Gandhi goes to Wall Street

Spencer Platt GETTY IMAGES Demonstrators opposed to corporate profits on Wall Street march in the Financial District on September 26, … Continued

Spencer Platt


Demonstrators opposed to corporate profits on Wall Street march in the Financial District on September 26, 2011 New York City. Hundreds of activists affiliated with the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations have begun living in a park in the Financial District near Wall Street.

Protestors carry signs that say, “Bring Down the Wall, but this is not Berlin in 1989, it is New York’s financial district in 2011. They carry signs that say “Love, Compassion, Awareness, Understanding,” but this not Selma in 1965, it is Wall Street in 2011.

The #occupywallstreet protests in New York’s Wall Street district exhibit all the dynamics of the non-violent direct action movements of the 20th century as seen in the work of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the April 6 movement in Egypt that so symbolizes the “Arab Spring.” These are the young Egyptians chanting “peaceful, peaceful” only this time while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, not on a street in Cairo, or in front of a wall in East Berlin.

And like in Cairo and Selma and East Germany, they are met with force, sometimes even with brutality.



Protesters from the Occupy Wall Street campaign march in front of the New York Stock Exchange in New York September 28, 2011

The police response follows Gandhi’s prescription for why non-violence is so effective; non-violent protest exposes the underlying violence of unjust systems, and the dilemma that non-violence poses to armed authority. This shocking video of police brutality, including pepper spraying young women who are behind a barrier, illustrates what Gandhi taught. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Gandhi. And Gandhi’s followers didn’t even have cell phones that could video all of the violence that erupts when non-violent direct action grows in numbers and support. The “NYPD pepper sprays peaceful protesters” YouTube video has over 100,000 views.

Alexander Holmes, a 26 year-old from CA, sums up his experience of what happens when authorities begin arresting protestors, and using strong-arm tactics. Holmes was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. He told reporters, “if anyone thought ‘15 hours of no food, no water and a jail experience that is not enjoyable would deter us,’ they were ‘completely mistaken…Every arrest brings another 25, 30, 40, 100 people,’

Holmes said. ‘It’s solidarity. Because they know that we’re not being treated the way we should be for exercising our First Amendment rights.’”

“Solidarity” is the name chosen by Polish activists to describe their movement that eventually brought an end to Communism in their country. Solidarity among people exercised through non-violent direct action is a method designed to create a dilemma for authorities. Solidarity among peaceful protestors grows movements and protests. Authorities can ridicule or ignore non-violent protests, and still the protests grow. Or authorities can use force against non-violent protestors and their force is publicized as the overreaction of the state. And still the protests grow.

Non-violence is effective precisely because of this dilemma dynamic.

Non-violent direct action is one of the most effective discoveries of the 20th century in terms of how power is actually distributed in a society. This “discovery” of the real nature of power in society is best analyzed and applied to non-violent change in the work of Gene Sharp. Sharp has been called the “Godfather” of non-violence and his work has been translated into many languages and is used all over the world now in helping to create non-violent change.

Sharp’s key theme is that power is not top down, nor is it a possession of those in power. For Sharp, political power, the power of any state – regardless of its particular structural organization – ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. Authorities rule because of the implicit consent of those ruled, whether this is by choice or under threat. Thus, his fundamental insight is that any power structure relies upon the subjects’ obedience to the orders of the ruler(s) to survive. If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power.

The power of non-violence is that when citizens learn how to deploy their power by withdrawing consent they are nearly unstoppable. This is why violence escalates in response to non-violence; those in power intuit that they are increasingly powerless and they overreact. Thus, it is the “white shirts,” the commanders whose rank is designated by their white shirts as opposed to the blue shirts of street cops, who have taken on the “the role of enforcer” and “(V)ideo recordings of clashes have shown white shirts – lieutenants, captains or inspectors – leading underlings into the fray.” It is, as reported in the New York Times, “Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna’s dousing of some penned-in women with pepper spray on Sept. 24, which seemed to surprise at least one of the blue shirts

Tina Fineberg


Participants in a march organized by Occupy Wall Street make their up Broadway Saturday Sept. 24, 2011 in New York. Marchers represented various causes both political and economic.

standing near him on East 12th Street, near University Place.” The higher the rank, the more authority is threatened by non-violence.

