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Protests, then and now

In Occupy movement, history is made — and also repeated

YESTERDAY - The Occupy Boston protest drew onlookers as well as performers. Erich Haygun of Brooklyn, an art rap artist who is originally from Boston, did his thing at the Tent City in Dewey Square. YESTERDAY - The Occupy Boston protest drew onlookers as well as performers. Erich Haygun of Brooklyn, an art rap artist who is originally from Boston, did his thing at the Tent City in Dewey Square. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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The Occupy Boston protest, part of a worldwide movement marked by 24/7 camp-ins on conspicuous public spaces, has borrowed themes and tactics from social and political activists of the past, transforming them into a movement both familiar and pioneering.

In its broad critique of wealth inequity and unchecked corporate power, Occupy echoes the hunger marches of the 1930s, and the modern Global Justice movement, which is probably best known in America for a massive street demonstration in 1999 that disrupted the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle.

It its tactics, however, Occupy is reminiscent of the passive sit-ins of the civil rights era, and the ongoing vigil demonstrations at Roman Catholic churches targeted for closure in Greater Boston.

The movement spreads itself through skillful use of social media - techniques battle-tested by the Arab spring uprising in the Middle East.

Across Europe and East Asia, similar protests broke out yesterday as demonstrators swarmed the London Stock Exchange and battled police in the streets of Rome, and hundreds gathered in Seoul and Hong Kong.

In Boston, Governor Deval Patrick toured the encampment in Dewey Square, where he said he hoped to get a better understanding of the protest.

How much Occupy America can accomplish is unclear, but the speed at which the movement is multiplying is already affecting political discourse, elevating the issue of economic inequality to prominence for the first time since the 1930s, said Gary Gerstle, a Vanderbilt University historian.

“It has the potential to change the fundamentals of American politics,’’ he said.

Occupy Boston, the half-acre encampment on Dewey Square next to South Station, is entering its third week. Demonstrators say they will not leave, and are steeling themselves to ride out a New England winter. Occupy Wall Street, the movement’s flagship in Manhattan, has been ongoing since mid-September. The leaderless movement has spread to more than 150 cities.

Occupy Boston gained widespread attention after more than 100 demonstrators were arrested in a police crackdown last Tuesday. The protesters spread their accounts of the raid in real time over social media, and within hours had collected thousands of dollars for bail by way of Internet donations.

The ability to raise cash almost instantly over the Web is new, but Occupy shares elements with other Boston-area protests.

The church vigils, dating back to 2004, are ongoing, as parishioner appeals slowly grind through Vatican courts. These quiet demonstrations have continued with the grudging acquiescence of the Archdiocese of Boston, which wants the protesters to go, but would rather settle the vigils without the spectacle of the faithful being dragged out of their beloved churches as trespassers.

In 2001, several dozen Harvard University students took over a school administration building in an unwelcome occupation, over complaints that some university employees were not paid “living wages.’’ A tent-city sprouted up nearby in support of the protesters. The action drew wide attention from media, labor leaders, and politicians, including senators Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry. The 21-day occupation finally ended with a brokered compromise.

At Harvard, the protesters were united around an easy-to-understand demand: Pay everyone a living wage. That is a major contrast with Occupy Boston’s more general complaints about economic unfairness and the outsized political influence of the rich.

“It’s a critique that can be confusing both to the media trying to cover it and to bystanders trying to understand it,’’ said Sarah Sobieraj, assistant professor of sociology at Tufts University, who studies social activism. “There isn’t a quick solution to our current economic situation, so it’s hard to imagine a concrete demand they might come up with.’’

Harvard was busy with activism in the 1960s, most famously in 1969, when several hundred students occupied an administration building over the issue of the military’s influence on campus. Police cleared the building the next day in a violent raid that resulted in widespread arrests and many injuries.

Boston College history professor Marilynn Johnson said the Occupy movement reminds her of the Hunger Marches organized in times of extreme economic hardship, such as the late 1800s and the throes of the Great Depression. Hunger protesters marched in Boston in 1932.

“Certainly there are elements of that in what we see now,’’ she said. “The fact that there are so many students involved is a new piece of it, much more like the civil rights and new student movements of the second half of the 20th century.’’

Boston was the site of numerous protests in the 1970s over busing to desegregate the public schools, and, more recently, saw widespread protests around two major political events.

In 2004, the city hosted the Democratic National Convention, the first nominating convention after the 9/11 attacks. Protesters were penned in a “free-speech zone’’ that they compared to being in a prison camp. As the convention wound on, protests spilled into the city, resulting in several arrests.

In 2000, a debate between presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore at University of Massachusetts Boston drew thousands of demonstrators competing to be heard.

Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at New York University, is hesitant to say that anything about the Occupy movement is truly new.

“My students asked me the other day, how did they organize the March on Washington without Facebook?’’ he said. “There was no social media then, and they did organize fine. I’m wary of saying it is qualitatively different now.’’

The anticorporate language of Franklin D. Roosevelt was “every bit as harsh as anything you’ll hear in Zuccotti Park,’’ where Occupy Wall Street protesters are encamped, he said. “The reason I don’t see it succeeding now is the people who would choose to sleep in a park - people I admire - are going to look marginal to most Americans.

“I don’t think the kind of political theater they’re engaged in will resonate, even with those Americans who otherwise would endorse their attack on inequality.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.