As protesters marched down Lafayette yesterday afternoon, a call went around the office: “Occupy Wall Street is passing the Museum!” We grabbed cameras (and, thanks Steve Jobs, smartphones) and ran to our back door to watch as people took to the streets, marching peacefully, carrying signs and chanting in unison. Autumn has finally descended upon the city and there was a coolness in the air though I suspect it was more than that which gave me chills. It felt historic to be observing this civil action–though observing was all we did, despite the calls to join the march downtown. (In the Museum industry, we’re typically in the business of presenting and interpreting history, not making it.) So how do we look at Occupy Wall Street? What perspective can we offer from a historical vantage point?
Photographer Hai Zhang, whose work will be included in our Spring 2012 exhibition “America Through A Chinese Lens,” has spent time with the occupiers, and his images shared here on our blog are striking in their timelessness. Forgetting for a moment that the hippie trappings of some of the protesters seem stuck in a time warp, the reason there is nothing new about these images is that we’ve seen these interactions play out across the national stage for decades. What he has captured is the enduring struggle between the people and the power as they seek equilibrium. As Zhang told us, “I had trouble [positioning] myself—one side is saying the protest is aimless… and the other side praises the protest as a truly revolutionary American Spring… I know neither side is completely true.” Rather than taking a decisive stand, he chose to simply document the events. We’ve juxtaposed his current images with photos from our collections of protesters marching; for representation, for equality, for peace. Protected under the First Amendment, generations of Americans have and continue to gather in the streets to be heard. But unlike marching for equality for those things we cannot change—race, gender, sexual orientation—today’s protesters are asking for us to confront the American creation myth. The promise that if you work hard you’ll succeed seems empty now as we watch our country struggle through a deep recession and record unemployment. Any sweeping change is hard-won and fraught with issue, but this seems particularly difficult. And where does this leave us? For younger generations, perhaps with a new perspective on civic involvement. New York often acts as a microcosm for the rest of the country—there is a sense that everyone looks to us, and responds in kind. It is thus especially fitting that these events have started here, and gained momentum across North America. What began as an amorphous and easily-dismissed movement has grown into a collective voice with a coherent purpose. As Zhang says, “this protest will not last forever, and probably will end with no clear victory, but it has forever changed our attitudes and raised awareness and hope.”
The idea of the 99% is not a new one. The country’s underprivileged classes have long argued that there is a great disparity between rich and poor, and even middle class and poor; it took the middle class to get poorer for most of us to sit up and notice. But low wages or no jobs? Academic excellence leading to little more than loan debt and disappointment? A feeling of being ignored or pandered to by our political leaders? These are the stories (and more) that we’ve collected and shared throughout our exhibition “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America”. These images could be protesters in 1960s calling for peace, or as Zhang remembers, the Chinese who took to Tiananmen Square in the 1980s. Regardless of time, place and technology, activism relies upon the spectacle of the masses coming together for change. Thus photography makes an ideal agent for distributing the ideas and concepts of activism: it is made to be witnessed. When we look at these images, when we feel the marchers surge past us, when we hear their calls to action, we see our own history as Americans. A people unafraid to fight for what is right, to shake up a system or engage in the process of changing the world for the future. Our hope is that someday when we look back upon Occupy Wall Street, it is from a better, more perfect union.
Emily Chovanec Schappler
Visitor Services Manager