This is the “truth force” that non-violent activists from India to the southern tip of Manhattan know. The truth that is now coming into focus for Wall Street and for Main Street, through these protests, is the “systemic violence” of the American economy today. Our economy produces more and more risky financial instruments and fewer and fewer decent jobs. The Great Recession, a direct result of the reckless financial practices of Wall Street about which Kevin Phillips writes so well in his book
Bad Money
has driven one in six Americans into poverty, many of them children.

And this is what can now be seen in the #occupywallstreet protests. This is the “moral force of nonviolence.”

Gandhi is on Wall Street today, and Wall Street will never be the same. Dr. King may be memorialized in Washington DC, but the truth he brought to America in the Civil Rights movement is the truth force working its way down the streets of the financial district. Of the fourteen inscriptions on the wall of the new King memorial, this one seems particularly apt for the economic struggles of today:

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” (10 December 1964, Oslo, Norway).

That’s the moral force of these protests. Amen and amen.

  • bobmann1

    far out!

  • Birbante

    The sad truth is that these people are attempting to impose their misguided minority positions (note the plural) on us. If they were truly in the majority, they would effect change thorugh our representative democracy rather than anarchy. The sad truth is that these protesters can’t even agree on why they are there and that is a key difference between this protest and Dr. King and Gandhi. Without such leadership or even a coherent mission this mob lacks moral imperitive and therefore they lack moral force.

  • allinthistogether

    I have not read the statements of the protesters, so don’t know how clear their vision for change is. However, the economic violence that our society is facing today is much more covert than what Ghandi and King were protesting. The fundamental decisions about what our government will and won’t regulate and what the penalties are for violating the regulations are made behind closed doors under great influence of those who make a profit off of the unregulated systems. How many folks have gone to jail for inflating the ratings of the financial vehicles or selling them with the knowledge that there was a high quantity of corruption in the mortgage paperwork? Very few or none. How many bankers have gone to jail for using “robo-signing” which is clearly against the law? None. Now even the Supreme Court is dominated by delusional justices who believe that corporations should effectively have more political power than individuals.

    Because our economic system is complex, and the key decisions are covert. the solutions are difficult to come by. We should not expect protestors to have the solutions in hand before raising the cry that the system is failing in a way that further rewards the already priveleged. The protesters are doing exactly what is needed and more of us should join or support them.

  • Birbante

    Dr. King wanted racial equality. Gandhi wanted independance. The temperance movement wanted prohibition. What do you want? As frustrated as you are, raising a cry will accomplish nothing in the end if it is viewed as a mob of malcontents without a real cause. First you need to articulate a cause then you might look at the temperance movement as a guide. They found true success through politics, not protest.

  • justillthennow

    I do not know the specifics of the intention behind the Wall Street protests, or what particular changes are sought, though it is clear they are protesting what they view as excessive profits to corporations and their executives and a perception of corrupt ethics. Their cause may well be articulated, I would expect so at least.
    The temperance movement did find success through politics, as is true in every one of these cases discussed. But like each of them, legislative change was the end result of years of ongoing protests born of the discontent of the public. Gandhi’s India, Temperance, MLK’s Civil Rights, Arab Spring all share the process of discontentment growing into non-violent protests, culminating eventually into political change.

  • justillthennow

    Perhaps this is one phase of discontentment rising, and in the process it’s coherent mission may develop and be focused into something more viable. It obviously is not born fully formed, but perhaps is is forming.

  • James210

    a. b. Normal brain structure?

  • ccnl1

    Peacefully saving the followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism with a sign. (please post on your refrigerator doors)




    Added details upon request.

  • mono1

    21 century renaissance .
    man will never be free until the last blood sucker usury banking system is strangled with the entrails of the last political opportunism.

    people of faith need to come out of their church box and join the PEOPLE .did JESUS stayed home and kept silent about usury ,did he kept silent about greed?did he kept silent about injustice and oppression?

    people of liberalism need to take the financial yoke out of their neck in order to be called land of the free home of the brave.
    the alliance between financial institutions and politic must be divorced .
    the wealth of nations belong to WE THE PEOPLE.

    the people by the people and for the people want the fall of the rotten regime.