Many of my friends have asked me recently "what do you think about occupy Wall Street?" In answer to their question I've typically replied that I am cautiously optimistic that these protests on behalf of the 99%, which seem to spread a little more every day, will lead to changes in our nation's financial policies and towards greater job growth.
I've also heard a lot of my friends and colleagues draw comparisons between these protests and the 1960s movements for Civil Rights. But a more appropriate analogy seems to me that of Jacob Coxey's "Industrial Army."
If you think things are bad now, you should have been alive in 1893. For blue collar employees, unemployment in some parts of the United States reached a whopping 25%. Jacob Coxey, a populist political figure from Ohio, organized about 100 unemployed men to take part in a march on Washington, D.C. They would walk, hitchhike, or travel by any other means available on their way to the capital to protest the need for the Federal Government to create jobs and stop the uncontrollable profiteering of those on Wall Street.
The number of marchers ebbed and flowed throughout the protest and their message was so diffuse that most newspapers labelled them an army of hobos out looking for a handout. It didn't help that a man named "General" Charles T. Kelley started his own march from the west coast, which gradually developed into precisely what the newspapers claimed. Both Washington, D.C. and Wall Street ignored these groups. It wasn't until the Pullman Strike of 1894 that worker protests garnered some attention.
Beginning in Chicago, the Pullman strike gradually shut down railroad traffic in the entire western United States. President Cleveland, pressured to do something about it, sent the U.S. army to Chicago to put down the strike. With commerce affected, suddenly those in power were paying attention.
So what's the lesson we take from this in 2011? Money really does talk. Find a way to stop its flow and you'll get the attention of those in power. If Occupy Wall Street remains a small group of vocal protesters who are "mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more," bank executives will continue to walk over them on their way to work. All the while muttering how great the First Amendment is. Take your money out of their banks. Stop buying goods from disreputable companies. In fact, stop working at all in large enough numbers. Then see what happens.
I admire Gandhi, but his concept of peaceful protest doesn't work in all times and places. What's needed here is some good old fashioned Gilded Age conflict. Then we'll see some lasting financial reforms.