What Occupy Wall Street Says About Protesting in America

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Postal workers cheering on a small group of Wall Street protesters that joined their rally on Houston Street. (Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Chrystia Freeland, global editor-at-large of Thomson Reuters, and Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of Letters to a Young Activist (Art of Mentoring) and The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideal, discuss the ongoing Wall Street protests and offer their analysis and advice about how to create a movement and coherent argument for change.

With hundreds of protesters taking up residence in Zuccotti Park for a second week of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests and investigations into police brutality toward protesters, New York City seems to be following in the footsteps of recent movements in Madrid and London, lashing back at capitalism and the perpetrators of the financial crises. The protest raises interesting questions regarding legitimacy, movement building and democracy, and draws inevitable comparisons to both the Tea Party movement of the US and the democracy movements of the Arab Spring.

Gitlin said the approach of asking protesters one-by-one what the movement is about will yield a variety of answers, but that doesn’t mean the movement is without purpose.

People are asking the wrong questions…They think that a movement is the sum of all the individual motives but that’s not true. A movement is a collective phenomenon…The whole is more than the sum of the parts.

He said that it is overreactions to movements which often most serve to galvanize them. In this case he said, the movement changed from a minor protest to a large-scale demonstration after the pepper-spray incidents and the establishment media’s dismissive treatment.

Now, whatever else people disagree about, they can agree that the pepper spray was a vile overreaction, and that if the media are sneering at it then there must be something to it.

Gitlin said we’re living in a time in which it is very difficult for a movement to gain notice. Yet the most ingenious movements recognize the art of what he calls “a judo action—they take something that the opposition does and they try to bend it into an affirmative action.”

Freeland agreed, adding that one important aspect of the protest is the different approach it seems to take from most recent social movements.

Particularly on the Left, you had a real shift from grassroots movements…to NGOs and think-tanks who were very focused on the elite… who defined their job as being influencing the elite conversation… On the Right, [you] had quite a different strategy, partly that kind-of think-tank, elite funded elite conversation, but also.. you had the Right building up grassroots movements around things like homeschooling, around things like evangelical churches. And you haven’t had that happening on the left… and that has made the Left a lot weaker.

Yet, she said, under the current political landscape, that paradigm may be coming to another shift-point.

I think America is ripe for a grassroots movement on the Left.

Gitlin pointed out that this movement, by nature, is one with no defined leaders to offer a single narrative, an observation with a clear parallel to the current governing situation in Egypt.

In a situation of leaderlessness, what happens is that leadership is tested. People who think that they are leaders try it out. People argue with them, counter-leaders appear. This is frustrating for reporters, but it’s an indeterminate situation.

A caller drew comparisons to the “Obama phenomena” and the Tea Party, suggesting that there is nothing new about the protest, that it is, in fact, a continuation of the political pendulum swings of people’s frustration against government.

You’re trying to make it sound like, oh, this something new – “this is Lady Gaga” as opposed to Madonna.

Freeland said while the comparison is an important one, the fundamental economics to which people are responding now are different. The American middle class, she said, “are getting hammered”, while income inequality is skyrocketing.

I think the reason we’re seeing such… populist anger, really, expressed on both the Right and the Left, is that people see that... they understand that. And where I don’t think we have a national consensus is okay, what’s the answer?

Gitlin took issue with some of the comparison to the Tea Party, calling into question the grassroots legitimacy of a movement so well-funded by conservative operatives.

The Tea Party was not only spontaneous, there was also an apparatus – the Freedom Works apparatus, Dick Army, Koch brothers money, all kinds of money to come in and invest in this grassroots thing.

Freeland agreed that the elite money quickly taking control of the Tea Party was an important factor, and added that another crucial element for both the Tea Party and the Arab Spring demonstrations was television.

For the Tea Party that was Fox, for the Arab Spring that was Al Jazeera. What you had happening was a real cycle of the grassroots and the TV working together.

She said with Fox and the Tea Party, the station actually became a tool of the movement, with the television channel announcing upcoming movements. The current Wall Street protests, she said, lack that relationship, leaving a still-unsymmetrical media relationship between the Left and the Right.

The asymmetry may also extend to the potential successes of the two movements. While the Tea Party produced a slate of particular demands, the Wall Street protest is still working on forming consensus about goals. Gitlin said the current economic situation does not lend itself to any easy answers.

Freeland speculated that the protests have likely had little effect on their intended targets, as the elite in the US tend to isolate themselves from public opinion. While people become more angry with growing economic inequality, the richest still tend to see America as largely a meritocracy where people believe they deserve what they get. But she believes the wealthy may soon be in for a wake-up.

The fact is that inequality is greater now than it has been at any time since just before the Great Depression, in the 1920s, and as facts have changed I think social attitudes are going to change, but I don’t think that’s registered with the people on the top.


