A Poor People’s History of Wall Street: A Thirty Minute Video Guided Tour

“Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential. Social action without education is a weak expression of pure energy. Deeds uninformed by educated thought can take false directions.”

—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here? (1967)

“A Poor People’s History of Wall Street” takes you through the concrete canyons of the command center for global capitalism and asks: Who does Wall Street benefit? How does Wall Street operate in society? And is the stock market the best way to measure the health of a society? To establish ourselves as strangers in a strange land, on the tour, we normally recite “Questions from a Worker Who Reads” by Bertoldt Brecht. We walk through Wall Street as those who have been disinherited and dispossessed by centuries of coercion, force, and violence. Instead of what is rightfully ours, we are given monuments to supposedly great men, told stories that undermine our dignity, and are asked to reinforce the myth and systems of empire through bailouts and tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful. In the spirit of Brecht, this tour asks, “Over whom did the Caesars triumph?” and “Who paid the bill?” by examining the history of exploitation and resistance in New York City’s Financial District. Now the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming depression makes these questions a matter of life and death for the vast majority of people living within this capitalist system.

What’s your relationship to Wall Street? Maybe you’re an “essential worker” on the frontline of the pandemic, putting your own life on the line everyday with no hazard pay and little to no protection for your own health. Perhaps you’re an unemployed or underemployed person fearing how your family will come through these times with nothing but a $1200 stimulus check. Maybe you were already trying to survive unhoused, unemployed, and uninsured well before COVID-19 arrived. For some of us, the fears and uncertainties we are experiencing may feel new. For a lot of us, crisis started long before the Spring of 2020. Each day it becomes more clear that the representatives of Wall Street are willing to let masses of people die in the name of their ability to accumulate wealth. And Wall Street has a much bigger voice at present when it comes to how the state responds to the crisis, and what are the priorities. To be clear, the priority is to make the wealth flow up.

“A Poor People’s History of Wall Street” can help bring a historical perspective to our moment. Each history-drenched street corner on this tour conjures the ghosts of the poor and dispossessed who built the world in which we live. Starting with the enslaved black workers who created fortunes for these Wall Street banks, we connect the past to the present. How does the ruling class organize and assert its interests? How have people struggled against the power of Wall Street over history? How has Wall Street benefitted from the strategy of divide and conquer to keep us disorganized and disunited? How can knowing this history help orient the strategy of the organized poor and dispossessed today? Take 30 minutes to walk the streets of Lower Manhattan, along with leaders of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign, as we trace the history of Wall Street. 

No matter where we live, work, and struggle to survive, all roads lead to Rome. Studying Wall Street — past and present — helps us to understand our relationship to each other, and what we’re up against. We encourage that you watch this with your friends, your family, your church, your co-workers, and your comrades. What questions come up for you? We suggest using the following questions as places to start.

  1. Who does Wall Street benefit? 
  2. How does Wall Street operate in society? 
  3. Is the stock market the best way to measure the health of a society?
  4. What’s your relationship to Wall Street? If “all roads lead to Rome”, how can you connect your life and your struggles to Wall Street?
  5. How does the ruling class organize and assert its interests?
  6. How have people struggled against the power of Wall Street over history?