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Putting the Global Occupy Movement in Context: Who Are These Protesters, and What Do They Want?

by Lois Beckett
ProPublica, Oct. 25, 2011, 12:27 p.m.

At first glance, the synchronized protests that took place in more than 900 cities around the globe on Oct. 15 seemed to indicate that Occupy Wall Street had achieved a kind of worldwide resonance.

But the truth is more complex. Many of the protests elsewhere grew out of movements that pre-date Occupy Wall Street and out of frustrations that, though similar in some ways, are also specific to their countries.

Here’s a look at the origins, demands and affects of five of these global protests, as well as the criticism they’ve faced.

Protesters demonstrate at the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, on Oct. 15, 2011, during a worldwide demonstration sparked by anger against corporations and government cutbacks. (Photo by DANI POZO/AFP/Getty Images)



In Chile, Students Protesting for Free Education Occupy Schools

The Santiago protest in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street took place during a week of ongoing national demonstrations. Since May, Chilean students have been staging protests demanding that the government make education free to all.

Secondary school students have occupied their schools, sleeping on the floor and holding their own classes. Last week, protesting students occupied Chile’s senate building in SantiagoHundreds of thousands of people have participated in marches over the past six months. At times, the protests have become violent, with police using tear gas and water cannons on the protesters, and “masked assailants” setting fire to a city bus.

Opinion polls show more than 80 percent of Chile’s citizens support the protesting students, who also have the backing of labor unions and teachers. Government officials,including the president, have resisted the demands, saying the government cannot afford to pay for education for all students.

In Israel, a Summer Protest Against Rent Prices, Cost of Living

Protesters in Tel Aviv returned Oct. 15 to Rothschild Boulevard, the site of a summer occupation that prefigured the Occupy Wall Street movement.

During those demonstrations, which began July 14, hundreds of people set up tents along the most prestigious street in Tel Aviv’s financial district to protest the high cost of rent. Government ministers mocked the protesters, calling them “sushi-eaters” and “nargila [hookah] smokers with guitars.”

But over two months, demonstrations against Israel’s high cost of living brought out a record-breaking numbers of participants. A march on Sept. 3 drew 450,000 people, orroughly six percent of Israel’s population. In response, Israel’s prime minister proposed reforms, and, when they were rejected as insufficient, assembled a task force to consider ways to improve the standard of living for Israel’s middle class.

Tel Aviv’s tent city was dismantled earlier this month.

In Spain, High Youth Unemployment Rate Sparks Tent Occupations

The idea for a global day of protest on Oct. 15 was originally proposed by participants in Spain’s 15-M or “Los Indignados” movement.

The “indignados” movement began in May, when hundreds of protesters set up tents in Madrid’s historic Puerta del Sol, and others gathered elsewhere to protest Spain’sextremely high unemployment. Overall, unemployment was at more than 20 percent, and youth unemployment was at nearly 50 percent. On Oct. 15, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in MadridBarcelona and Seville.

Like the Wall Street protesters, protesters in Spain faced criticism for having no clear demands and using the protest as an excuse for a big party. Madrid’s tent city, which largely disbanded in June, was leaderless and had a legal advice tent, a library, a kitchen set up to prepare donated food. It also had a general assembly where participants made decisions through consensus on issues such as how to deal with police or complaints from neighbors. Some neighboring merchants were not enthused about the occupation, but, as in New York, the 24-hour pizzeria didn’t seem to mind.

In the UK, Occupation Follows Protests on Education Cuts, Riots Over Police Brutality

Over the past year, the UK has seen major student protests over rising school fees, as well as violent riots and looting this August after a young black man from a low-income neighborhood was killed by the police.

In comparison with the roughly 50,000 protesters who turned out last November todemonstrate against tuition increases, the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement is small: an estimated 600 people are camped out by St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a smaller cluster have gathered near London’s Royal Bank of Scotland and JP Morgan buildings. (At times, an estimated 2,000 protesters have gathered at the encampment. There also have been smaller protests in other cities across the UK.)

The encampment has prompted the closure of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is reported to be considering legal action to dislodge the protesters.

Like those in New York, the Occupy London protesters have been criticized—by the Mayor of London, among others—for not having a clear set of demands. A Guardian reporter who spent a few days at the encampment reported that “a few of the key facilitators in last winter’s student protests haven’t come down” because “they’re not sure it’s radical enough.”

But the reporter, Patrick Kingsley, concluded that the lack of demands may be part of the point: “If anything, the camp itself is their demand, and their solution: the stab at an alternative society that at least aims to operate without hierarchy, and with full, participatory democracy. And to be fair, in its small way, it kind of works,” he wrote.

In Germany, a Country Less Burdened by the Financial Crisis, Protest May Reflect Fears for the Future

In Frankfurt, Europe’s financial center, roughly a hundred protesters are currently camped out in front of the European Central Bank, and at least 4,000 more took to the streets again last weekend to protest the banking system. (Smaller numbers protested in Berlin.)

The protests, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, have been greeted with some bewilderment by commentators. While the American protests have focused on the nation’s increasing inequality and wealth disparity, Germany “has one of the most equitable distributions of family income in the world,” according to Foreign Policy magazine. German youth are not saddled with student loan debt, the Wall Street Journal points out, and have a very low unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.

Trying to explain the reason for protests in a country “largely unscathed by the global financial crisis,” German newspapers suggested that there was “bitter disappointment” that state bailouts of banks did not result in reforms to the financial system, or that the protests were forward-looking, sparked by “young people who are afraid that the debt crisis is robbing them of their future."

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