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Staying Occupied

December 28, 2011

In the weeks since the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protesters were rousted from Zucotti Park, spin-off encampments in California, Europe and elsewhere have been similarly evicted.  Yet the OWS movement continues to gain traction, and its core concerns continue to dominate the headlines.

At the BMCC campus November 11, barely a half-mile from the OWS epicenter, a panel of 10 faculty members from the Department of Social Sciences and Human Services offered a wide range of scholarly perspectives on the OWS movement. Organized and chaired by Political Science professor Geoffrey Kurtz, the two-hour “Occupy Social Science!” event drew a capacity audience of more than 125 students, faculty and others.

“We’re here today to ask, ‘What is the meaning and significance of these protests?’ Kurtz said in his introductory remarks. “In fact, it may be too soon to know, but it’s not too soon to start thinking about it and talking about it with one another.”

The panelists offered perspectives and observations drawn from their specific scholarly expertise—“insights and tools that we may find useful in parsing the implications and lessons of OWS,” said Kurtz.  Each panelist spoke for five minutes and afterwards fielded questions from the audience. Excerpts follow:

Rose Kim (Sociology)—Despite widespread assertions that the protesters have achieved nothing concrete, “the fact is that they have shifted the dominant discourse from an obsession with the national deficit to questions of social inequality and the importance of meeting human needs,” Kim said. “Today, our common focus is on inequality and human cost—and I am grateful to OWS for causing this shift.” OWS, she added, “isn’t just about each of us getting a bigger piece of the pie; it’s about questioning the pie itself.”

Jacob Kramer  (History)—Barack Obama has compared unfavorably with Franklin Roosevelt, who was similarly elected president at a time of profound economic turmoil,  Kramer noted. “Roosevelt is credited with organizing significant programs of mass employment and public works, while Obama has focused energies and resources on bailing out banks and corporations,” he said. “Admittedly, Obama is no Roosevelt—but Roosevelt was no Roosevelt either when he started out in 1933. He adopted these policies only in response to massive public pressure.”

The first round of Roosevelt’s New Deal “involved setting price and wage standards for various industries. Compliance was spotty and unemployment remained high. So Roosevelt launched a second New Deal, this one comprising the Works Progress Administration, Social Security, public works projects, mandated bargaining rights for unions, and a massive effort to stimulate employment.”

But Roosevelt was pressured to champion these initiatives by grassroots demand, Kramer noted. “Hopefully, Obama will act similarly,” he said.

Angie Beeman (Sociology)—In its earliest days, OWS was largely informed by what Beeman referred to as “color-blind ideology”—a subtly racist approach “that differs from other racist ideologies in that it rests on the seemingly positive belief that we all have the same agenda and are fighting for the same things.”

Color-blind ideology suggests that “talking about racism will be divisive and break us up,” said  Beeman. “In other words, if we walk our walk, we don’t need to talk the talk. But we have to address, not ignore, racism, and resist the notion that talk is cheap.  

There are many disparate groups within the 99%, defined by race, gender, sexual orientation, and age, and they are affected differently. We’re not all the same.” Happily, OWS appears to be moving away from its original color-blind approach, Beeman said.  “I think what we’ve seen so far is promising.”

Jamie Warren (History)—For Warren, OWS is illustrative of the power and deceptions of “historical memory”—the way people, as a group, collectively remember the past.  “Like personal memory, historical memory is continually changing, filled with contradictions, and rich with clues about morals and values systems.”

It is often invoked to give credence and justification to political causes.  In the case of OWS, the occupiers have called up memories from two major historical events—the civil rights movement and the American Revolution. “The civil rights movement was truly a movement for liberty and racial and class equality,” Warren said.

But she was troubled by protesters’ incorporation of “Don’t Tread On Me” signs and quotations from Jefferson and other founding fathers. “OWS is about achieving economic justice and getting the rich to pay their fair share,” she said. “But many of the revolutionaries were wealthy, elite white men, committed to not paying taxes and all too willing to push the burden onto poor frontier families.”

The same men who led the cry for freedom against English tyranny “denied the poor the right of representation, manipulated government bodies to their personal advantage, and enshrined the institution of slavery. We can find better heroes.”

Deborah Gambs (Sociology)—Twitter, Facebook and other social media figure importantly in OWS. "But is their impact overstated?," Gambs asked. “In his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, new media scholar Clay Shirky writes that social media are creating entirely new kinds of connections between people and providing ways to organize horizontally instead of hierarchically.”

