American Indian people and their supporters wait for the ferry to Alcatraz in ’69 or ’70. (Ilka Hartmann, via California State University)
My previous post narrated the basic history of the 1969-71 Occupation of Alcatraz. This was the takeover of the then-abandoned former prison by a group of American Indians, mostly California-area college students, in response to unjust treatment of the First Nations by the federal government. The occupiers wanted their grievances heard, and demanded the deed to the island in order to establish an university, cultural center, and museum. The government refused to listen to their demands, the initially sympathetic press grew disdainful, and as the basic organization of the occupiers degraded the government found reason to invade and remove everybody from the island.
The occupiers’ concrete goals were not achieved, but public awareness of their objections was raised and the government policy of ending First Nations sovereignty was gradually halted. While the basic arc reads as very similar to that of the Occupy Wall Street movement thus far, as my colleagues have observed there are some significant differences. OWS has not articulated goals that are as specific; OWS is a larger, more amorphous group; llaurenfrank: “for OWS there doesn’t seem to be anything specific that the government can do in order to end the protest.”
While it is true that OWS’s goals have remained comparatively broad, a recent Washington Post article indicates that their basic goal of correcting economic inequality remains the same. Brittany Duck, a participant in the D.C. May Day protests, said that “[T]here’s still a lot to do. Politicians say the economy is turning around, but for many people out here, the blue-collar workers, it hasn’t.” savannahredwards1 asks, “are [OWS] actually trying to get a specific goal accomplished like the Alcatraz ‘occupiers’ or are they just trying to change the way we think?” The Post article, as well as the articles included in this round-up of coverage of the May Day protests, illuminates that a large number of OWS participants are not satisfied with having “made a lasting contribution to the national debate about income inequality.”
A group of American Indian people at Pier 40 following the June 1971 removal. (Ilka Hartmann, CSU)
The larger scale of OWS is indeed different from the Alcatraz occupation, but one could argue that there is some similarity to be seen in the diversity of the Alcatraz occupation–over 20 tribes were represented, which is part of what led to the development of factions (Winton). Their individual goals differed, but the overall goal of government respect and recognition was the same. This can be compared to regional differences among OWS groups, where the individual goals differ while the overarching goal (correcting economic inequality) remains the same.
With regards to how the government can respond to the OWS protests: it’s possible to argue that there is, in fact, something specific that the government can do to respond to the demand(s) of OWS. If the root problem is income inequality, then bills could be introduced raising the minimum wage to align more realistically with the current cost of living. This would turn the minimum wage into what is known as a living wage; Pennsylvania State University has a website that calculates the living wage for localities across the USA and shows the disparities, illustrating how the difference can contribute to poverty and economic inequality.
That is just one example of a concrete solution; debates over progressive tax rates, another potential concrete solution, are currently ongoing but do not seem likely to go anywhere.
So how does this link back to the Alcatraz occupation? Again, there’s the impact on the national discourse without (immediate) concrete gain. It’s possible that in the long run, due to OWS, we will see real attempts to address income/economic inequality, like the Alcatraz occupation helped end some discriminatory policies.
nb: it should be pointed out that, as has been observed repeatedly by my colleagues on this blog, the majority of ows participants are socially privileged in a way that the alcatraz occupiers were not. it could be argued that this is why their trajectory has bottomed out earlier than alcatraz’s; the perception of this privilege caused people/the media to dismiss them more quickly. however, what will be the real long term effects remains to be seen.