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Wall Street: A Long History of Occupation

This week marked the beginning of the third year since Occupy Wall Street activists got off the Internet and began their real-world occupation at Zuccotti Park. Inspired by the home of the Egyptian revolution at Tahrir Square — tahrir means “liberty” in Arabic — the new occupiers restored the park’s original name, Liberty Plaza. In the two months of the occupation, many thousands came from far and wide to converge on that magnetic, contested space.

‘Bloody’ Green

Zuccotti Park was first called “Liberty Plaza” for good reason. It’s situated in a neighborhood that has been the site of struggles for liberation ever since European colonists first arrived. Occupy added one more chapter to an area already steeped in a history of resistance.

The first blood of the American Revolution was shed just a few blocks away from Liberty Square, when one of the most prominent of New York's Sons of Liberty led 2,000 men in erecting a Liberty Pole at the intersection of Liberty Pl. and John St. Together with their mulatto leader Joseph Allicocke, the rebels erected the Liberty Pole as a rallying point for anti-imperial demonstrations; the one at Liberty Place was so sturdy that the British only managed to saw it to bits three years later. Thereafter, the City Corporation refused to permit the erection of further Liberty Poles, but one of the Sons of Liberty, wielding his private property rights as a means of asserting collective American autonomy, bought a piece of land adjacent to City Hall Commons. There the Sons of Liberty erected the fifth and sturdiest of the Liberty Poles thusfar, spiked with nails in all directions, the tallest structure in New York.

Three years of gatherings at the Liberty Pole: that's a lot of revolutionary energy concentrated at one spot.

On the eve of the American Revolution, the Sons of Liberty tore down the statue of King George at the center of Bowling Green, a few blocks south of Wall Street. They then lopped off the crowns topping the fence surrounding the park and headed to Federal Hall to read the Declaration of Independence. It was no accident that Occupy Wall Street held its first assembly at Bowling Green, a place with profound revolutionary resonance.

But of even more relevance to Occupy Wall Street is that at Bowling Green the privatization of land and the carving up of the Commons first began. At this spot, 150 years before the American Revolution, a private corporation chartered by a public entity (the Director of the Colony of New Netherland, as a representative of the Dutch West India Company) met with Lenape leaders and brokered a deal over the isle of Manahatta. As the Lenape nation understood the arrangement, they had granted the newcomers the rights to steward the region for a period of time, to access its resources, to cultivate the land, to fish and to hunt there, and to oversee the waterways. The colonists, however, meant to secure permanent claims for their company, and they immediately built the city's first fort right at Bowling Green. Not long after, New Amsterdam built a spiked Wall a few acres away, sending the Lenape the clear message that they had been permanently defrauded of their ancestral lands.

The struggles for liberation and freedom for colonists and those they colonized moved in very different directions. The words “liberty” (Latin, libertas) and “freedom” (Greek, eleutheria) both mean “unlike a slave,” but their meanings were once essentially opposed. U.S. historian David Hackett Fischer explains, “Liberty meant privileges of independence; freedom referred to rights of belonging.” A European pioneer or immigrant in North America sought liberation from her or his place of origin, while an African or native person in North America sought the freedom to return home and re-root, to reunite with family and community. When slaveholders began to separate African family members as a matter of policy in 1712, they provoked the first coordinated slave uprising in New York history, the Maiden Lane Slave Revolt, right around the location of today’s Federal Reserve, about a block east of Zuccotti Park.

Within a few decades, no more than three blacks were legally allowed to meet face to face unless they were at labor. But nevertheless free and enslaved blacks and poor whites mingled and planned daily at the white-owned Hughson’s Tavern on the waterfront, by Liberty Place and Trinity Place. At the time, poor white workers, unable to compete with the uncompensated labor of enslaved blacks, had some reason to support the struggle against slavery; the specter of white-black collaboration terrified those in power. When a series of 13 fires erupted in the Wall Street area — the most significant of which was set within the walls of Fort George, the home of the governor — authorities believed the fires were part of a conspiracy hatched by poor whites and blacks to burn the city, kill wealthy white men, rape their wives and daughters, and elect a poor white as king and a freed slave as governor.

A street of many walls

“Wall Street” is perfectly descriptive of its original purpose. First, Wall Street was a border: a spiked wall demarcating the lands expropriated by the Dutch West India Company, constructed to prevent the Lenape Indians from reclaiming their land. Soon, Wall Street became the site of a slave market, where owners hired out enslaved Africans by the day or week. Then the street became home to the nation’s first capitol, Federal Hall. It was the site of the first presidential inauguration, the first assemblies of Congress and the Supreme Court, and the drafting of the Bill of Rights.