Chrystia Freeland and Todd Gitlin


More in:

Comments [46]

Shop For Tea

Tava tea is becoming very popular all over the world as people are exposed to information about its high antioxidant content and the way that it helps you to lose weight and burn fat. Many people use this drink to lose weight, and it has also been shown to help clear up your skin. Looking over the tava tea reviews, it seems like a lot of people are hopping on the bandwagon to agree that it was useful for them.

Oct. 13 2011 05:38 AM
Marie Ellen from New Jersey

We visited the Occupy Wall St. protest yesterday, Sunday, afternoon. Although there was a mixed bag of sentiments expressed by hundreds of signs on display on the ground and held aloft by some protesters, there is a determination to make the voices of the heretofore unheard, heard. Lots of young people were present, which is so important. They are the progressives who will intensify the conversation and hopefully, clarify the rhetoric on the right. If you're a construction worker in Brooklyn, and you want work, you don't vote for Turner. You vote for Weprin who will support (we hope!) Obama's jobs plan. Too many U.S. citizens have swallowed right wing Kool Aid. It's time to change that.

Oct. 03 2011 10:41 AM
Eric from Brooklyn

Toward the end of the segment both speakers make important points about how the Tea Party gained a foothold in national politics. Ms Freeland points to the big Rightwing donors, i.e. Kochs, Mellon-Scaife, Coors, who funded the ‘tea party’, and then how established rightwing political operatives, such as Dick Armey, recognized the opportunity, and moved quickly to co-opt the movement and set its political agenda and strategy; there are several books about the genesis of the tea party and there are only 6 or 7 organized groups.
Mr Gitlin pointed to the critical role Fox News’ played in the summer of 2009 by providing a daily [even hourly] platform on national TV... gradually the other MSM stations had to cover the ‘social movement’. Without a national TV platform or organized funding sources, it is unlikely that any organized progressive movement can take hold.

Sep. 30 2011 08:40 AM
Gerrymandering undermines democracy. from Screwed Enough Already (SEA Party)

Gerrymandering threatens the fundamental principle of representative democracy that the government should reflect the will of its people. Via gerrymandering, a MINORITY of the population can create a STABLE SELF-REINFORCING SUPERMAJORITY for themselves in the government.

Gerrymandering would allow a minority of the population to take over Congress (and state legislatures). Pennsylvania is also trying to apply these techniques to the electoral college - so that they could also
subvert and control the Presidency (via giving the electoral college votes to the winner of the most DISTRICTS in the state).

To see how this can be done, please see
the following simplified example ... :

Three districts A,B, and C.
100 voters.
Majority in a district wins the district.
Two parties :
X has 60 % of the voters nationally.
Y has 40 % of the voters nationally.
(X has a supermajority of support in the population).
District Allocation :
34 Voters from X, 0 from Y. (X wins district A)
13 Voters from X, 20 from Y. (Y wins district B)
13 Voters from X, 20 from Y. (Y wins district B)
Results :
TWO THIRDS of the legislative seats go to the minority party Y.
All districts are quite stable - "safe seats" - with a high probability
that the outcome is known in advance. Each party's favorite for their
safe districts will almost surely be elected.
Party Y can continue to use gerrymandering to subvert democracy
since it has a supermajority of the legislative seats.
It is unlikely that this will change unless Party Y loses its
ability to poll districts and gerrymander accordingly.
Party Y can also starve Party X and its supporters of resources
(and perhaps of rights) since it controls two thirds of the

As we can see, gerrymandering poses a severe potential threat to democracy.
The Republicans may use this to artificially capture a majority of the House, and even the Presidency. Incumbents in both parties may use this to make sure their jobs are secure and they never face a real threat to reelection - essentially silencing the will of the people.

Sep. 29 2011 06:25 PM
Bob from Manhattan

Occupy Wall Street? I still don't even understand what the point of this is. What does sleeping in a park downtown accomplish?

What is that these people want? An end to the banking system? Seems kind of extreme to me. If they want to end fraud on Wall Street surely there must be a more effective way to advocate for that than sleeping in the street.

Sep. 29 2011 06:05 PM
Robosigners perjury vs mom's mistatement for kid from Screwed Enough Already (SEA PARTY)

Robosigners commit perjury to STEAL people's homes for the PROFIT of the Banks. They get a slap on the wrist.
Banksters companies might get a small fine to give back some of what they stole.
Bank execs are not punished AT ALL personally for STEALING PEOPLE"S HOMES.

Contrast this with the poor mother in OHIO who wanted to get a better and safer education for her child and mis-stated some info - SHE gets charged with FELONY PERJURY!

This is ridiculous - I guess the only crime in America is being poor. There is no justice it would seem under the law for the wealthy, well connected and powerful who are TOO BIG TO FAIL. They can perjury themselves, incite others to perjure themselves for their profit, steal people's homes and get away with it.


OHIO had robosigning scandals where bank execs induced flunkies to perjure themselves to help the bank execs profit from stealing OHIO CITIZENS' home.
This prosecuter who ignored THESE offenses to beat up on a poor defenseless mother who just wanted a good and safe education for her child - this prosecuter

Surely, the public representative of justice should show more fairness and discretion in who (s)he prosecutes - or they should experience unemployment first hand.

