A Look At The History Of Wall Street Protests

Guy Raz talks to Beverly Gage, associate professor of history at Yale University and author of the book The Day Wall Street Exploded: The Story of America in its First Age of Terror, about the history of protests on Wall Street.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz.

The so-called Occupy Wall Street Movement is in its third week of protests, a block from the nation's financial center in New York. The daily demonstrations carry echoes of a century ago and the decades leading up to the Great Depression. It was a time when protests were a regular feature on Wall Street and powerful financiers, like J.P. Morgan, were pilloried in song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY NAME IS MORGAN, BUT IT AIN'T J.P.")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) My name is Morgan but it ain't J.P. There's no bank on Wall Street that belongs to me...

RAZ: This is a popular tune in 1906 called "My Name Is Morgan, But It Ain't J.P."

For more now, I'm joined by Beverly Gage. She's an associate professor of history at Yale, and the author of "The Day Wall Street Exploded: The Story of America in Its First Age of Terror."

Beverly Gage, welcome.

PROFESSOR BEVERLY GAGE: Thanks, Guy.

RAZ: When did Wall Street become a place where protesters gathered?

GAGE: Wall Street really began to consolidate its power as the center of American finance in the years around the Civil War. And then, almost immediately after that, it became a target for protesters, really from a variety of places on the political spectrum. But throughout the late 19th century into the early 20th century, you had very regular demonstrations on Wall Street.

And, as you were suggesting, figures like J.P. Morgan were loved in some circles but were mostly hated by many segments of the American people, who spent a great deal of time talking about and criticizing Wall Street.

RAZ: Let's talk about the period sort of before and after the First World War. Who were the kinds of people who were going out to demonstrate on Wall Street?

GAGE: Well, I think the first movement that really coalesced around a kind of anti-Wall Street message was the populist movement, which came of age in the late 19th century. And then, by the early 20th century, you have a wave of different movements taking off. You have the rise of the Socialist Party in the United States, for whom Wall Street was the great symbol of American corruption and greed.

And you had the labor movement. And then you also had even more radical movements - to the left, anarchists, communists. But so you have a huge range of people from different positions in American society, with different messages but all really going after Wall Street itself.

RAZ: Much of the movement really culminates in a devastating terror attack in 1920, targeting J.P. Morgan. What happened?

GAGE: Right. That occurred on September 16th, 1920, which was a pretty ordinary Thursday afternoon. And a horse-drawn cart exploded at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets. So, right directly next to the Morgan Bank, very close to the New York Stock Exchange. It ended up killing 38 people and wounding several hundred. And it was by far the most sort of dramatic symbol of this confrontation that had been building for a decade.

RAZ: The protesters today are mounting nonviolent protests. But what sorts of parallels do you see between those movements back then and what we are seeing today?

GAGE: Well, I think, right, on the question of violence, that was a very different world in the teens and '20s. And so I don't think that those kinds of comparisons have much to do with the protesters today. But what I do think they're drawing on historically is that movements against Wall Street have always been the very multifarious movements. You've had lots of different sorts of people involved, and they haven't always necessarily gotten together around one single piece of legislation.

But nonetheless, they've been visible. They've pressed questions about inequality, about the role of Wall Street and finance in the American economy, and just big moral questions about what do we want out of our society. And I think those are really the themes that you're seeing coming out of the Wall Street protests today.

RAZ: Are there clear parallels, in your view, between the economic circumstances of those times and what we're seeing today?

GAGE: Well, I think it's really remarkable when you look at the span of the 20th century, we're really seeing ourselves at the dawn of the 21st century in a lot of similar conditions to what would have seen 100 years ago. In terms of inequality, we have the same kinds of stratifications of wealth that we would have seen 100 years ago - and that actually shrank in the middle of the century, but have since widened back out.

In terms of labor organizing, we have very similar numbers. At their peak in the middle of the 20th century, labor unions recognized or organized about 35 percent of the private sector workforce. At the turn of the 20th century and now back at the turn of the 21st century, those numbers are back down around seven or eight percent.

So I think in terms of economic inequality, in terms of labor organizing, you actually see very, very similar dynamics now.

RAZ: Why did the protest movement on Wall Street go away?

GAGE: Right. Well, I think that in the 1920s, Wall Street had a kind of banner decade. But when we hit the Great Depression, in 1929, you actually saw earlier critiques come surging back. And one of the things that's really remarkable about the New Deal is that you see a whole rash of legislation intended to address the kinds of issues that have been talked about and that Wall Street had been the symbol of for decades.

So, I think in part, the ferocity of the criticism of Wall Street went away because you had some sort of amelioration of reforms in the New Deal. And so that earlier politics that was really centered around those issues became more muted as the century went on.

RAZ: I've been speaking with Beverly Gage about the history of Wall Street protests. She's an associate history professor at Yale University, and author of the book "The Day Wall Street Exploded."

Beverly Gage, thanks.

GAGE: Thanks, Guy.

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