Juan Cole: Visiting Liberty Square (Occupy Wall Street)

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

I spent the summer going to rallies and demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, and was even in Barcelona during their protest.

Tahrir Square, July 2011

Tahrir Square, July 2011

(Nighttime Protest at Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, July 2011)

I was in New York city to give at talk at NYU on Wednesday, and I wanted to follow up on the impact of this year of protests on the US. So I went to see the folks at Occupywallstreet.org. in Liberty Square (i.e. Tahrir Square). They are inspired by the Egyptian and Spanish protests this past summer. It was hard to walk there from Wall Street because there were police barricades around all the buildings and you had to make detours. The easier way would have been just to go on Broadway. There were probably three hundred people there, some visiting, some camping out (it is not a big square, and was pretty packed). Some say that last Saturday, several thousand people rallied in the vicinity, so the numbers clearly fluctuate enormously.


I asked them what they wanted, and they admitted that probably everyone there wanted something different. It isn’t an organization. But they said one thing they wanted was a voice, so they could be heard. They wanted to know why the corporations and the top 1% of American income earners are represented in Congress, but they are not. I asked them whether changing all that would not require campaign finance reform, and pointed out that the Supreme Court had made the latter almost impossible by defining giving money to politicians as a form of protected speech. They said, that’s bullshit, man. Money is not speech. They said that anyway first they had to gain a voice, and then they could discuss concrete reforms.

But not everyone there was anti-business. One woman had a sign saying that she liked business and she liked freedom and she wanted to find a way to combine the two. I was told that the square was visited by a man who said he had been worth $120 million, but had been victimized by some sort of shorting scheme. He was angry and bitter, convinced that the game he once played so successfully was ultimately rigged. Has that really changed since 2008?...

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