupations of banks, corporate headquarters, board meetings etc. in numerous cities across the world.

Protesting against a world built on money and greed.
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The main issues that protesters of Occupy Wall Street, and the wider Occupy Movement, have focused on include corporate greed and corruption (particularly in the financial sector) as well as social and economic inequality. One of the most effective and striking parts of the movement has been their “We are the 99%” slogan – a concise, catchy, thought-provoking statement addressing the huge inequalities that exist in terms of income and wealth distribution between the rich (the 1%) and the poor (the 99%). The movement also suggests that the “99%” suffer as a consequence of the greedy and self-serving actions of a tiny minority.

The “We are the 99%” campaign has ben criticised as being overly simplistic, with many of those being protested against (Corporate CEO’s, bankers, stock traders and the like) falling outside the “1%”, while a number of sport stars and artists (including some celebrities who came out in support of the campaign) actually form part of the vilified few. In terms of the campaign’s effectiveness, however, the New York Times reported that, “Whatever the long-term effects of the Occupy Movement, protesters succeeded in implanting “we are the 99 percent” into the cultural and political lexicon.” Similarly, Paul Taylor from the Huffington Post called the slogan “arguably the most successful slogan since ‘Hell no, we won’t go,'” of Vietnam war era.

The Occupy movement has also been an interesting case study of the use of technology and social media to organise widespread protest actions. Using the hashtag #Occupy, and organising through websites such as Occupy Together protesters have managed to very effectively organise their activities. The protests have also been actively promoted and supported on social media sites like Facebook, with 125 Occupy-related pages being listed on Facebook by mid-October, less than a month after the start of Occupy Wall Street.

Thanks to the global, immediate nature of these communication channels, protests spread internationally at an incredible rate. By 9 October 2011, protests have taken place in almost 100 cities in more than 80 countries.

Protests were initially allowed to carry on without serious interference from authorities. This started to change by mid November – between November and December most major protest camps have been cleared out, with the last camps, in Washington DC and in London at St Paul’s Cathedral, cleared by February 2012.

Looking back a year after the fact, it is difficult to accurately quantify the impact that the Occupy Movement has made in the US and internationally. The terms “Occupy”, “1%” and “99%” have very much become part of global dialogue, and the movement has certainly raised significant awareness regarding income inequality, and the social and political problems that flow from this.

Whether this will have any long term effects, I guess we will have to wait and see.

Greenpeace and the international environmental debate

Today we commemorate the founding of the well-known international non-governmental, environmental organisation, Greenpeace.

Greenpeace grew out of the anti-nuclear protests in Vancouver, Canada in the early Seventies. On this day, 41 years ago in 1971, protesters boarded a chartered ship, which they christened ‘Greenpeace’, to protest the nuclear tests conducted by the US in Alaska. The name of the ship became associated with the protesters, and the Greenpeace organisation developed out of this protest. While its founding was not very formal, and many individuals were involved in the early days, a number of people have been singled out by Greenpeace itself as being influential in its establishment. These include long-haired, beardy journalist Bob Hunter, former entrepreneur David McTaggart and long-time activist couple Dorothy and Irving Stowe.

Over time the organisation spread to several countries, and their activities have expanded from anti-nuclear protests to campaigning on a wide range of environmental issues including climate change, deforestation, toxic pollution and agriculture.

Whether or not you agree with the sentiments expressed by environmental activists, you have to appreciate the important role they play in the environmental debate.
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Greenpeace has been described as the most visible environmental organisation in the world. As such, they play an extremely important role in keeping sensitive environmental issues in the public eye, and influencing both the public and private sectors to limit negative impact on the earth and its people. They certainly don’t shy away from controversy, adopting a decidedly in-your-face stance against companies, organisations and activities they consider dangerous or detrimental to the environment. It is no surprise then, that Greenpeace has been on the receiving end of more than their share of lawsuits for reputational damage and lost profits.  At a more shady level, some of Greenpeace’s enemies have also been reported to adopting rather unsavoury tactics, including spying, phone tapping, death threats, violence and even terrorism against the organisation.

Greenpeace has been validly criticised for their sometimes fundamentalist and anti-science stance, with critics citing unfortunate cases where invaluable scientific research have been destroyed through their activities.

That said, Greenpeace, and other organisations of their ilk, continue to play a critical role in the international environmental debate, and considering the multinational industrial giants they are up against, they probably need all the support they can get.

Happy birthday, Greenpeace – keep ’em honest…