Throughout the mid-1600s, Wall Street was not so much as a street, as a wall, against which Africans were bought and sold. After the English took over the region and massacred the Lenape Nation down to two hundred people, they removed the wall, but the auction block remained. More than a half century before Emancipation, the Sons of Liberty struggled for liberation from taxation in the absence of representation – and in defense of individual property rights. At this point, especially for merchants, brokers and auctioneers, the New York economy ran on the privatization of human life.

The sale of human beings so amped up in the years leading up to the American Revolution that by 1730 more people owned slaves in New York City than in any North American city besides Charleston.

That is, 42% of New Yorkers lived off the uncompensated labor of enslaved Africans. One third of those who founded the New York Stock Exchange, after the American Revolution, were slaveholders. In this context began the colonists' fight for independence from England, and the foundations of American democracy.

Most of this history has been glossed over, and all we remember about Wall Street is that, as the site of the New York Stock Exchange, it embodies the foundations of American capitalism. We don't remember that the Stock Exchange was established in response to Wall's Street's first financial crash, the Panic of 1792 -- and probably also in response to the demonstrations accompanying it.

That crash actually landed one Wall Street crook, William Duer, in jail.

Hundreds of workers and merchants gathered in front of his new home – the debtor's prison on the edge of the city Commons – threatening to disembowel him.

Concordantly, we have also forgotten that Occupy Wall Street was not at all the first uprising at the heart of the capitol of capitalism, the birthplace of American democracy (and the locus of the conflation of the two). Most recently, at least one other long-term occupation precedes Occupy Wall Street, a 200-day homeless encampment in front of City Hall in 1988. Notably, the infamous anti-capitalist Yippies occupied Wall Street for a day in 1979, with a civil disobedience in front of the New York Stock Exchange involving 1,000 arrests. And in the 1960s, AIDS and housing rights advocates, feminists, environmental, and anti-Nuke activists converged on the Wall Street area at least once a decade. Going back to the colonial period, City Hall Park, one of the earliest protest Commons in the country, saw at least one major bread riot, a slave revolt, and skirmishes between the Sons of Liberty and the Red Coats. (See the timeline below for a full timeline, and please email if you have anything to add.)

Same streets, new walls

Today, in the United States and many other parts of the world, there are no longer castles to set afire, no vertical walls protecting the feudal rulers.

The mansions of the 1 percent are often out of sight and, as the Zapatistas say, their walls stretch over our heads to ensure that we stay below.

Given that global economic power today trumps the power of any particular state, attempts to confront it by electing a slightly better president (see: Obama), or even by toppling a corrupt regime (see: Mubarak, Morsi), may be futile. The best way to break through, as the Zapatistas also say, is to push from every direction — horizontally.

There is nowhere else to go — no new lands to colonize, no more physical frontiers to pioneer. And though it has not fully dawned on us that we are in the process of being colonized, what we do know is that we have all been put to work extracting the last of the world's resources for the benefit of the 1%. The tents in Zuccotti Park appeared when America’s economic frontiers closed in on Wall Street and people came to take back what was stolen from them from the Wild West gamblers of Wall Street. For a moment at Liberty Square, we saw clearly that while a great deal of inequity divides the 99%, what we share is the experience of appropriation of all our common resources by the 1%. Despite the many differences among us, what we the 99% share may be something so inherent and obvious and ubiquitous as to be easy to miss, elements of that which is common to us all, like oxygen, water, or the earth under our feet. Today our struggle is much more than a fight for national autonomy and individual liberty; it is a global fight for freedom from displacement from our homes, the freedom to re-root and reunite our human family.

Occupy Wall Street was far from the first uprising at the heart of the capitol of capitalism. Nor was it the first movement to identify Wall Street as the root of any given problem. However, it may have been the first to name Wall Street as the root of nearly every problem, and put that message on repeat until the media world couldn't pretend it didn't get the idea. If we understand that Occupy is not a brand, an organization or a self-designated group of individuals, but the continuation of a long struggle against the forceful imposition of poverty for many and wealth for a few, then the purpose it represents has only begun to manifest itself.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared on Waging Nonviolence and was republished on




1712: In the colonies' second-biggest slaveport, enslaved Africans organize their first revolt, the Maiden Lane Slave Revolt. When New York slaveholders begin to separate African family members as official policy, they provoke the first coordinated slave revolt in New York history.