But as author Malcolm Gladwell sees it, “social media only facilitate weak ties without providing a way for everyone to participate in democracy,” she noted. “Gladwell argues that the civil rights movement was based on strong ties that required people to take significant risks. To participate meaningfully in that kind of movement, you need a tie much stronger than Twitter or Facebook offers.”

Gambs saw validity in both arguments. “You may have heard the term ‘slactivist’—a person who sits in front of a screen and joins the ‘Save Darfur’ group on Facebook but does nothing beyond that,” she said.  “Slactivists can’t create change, but that doesn’t mean Facebook can’t help groups that are committed to making change.”

Ron Hayduk (Political Science)—OWS didn’t arise in a vacuum, Hayduk noted; earlier social activism movements helped pave the way—most notably, the anti-globalization movement, which originated in Seattle in 1999. “These were large-scale protests, aimed at shutting down the World Trade Organization meetings,” he said. “

Like OWS, the movement was global in scope and comprised took direct aim at corporate power. But there are important differences.” For one, the anti-globalism movement targeted world summits of bodies like the WTO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank rather than Wall Street.

“They also engaged in direct-action civil disobedience and property damage,” he pointed out. “In contrast, the OWS is wisely committed to nonviolence. Their refusal to supply the police and the media with the images of broken windows and street fights they crave has helped them generate growing support.”

Roger Foster (Philosophy)—“What marks our current historical moment is a crisis of individualism,” said Foster. “In the U.S., the current notion of self-reliance is underpinned by the idea than an individual’s success is always of his or her own making and that the only obligations we have to others are ones that we contract into.” But at this moment in history, the foundations of that myth are crumbling, he said. “First, there is the lack of social mobility; indeed, the U.S. has one of the lowest levels of social mobility of any western nation.

Second, there is the stagnation of wages, which has been a reality for most working people since 1970s. Today, the idea of making it on your own doesn’t jibe with most people’s experience,” Foster said.

More than ever, individuals are dependent on societal and government institution to sustain public life.  “The failure of our response to two explosive events—Katrina and the 2007-8 financial crisis—brought that home,” he said.

Maram Hallak (Psychology)
—“Would you risk your life to defy authority in defense of your beliefs?” That question, Hallak explained, was posed by a student.  “I had asked for suggestions as to what to speak about today,” she explained. “My students all wanted to know what is one expected to do in the face of oppression? Are you supposed to stand up and fight? Should we all join OWS?”

Oppression, she said, is as pervasive today as it is insidious.  “Here in New York City,  we are more oppressed than people in many Third World countries. Occupy Wall Street? We need to occupy everything that has given us problems—the banks, the phone companies, the transit authority, the oil industry.” Civil disobedience is essential, she said.  And the answer to her student’s question was an unequivocal “yes.”

Fabian Balardini (Economics)—OWS is essentially “a natural outcome of the crisis of global capitalism, which has been building for many decades,” Balardini said. “It’s a crisis with two main aspects.

First, there is global capitalism’s destruction of the social context in which an economy is supposed to be formed—its human capital and labor resources. And there is also the destruction of the natural context, impeding us from sustaining our natural resources.”

This has resulted “in a failure to establish a society in which we can all equally share the benefits of economic growth.” The evidence of that failure is abundant and multi-dimensional.  “Since 1970, average household income growth for the top .1% of the U.S. population has been 390%. For the top 1%, household income has increased by 225%. For the rest of us, there has been virtually no income growth at all.” And compensation for corporate CEOs today is 243 times greater than that of the average worker.

Matthew Ally (Philosophy)—As a scholar of philosophy, Ally said, he has noted that “there are all sorts of ways we use to keep ourselves isolated from others—whether it’s the way we arrange the chairs at a meeting, or confining ourselves to our automobiles. Two people go on a date that involves sitting in a movie theater and then going home without really interacting.”

But there are also things that bring people together. A case in point: OWS.

“One of the things that has most fascinated me about OWS is that it is truly a group in fusion. I have been involved sporadically in the movement at Zucotti Park and in Philadelphia and have observed moments when people come together in a way that is more than a mere collective. OWS is spontaneous, horizontal, and, as Deborah Gambs noted, organized without an organizer: The groups accomplish tasks without any real central planning.”

Will OWS remain that way? “Ideally, yes,” Ally said.  “But its participants will need to avoid the slippery slope to becoming a more organized, hierarchical institution, which has often been the fate of loose groups.”

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  • Ten faculty members from a wide array of disciplines take part in “Occupy Social Science!”
  • Note similarities and contrasts with other grassroots movements
  • All agree that OWS has positively impacted the quality of public discourse

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