Much has been written by our colleagues and others about similarities/differences between Occupy Wall Street and past populist-protest movements, but I have not seen much discussion of the 1969-71 Occupation of Alcatraz by American Indians. The trajectory of this occupation and its impact on the larger American public has, I believe, strong potential to be a good model for OWS – or at least the more prominent OWS locations in New York, DC, California, and elsewhere.
In the 1960s, the First Nation peoples were protesting the Indian termination policies that dismantled their sovereignty. Though Alcatraz’s prison closed in 1963, the island still had many facilities on it and it was these that people from the nearby Indian community in California decided to take over. A large group of UCLA college students, with instructor Ed Castillo, joined them and further energized the occupation.
At first the federal government – under a Nixon presidency – demanded that they leave, but eventually agreed to hear their demands. The demands were specific at first: “They wanted the deed to the island, they wanted to establish an Indian university, a cultural center, and a museum.” (Johnson) The government denied all of these, and the people stayed. Over time, other people outside of the American Indian culture joined the occupation, as well as American Indians who were not local or UCLA college students and hailed from different places – factions arose, and the de facto organization/leadership fell apart.
The occupation continued, but its demands grew less flexible – full title to the island, and no compromise on the university/cultural center. The press, initially sympathetic, began focusing on violence within the occupation when it did cover them at all. Soon the government found a reason to invade the island and remove everybody left.
While the occupiers failed to get their specific demands satisfied, public awareness of their grievances was raised and the Indian termination policy was gradually ended. Obviously the comparison with OWS is not exact, and I will explore this topic in more depth in my next post, but I think that the general arc is close enough to what has been observed with OWS that it is worth looking at the occupation of Alcatraz. How has the local or federal government response differed between these protests, for example? (Is this just standard procedure for populist protest by those less well-off than those in charge?) Is there anything for OWS to learn for Alcatraz, or is it too late for that?
Whether you disagree or agree with the basic comparison, I’d like to hear your thoughts.