1738-1741: During a time in which no more than three blacks can legally meet face to face (unless while laboring), free and enslaved blacks and poor whites mingle – and plan – daily at white-owned Hughson's Tavern, on the waterfront by Liberty Place and Trinity Place.


1766-1776: For ten years, from the repeal of the Stamp Act up until the occupation of the city by the British, the Sons of Liberty erect “Liberty Poles” as a rallying points for anti-imperial demonstrations. A mulatto leader of New York's Sons of Liberty, Joseph Allicocke, leads 2,000 men in erecting an armored Liberty Pole, its base shielded in iron plates and buried deep in the earth, during the first of these skirmishes in 1767.


1776: The Sons of Liberty tear down the statue of King George at the center of Bowling Green, lop off the crowns topping the fence surrounding it, and head to Federal Hall to read the Declaration of Independence.


1792: The first financial crash actually lands a Wall Street crook in jail. Speculator William Duer lands in debtor's prison after triggering the first major financial crisis on Wall Street. Hundreds of those he swindled converge outside the prison on the edge of City Hall Commons, threatening to disembowel him.


1837: New Yorkers struggling for their daily bread, defy the doubling of flour prices. In the Flour Riots of 1837, workers of all kinds raid a flour warehouse near the site of the future World Trade Center.


1839-41: Out of their offices at 122 Pearl Street, two abolitionist silk merchants organize defense committees that successfully win liberty for Mende Africans aboard the slaveship Amistad. La Amistad is liberated, becoming a symbol in the movement to abolish slavery.


1914: Upton Sinclair and Yiddish activists take on the Standard Oil monopoly in defense of the United Mine Workers. After a massacre of miners in Colorado, a fervent Yiddish activist from the Lower East Side finds her way to Rockefeller's office and threatens to kill him if another miner is murdered. Outside, a picket of mourners veiled in black crepe paper circle the entrance of the Standard Oil Building.


1966: Youth Against War and Fascism bombard the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) trading floor, condemning corporate financing of the Vietnam War.


1967: The Youth International Party (Yippies), including Abbie Hoffman and Candice Bergman, scatter handfuls of dollars from the visitor's gallery down to the trading floor, look on as stock brokers and security guards scramble to gather up the bits of paper, and do a little dance proclaiming the “Death of $”.


1968: On Halloween, a New York coven of thirteen activists with the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) whisk down Wall Street to hex the financiers; the Dow drops five points the next day.


1979: The Yippies occupy Wall Street. 1,000 people are arrested attempting to shut the NYSE down. The day before, whistleblower Daniel Ellsburg burned a dividend check acquired for the occasion.


1985: An overnight vigil at City Hall, calling for better services for homeless and low-income families, lays the ground for a future Kochville.


1987: The Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (Act Up) pushes “a coordinated, comprehensive and compassionate national policy on AIDS.” In early spring, hundreds of lively Act Up activists converge upon lower Manhattan and strangle traffic at Trinity Place and Wall Street, disrupting business-as-usual for those profiting from the AIDS crisis. A year later, Act Up returns to Wall Street for a larger demonstration in which over 100 people are arrested.


1988: Homeless activists occupy City Hall Park for 200 days, dubbed “Kochville” by the press. Replete with an info table, a kitchen, and a sanitation committee designated to keep the park clean, the group establishes its own system of governance and provides referral services to homeless men and women in the area for more than half a year.


1989: Act Up infiltrates the New York Stock Exchange, chaining themselves to the V.I.P. Balcony of the NYSE, tooting mini-foghorns to drown out the opening bell and unfurling a banner: “sell wellcome.” They successfully jam up trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and within days the Wellcome cuts its AZT drug prices by 20 percent.


1990: The Monday after Earth Day, hundreds of radicals converge upon Wall Street in an effort to obstruct trading. After years of pandering by the mainstream environmentalists to corporate funders, the Earth Day action on Wall Street emboldens radicals around the country to make the corporate despoliation of the planet a key focus of their environmental actions.


1991: After African graves are discovered during construction of a federal building, activists organize to designate and preserve the African Burial Ground as a national monument. A vigil of drumming and ceremonies commences, with Pulse drummers chanting: “They can steal the rhythm, but they can't steal the beat” for twenty-six hours.


1997: Urban gardening activists organize their first joint mobilization against the influence of real estate developers in city politics.


1997: 10-year anniversary of Act Up's confrontation with Wall Street. Act Up activists return to Trinity Place, this time, with more than three times as many arrests.


2001: On September 11th, relief workers self-organize the Brooks Brothers into a temporary morgue, at 1 Liberty Plaza.


