From Alcatraz to Zuccotti: The Trajectory of Popular Occupation (part 1)

Two of the American Indians occupying Alcatraz in 1971. Photo by Ilka Hartmann, via the National Park Service.

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.




8 responses to “From Alcatraz to Zuccotti: The Trajectory of Popular Occupation (part 1)

  1. coffeeshoprhino

    You have made some good links between OWS and the Alcatraz occupation. I look forward to a more detailed discussion.

  2. I really enjoyed this post!! Very well-written and eloquently worded. Just a thought…do you think OWS’s refusal to articulate concrete goals/demands may be an example of learning lessons from history? Perhaps some of those protestors who are against forming demands may be concerned that OWS might face a similar fate to the indian movement if it clung inflexibly to stated goals? Perhaps this connects to the fluidity of OWS we discussed in class. Anyway, this was an excellent post, and I look forward to reading your follow-up!!

  3. Great post. It made me think of an interesting parallel between the two groups… the Alcatraz protesters were part of a smaller group with more definite demands and goals. OWS protesters are part of a bigger group with less definite demands and goals. Is size enough to make up for specificity? And are they actually trying to get a specific goal accomplished like the Alcatraz ‘occupiers’ or are they just trying to change the way we think?

  4. It seems as though the biggest difference (on the surface at least) is that during the Alcatraz occupation the group had very defined goals, and so there was a clear way for the government to end the occupation–that is, to give in to the demands you outline above. Whereas, for OWS there doesn’t seem to be anything specific that the government can do in order to end the protest. Do you think that there are specific things the government could do to end the movement? Is that a question relevant to the comparison?

  5. Pingback: From Alcatraz to Zuccotti: Part 2 | Occupy Wall Street Analysis

  6. Pingback: Occupy Wall Street is Nothing Special | Occupy Wall Street Analysis

  7. Actually, the impetus for the Occupation of Alcatraz came from the urban , Indian community in Oakland, the Peninsula and San Francisco, then the students from the Bay Area (San Francisco State and Berkeley). Students from UCLA heard about the occupation on the news and came with their in structor Ed Castillo to the island and stayed for quite some time. .

  8. ms. hartmann — i regret to say that because this was for a class project i did not track comments after the class was over. i’ve amended the post accordingly. thank you! your comment stands as a good reminder to not rely so heavily on government histories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s