Occupy Wall Street Movement As a form of Political Disobedience not a 21st Century Thoroeau’s Civil Disobedience

Occupy Wall Street Movement As a form of Political Disobedience not a 21st Century Thoroeau’s Civil Disobedience

Tori Nuariza Sutanto


Occupy  Wall Street Movement (OWS) began on September 17, 2011 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District, USA. This movement spread over globally to cities and countries worldwide. OWS movement are fighting for the global capitalism that creates a  collapsed of the global economic particularly in North American countries and Western European countries. Occupy movement has been a debate in the US whether it is considered as a Thoreau’s form civil disobedience or not. This paper aims to describe that Occupy Wall Street Movement is not 21st century form of civil disobedience compared from  Thoreau’s concept of Civil Disobedience in his essay of ‘on the Duty of Civil Disobedience, 1849’




            Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) at the beginning is not publishized by national media, but it spreads out through social media and internet networks. This movement inspired by the pattern of Arab Spring revolution that succeeded to bring down dictatorship regime in Egypt and Tunisia. The participants comes from some of political mainstreams such as left wing activist, environmentalist, feminist, world peace activist, and labor union. OWS movement chooses the New York Wall Street as the  symbol of world economic center of global capitalism. It spreads out to cities, countries, such as Okhlahoma, Seattle, Chigago, Paris, India, Germany, with the same target which  are the symbols of global center economy within cities or countries. According to the official site of Occupy Wall steet movement, They claimed that their movement has spreaded over 100 in United States of America and 1500 cities globally worldwide.

This movement emerged because of the 2008 great economic recession attacked in the northern American countries and western European countries. As a consequence, thousand mass of people gathered, built tent, brought posters, demonstrated in the New York City, USA. The masses were aware about the fall of global capitalism, as the system has a docrine of laizess faire and no state policy interventions in terms of economic but finally the collapsed of multinational corporations demanded bail out from states when it went into bankruptcy.

The increasing of jobless, a lack of housing settlement, increasing of unpaid housing credit and the decreasing of society incomes triggered mass of people to the street for promoting a change. When U.S economy felt a big recession, it will lead into the global economic crisis as the integration of U.S economy with the world economy. Concerning the situation, why the movement emerged because of the awareness of the masses that “The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%”. That is a well known statement from the participant of the OWS movement. According to World Bank data, in 2008, 150 of Multi National Corporation owners wealth were the same as the wealth of the 70 of developing countries. When, the recession came out, some companies collapsed. States forced to bail out the collapsed companies. Although, the money of the states came from the society taxes. The contradiction was the revenue should be for the social welfare not for saving the MNC’s whose owned by a group of wealthy elites. 

Actually, the kind of movement to protest the global capitalism had been in the 1999 when the World Trade Organitation (WTO) held a conference in the city of Seattle, USA. That was the beginning of anti-global capitalism campaign emerged publicy. Sooner and later, the protest continued globally at the WTO Conference in Italy, Czech, Canada, and etc. Anti global capitalism movements were in line with the anti-war movement in the Bush presidential era, 2003 which aimed to do invasion toward Iraq with the reason of weapon mass destruction which later on has not been revealed and proved. Actually, the aim of the invasion was for the case of oil, again the power relation of government-corporation power. With the same of common enemy of government and corporations, anti-war, anti-globalist, environmentalists, feminists, labor union united to hold a global movement. The momentum of global economic crisis made the movement emerged globally from the end of 2011. With the power of internet networks, social media, editorials, OWS protesters joined and gathered to the street.

The characteristics of OWS movement were 1) its hetereogeneuity of movement (participants coming from many political mainstreams) 2) its diversity of demand or protest (even there were no clear goal of the movement). But the similarity of all of the mass were questioning the global capitalism which previosly exaggerated as the best way to achieve welfare and struggled for the humanity. This movements raised globally with no clear demands that therefore made many critics. Here I would like to sum the mass protest/ demands ; 1) the break up of International Monetary Fund (IMF) 2) Democratization in the world economy institutions 3) the abolishment of developing countries debts.

Another pattern of OWS movement were 1) held in locales (cities) but global purpose 2) using virtual communities to provoke in cyberspace (social media, internet networks, online editorial journals  3) a leaderless movement (every participant was essentially a leader. OWS movement actually considered as a leaderless movement but it is organized well. The decision making process of the OWS participant was democratic by using people assembly and a consensus but the other implication was too long to decide. OWS also do rotation in the organizational positions. This kind of method in organizing the movement can be considered as kind of democratic way, while it has been debatable some others seeing OWS as radical movement but in organizational management they are democratic. The idea of organizing OWS movement with the method of people assembly and consensus would like to give every participant an experience of enganging democratically and being part of decision making process. It gave a message of democracy  while in the other side OWS movement seen as radical movement.

According to the statement in the official site of OWS movement, contextually, this movement inspired by the uprising condition of Arab Spring revolution. Here i would like to compare the difference of Egyptian movement in Tahrir Square with the Occupy movement.

