17 September 2011: Occupy Wall Street protest begins

“Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?” Adbusters magazine asked of its readers in the summer of 2011. That year, Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo was at the centre of mass protests, known as the Arab Spring, aimed at bringing down corrupt governments across the region.

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean in Spain, thousands of unemployed and dispossessed people – los indignados – camped out in plazas across the country, angered by austerity measures that saw their benefits cut and taxes raised in response to a financial crisis that they didn’t start.

Activists in America recognised many of the same problems at home. Political lobbying by wealthy vested interests was rife. Bankers had been bailed out at the expense of the taxpayer, so that the US national debt now stands at over $18trn. Yet bankers continued to receive bonuses and fat salaries, while only a tiny number were sent down for ‘white-collar’ crimes.

Students, too, were furious at being lumbered with debt piles they could scarcely manage before they’d even graduated. As MoneyWeek’s Bill Bonner notes, “The whole bill for student debt this year is expected to reach $68bn – a tenfold increase over the last 20 years”.

And all the while, the gulf in wealth inequality continued to widen – as it has here in Britain (see Merryn Somerset Webb’s article from 2013.) In 2007, the top 1% of Americans was earning 23.5% of the nation’s income, leading to the rallying cry, “We are the 99%!”

That summer in 2011, Adbusters printed a poster that read “#occupywallstreet September 17th”, followed by the practical advice: “Bring tent”. Thousands of protesters turned up on the allotted date at Zuccotti Park in New York City. Their first choice of Chase Plaza had already been roped off by police.

The global media coverage and use of social media meant that the Occupy Wall Street protest lit a touch paper, setting off similar protests around the world, including in London, where a tent city sprang up around St Paul’s Cathedral.

“The camps may be gone and Occupy may no longer be visible on the streets, but the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is still there, and growing”, wrote Michael Levitin in The Atlantic this summer. “What appeared to be a passing phenomenon of protest now looks like the future of US political debate.”

And as the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has proved, there is no shortage of voter dissatisfaction over wealth inequality on this side of the Atlantic, too.

Also on this day

17 September 1980: The birth of Solidarity

On this day in 1980, Solidarity, the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union, was formed, following a nationwide strike and the Gdansk Accords. Read more here.