2011-2012: Occupy Wall Street occupies Liberty Square (Zuccotti Park) for 2 months straight and ignites a national conversation about economic justice.


In June 2011 the radical design magazine Adbusters calls for “90,000 redeemers, rebels and radicals” to “flood into lower manhattan, set up tents, kitchens and peaceful barricades, and occupy Wall Street.” Later that summer, anarchists, labor activists, a coalition of anti-austerity progressives involved with Bloombergville, and student activists all heeding the call, encounter each other at the Charging Bull sculpture at the tip of Bowling Green; they agree to overcome differences in political strategy for the sake of tackling a common enemy: Wall Street greed.

On September 17th, the first day of Occupy Wall Street, 200 people come to Zuccotti Park and hold the Occupy Wall Street's first General Assembly. A few dozen people successfully stay the night, and within a day it is clear that Occupy Wall Street has occupied the park at Liberty St, Broadway and Trinity. In recognition of the history of Liberty Place as a major site of protest by Abolitionists and the Sons of Liberty alike, and of the home of the Egyptian revolution at Tahrir (Liberty) Square, the new occupiers restore the park's original name, Liberty.

Over the following days, a little town is established, replete with a Kitchen Working Group, a Comfort Working Group, and Sanitation Working Group. At the center of Liberty, a crew of media-makers assemble to crank out nonstop livestream video. Soon the arts and culture area is filled with signs drawn by dozens of visitors. By the following weekend, the signs number in the hundreds, with people holding them up proudly around the periphery of the park. Hundreds of Working Groups meet every day, sometimes twice a day!

By the second week, thousands of people have joined the first march of the movement. On October 1st,, thousands set out from Liberty Square to the Brooklyn Bridge. Almost a thousand walk onto the roadway, 700 are arrested, and the story makes national and international news.

Less than a week later, the labor movement joins forces with Occupy Wall Street, lending large numbers to the next demonstration, of 20,000. Occupations instantly pop up globally, from the Netherlands to Nepal to Nigeria, and by mid- November, there are over a thousand Occupations worldwide. An conversation about economic inequality supersedes talk of austerity measures. Love and rage replaces despondency and apathy.

About a month into the occupation, Occupy Wall Street staves off the threat of eviction. On October 13th, New York City's mayor Michael Bloomberg and the owner of Zuccotti Park, Brookfield Properties, announce that the park must be vacated the next day for cleaning. Demonstrators flood the park in the middle of the night and, wielding brooms and buckets and mops, sweeping and scrubbing every square inch of the park they surround the periphery and stave off the movement's eviction for another month.

Just days before the two month anniversary of OWS, on November 15th, at 1:20 a.m., 2000 riot police surround the perimeter of the park. Within seconds, a bulldozer rolls in, surrounding subway stops are shut down, and the Brooklyn Bridge is closed. A sound cannon reverberates between the densely-packed skyscrapers. The People’s Library is thrown in a dumpster. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg bulldozes the small town that has grown up at Liberty Square.

The peaceful people of Liberty Square, undeterred by the unprovoked police brutality, instantly re-group and launch a General Assembly close to City Hall, at Foley Square. The park remains closed overnight from November 15th onward, and barricades are erected all around the perimeter of the park. Rather than meeting inside the penned area, most meetings and assemblies are moved to another POP, this time directly on Wall Street. At 60 Wall, under a massive office complex housing the offices of such illustrious foes as Deutsche and Chase Banks, thousands meet daily, organizing at a rapid pace.

*Just two days after our eviction, Occupy Wall Street convenes the largest mobilization yet. More than 30,000 people take to the streets of New York for a National Day of Action on November 17.

*Just three weeks later, an anti-foreclosure movement called Occupy Our Homes launches, defending homeowners against evictions to this day.

*In the early hours of New Year's Eve, 2012, demonstrators gather at Liberty Square and began to liberate the park of its fences, dragging them to the center of the park, tossing them up into a big pile, and dancing on the barricades. Occupy Wall Street activists continue to meet every day over 2012, despite a failed attempt to occupy a different POP in December, and then to reoccupy Liberty Square in March. In the lead-up to the celebration of the first year since Occupy Wall Street came onto the scene, around 400 people meet every Monday for three months, and at least 40 different people meet every day, to plan an S17 for 2012.

*Just a few weeks after S17-2012 and days before Halloween, a hurricane hits New York and the Occupy network jumps into action, forming an extensive relief network called Occupy Sandy, which shows up government inaction due in part to broad austerity cuts to disaster relief agencies such as FEMA.




Credit: Jed Brandt
Rebecca Manski

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