Occupy Wall Street Movement

Egyptian Tahrir Square  movement

Decentralized globally to another cities, even countries

Centralized in , million of people in one place, Tahrir square, everyday

Socio-economic issue

Political leader issue

Social media and internet networks, editorial journal

Social media and internet networks

Questioning the Global capitalism

Brought down the dictatorship

OWS Movement Seen from Thoreau Concept of Civil Disobedience

 The term of Civil Disobedience firstly came from the essay ‘on the duty of civil disobedience’ wrote by Henry David Thoreau. It is written in the time of war between America and Mexico during the territorial expansion on purpose of applying the notion of ‘manifest destiny’ (Diggins, 1987; Zinn, 1980 ). Thoreau focused on telling that the current  government is un just of not fair. Thoreau focused on the subject of the slavery and the mexican war.             The term of Civil Disobediencemeant that the disobey of the citizens toward government. In his essay, Thoreau encourages citizens to break the rules set by government. The idea of civil disobedience implemented on the act of refusing not pay the taxes as requested by the state. From Thoreau’s conception, an act can be categorized as civil disobedience if 1) actively breaks the laws ex ; refusing not pay taxes 2) acts againts the will of the government. The word ‘actively’ means as follows, in the Thoreau’s life, there were thousands  who thought to opposed slavery and the mexican war but unfortunately do nothing. The idea of Thoreau’s civil disobedience force to actively do something to opposes and consequently do action in contrast with the government.

            The act of opposing or disagreeing with the state in terms of ideologically or protested out loud is not enough to  be considered as civil disobedience. Doing a marches of demonstration and starting out loud the disagreement toward the state publicly is not enough. Occupy Wall street movement can not be qualified as a civil disobedience because it did not require the 2 requirements from Thoreau conception 1) active involement of breaking the law 2) acting against the will of the government. Holding public demonstration and having a long list of grievances / complaints like OWS did is not enough. Thoreau was against the system by refusing not pay taxes. An act of civil disobedience needed an active involvement in breaking the law and opposing the will of the government. Civil disonedience is justifiable only when the laws are unjust or not fair that shoul be broken. As Thoreau said on the duty of the civil disobedience, breaking the law is necessary when oppresion and robbery are organized.

            One of the example of an act of civil disobedience that succeeded is Marthin Luther King civil rights movement in 1960s. Civil rights movement can be considered as civil disobedience because 1) it broke the segregation laws in the letter of Birmingham Jail 2) it againsts the will of the government that did ‘separate but equal’ regulations for colored people in public facilities 3) it demanded justice and equality for all as the U.S constitution message ‘All men are created equal’ 4) the unjust laws or unfair law had been broken down by the masses ; boycott, sit-in etc.

MLK’s and the 1960s civil rights movement can be considered as an act of civil disobedience because they disobeyed the segregation laws. They demanded a more fair and equal law. Thoreau’s concept, if the law is un just, it had to be broken down. In contrast, Occupy Wall Street protesters did not break any laws. Although they  do  not have a permission to do demonstration, they are still following the law since it is not illegal to protest  in public.   


Occupy Wall Street as a New Form of Political Disobedience

Occupy has been a national even world phenomenon since the end of September 2011. Debate came out publicly whether it is a kind of civil disobedience as the past in the history of United States of America. According to Benard E. Harcourt (2011), The chair of political science department in the University of Chigago, words of political disobedience perhaps can make a better understanding of the OWS movement. In this sense, Harcourt suggested that OWS as a new form of political disobedience rather than civil disobedience that fundamentally rejects the political and ideological landscape of the state.

As a political phenomenon, OWS can be seen as a new trend of movement as a consequence of social change. Here, the writer believes with the thesis of Dr. Moeslim Abdurahman about the implication of Globalization era ; etno-escape, capital-escape, ideo-escape, media-escape. Here, the writer intend to demonstrate that one of  OWS characteristics as a movement were ; leaderless, many political persuasion, not clear demand, and ideo-escape. It is suppported with the thesis of Heather Gaurtney, Sociology Professor from New York, that OWS tended to touch socio-economic issue rather than opposed with the state ideologically.

The problems seen by protesters was the distribution of wealth dominantly to the 1%. OWS wanted the goverment to redistribute the wealth in the society. the point agenda is not debating about free market versus controlled economy but a continous choice between kind of regulations and how the government distribute wealth in society. Here OWS can be considered as a resistance movement that politically disobedient.


            Occupy Wall Street movement can be considered as a leaderless movement that came from many political mainstream which politically disobedient. According to Thoreau’s concept of Civil Disobedience, occupy movement is not a 21st century civil disobedience because it did not actively breaking the law even the word ‘occupy’ did not meant physically occupied Wall street or the other symbol of global capitalism. Also, this movement is not opposing the state ideologically because the fundamental reason is about redistribution of wealth in the society.





Aldian Andrew Wirawan, 2011. Http://kecoamonolog.blogspot.com

Bernard E. Harcourt, 2011 http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/occupy-wall-streets-political-disobedience/

Diggins, J. P. (1987). Civil disobedience and american political thought. In L. S. Luedtke (Ed.), Making america: The society and culture of the united states.Washington DC: United States Information Agency.

Esty Dyah Imaniar, 2012. “Civil Disobeedience and the progress of the individual empowerement”.

Henry David Thoreau, 1849. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Elegant Ebooks.

Steven Higgs, 2011. “Occupy Wall Street a new ‘rolling movement of civil disobedience” http://blomingtonalternative.com/

Leslie J. Macarlane, ‘Justifying Political Disobedience’ http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2379189?uid=3738224&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21101615296887

Heather Gautney, 2011. What is Occupy Wall Street? The history of leaderless movements. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2011-10-10/national/35277702_1_heather-gautney-movement-gay-rights


Rosa Lux, A brief history of Occupy movemnt. http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/wp-content/files_mf/earle_history_occupy.pdf

Zinn, H. (1980). A people’s history of the united states.New York: Harper Collins Publisher.






http://harvardpress.typepad.com/hup_publicity/2011/12/a-new-grammar-of-political-disobedience-harcourt.html “A new grammar of political disobedience





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