Like Protests in the 1960s, Occupy Wall Street Needs Leaders to Succeed

Occupy Wall Street is unlike the antiwar and civil rights protests of the 1960s in several distinct regards. These earlier protests were very successful, so the tactics employed at that time should be considered by the OWS movement to increase its ability to achieve real change.

OWS is far less intense than the 1960s protests, which is positive in that it equates to less violence. But, strength of conviction and the members’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for what they believe in will attract new participants and outside support from older people, politicians, and businesses. And so, it is worth spending the time to compare OWS to the protests that took place a half century ago in order to predict the successes of OWS. The antiwar and civil rights protests accomplished real change that saved lives and improved the status of millions of Americans by being organized and focused.

The ongoing OWS protests are decidedly different organizationally, and there is less urgency now than in the protests in the 1960s, when soldiers were being killed and maimed, and race issues helped spark many protests. There is no real leadership in OWS. In this regard, some within OWS say that leadership is unnecessary and diminishes the cause.

The media and our politicians are not taking OWS seriously because it has taken on too many causes, including school tuition, income inequality, Wall Street reform, and government stagnation. The causes have not been delineated by strong, informed personalities, and political leaders have not yet been petitioned to make changes.

In the mid-60s, the antiwar protests were initiated principally by the Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden and a number of other lesser-known, young radicals. The SDS was formed specifically to protest the Vietnam War, which was escalating. The opposition to the war was personified by this group, culminating with the student strikes of 1970 which were precipitated by the death of four Kent State students at the hands of a National Guard unit. Four million students boycotted their schools that spring. The Nixon administration believed that the “nation was on the verge of insurrection.”

In 1968, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Bobby Seale (the head of the Black Panthers), and several others were accused of conspiring to riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The group was tagged the “Chicago Eight.” The charges against the group were ultimately dropped, but the trial and the untiring efforts of those accused served to create even greater awareness about the war and its impact on America and young people.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, further fueling the flames of discontent during the period. He and his successors pushed the country and President Lyndon B. Johnson to enact civil rights legislation that affects us today. The leadership of King inspired America in a way that would not have been possible in a leaderless revolution.

These three situations are indicative of the importance of leadership and focus for those who want to encourage change. Ideas must be formulated, vetted, and marketed. Specific people and institutions must be petitioned about injustices. OWS has neither leadership nor focus, and so its great potential will probably not be reached. The movement is a convenient way for those with gripes, some legitimate and some not, to deliver their ideas in a mob setting and revel in ten minutes of support.

Sadly, come late fall, when the temperature drops, the group will cool off as will the heated debates in Zuccotti Park.

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