I hope the OHIO governor will consider firing this prosecuter.

I hope NPR will name and shame this person.

We have plenty of law, where's the justice ?

Sep. 29 2011 06:03 PM
Laurie Spiegel from Lower Manhattan

It's a mind blow that you didn't make the connection between the protests at Liberty Plaza and the following discussion of campaign financing, which is among the many issues being discussed and protested at Occupy Wall Street, and that you are looking for the kinds of preforumlated top-down agendas, mission statements and demands statements that would characterize a protest set up by a pre-existing organization (Tea Party, MoveOn etc.).

Instead, please try thinking "Arab Spring in the US" and "This is an intolerable situation. We don't know what we want but we know we don't want this." Then think bottom-up organizing via social networks and that the first step to finding a solution will be found in getting people together to talk and letting their ideas intermingle and compete.

This video summarizes it well:

Sep. 29 2011 11:50 AM
John A.

BrettG has reminded me of the RNC'08 -- Thank-You. That lead to this page: , which is causing intermittent fascination, with embarrassed LOL's interspersed.

Sep. 29 2011 11:20 AM

Another piece of the puzzle for the newsroom.

On wage theft from employees & how non-enforcement/regulation of corporations, etc. have affected the economy.
for John A. on penning - it's used to be that saw horses to allow sidewalk & traffic movement were enough to maintain order. Then Giuliani brought in the French metal fences with disastrous results some instances [125th ST rally where the closest subway stations were closed & the crowd could not disperse fast enough to satisfy the PD]. The hand-held fence/net is a new twist. It doesn't look like an improvement, now.

Sep. 29 2011 11:06 AM
Edward from NJ

@Marcos: WNYC = 9692

It's kind of unseemly to complain about being marginalized based on your ownership of a smartphone. It seems like you have internet access, so you could have googled this. Try searching for "phone keypad letters". Also, if you're actually at the protest with hundreds of people, someone there must have a phone -- an iPhone perhaps -- that has letters on the keypad.

Sep. 29 2011 10:54 AM
so and so

What an exasperating segment. Todd Gitlin, with all due respect to the left of his time, gave a stale and uninformed account of this burgeoning and--yes--new! style of democratic movement. He doesn't seem to notice that the amount of people this is stirring to action, and the radical inclusion that is the corner stone of the direct democratic process being practiced and taught at Liberty and all over America. He doesn't even know that these are springing up across the nation.

His comments were speculative and isn't that kind of ignorant, lazy and arrogant thought what got us in this financial and social mess in the first place?

Sep. 29 2011 10:52 AM
John A.

Can somebody post a link to the NYC philosophy of penning-in and why its necessary and not an outrage to free assembly? I'm not trying to provoke, I'm trying to understand both sides.

Sep. 29 2011 10:51 AM
james from manhattan

What exactly do the occupy wall street protesters want to achieve other than just be angry at a boogie man that may or may not exist? If there is a list of goals to be decided on, will one of those goals be to make sure people don't take out mortgages that they can't pay back? Because that is the real reason for the state of our economy, not the bankers.

Sep. 29 2011 10:49 AM
marcos from the Bronx

WNYC: What is your call in number in numbers?

Community: can you help with this? People with a qwerty keyboard on their phones can't find a number based on letters like wnyc.

Please, let's tell the hosts to stop using this unhelpful and marginalizing practice.

Sep. 29 2011 10:41 AM
Marcos from the Bronx

Occupy Wall St's objectives are clear:

1)"We are the 99% that want our country back from the 1% percent who stole it from us."

2) It is a radical democratic mobilization, ie "leaderless" people are free to participate as they feel moved to.

3) We view the rights to free speech and assembly as absolute rights, not conditional rights.

4) We are inspired by the use of a protest encampment as the center for organizing as used in the "Arab Spring/Arab Renaisance"

Lastly, I am very offended by your approach to this segment. Because
1) If you want to hear from the movement, we are capable of choosing a representative to go on your show.
2)You can find the main we are the 99% goal, and much more very easily by going to or by visiting Liberty Square.
3) I personally, have not been able to call in because I haven't been able to find the number, 212 433 WNYC is useless for many people today with typewriter type keyboards.

Please repent from these offenses, by doing a little more homework, having on a rep choosen by the movement, and announcing the numbers in your number!

Sep. 29 2011 10:31 AM
Stefanie Weiss from West Village

Where is Rachel Maddow on this? Is management at MSNBC not allowing their stars to talk about the movement? Is anyone pushing her to go down there?

Sep. 29 2011 10:31 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

American elites don't get it. They don't understand that (fairly or not) the American population will eventually turn on them if this gap in wealth continues to grow.

Sep. 29 2011 10:30 AM
Katherine Jackson

The Tea Party and the Anti-Wall Street Movements are apples and oranges -- the difference between the Tea Party movement and the anti-Wall Street movement is that the Tea Party is funded by big donors and supported by Fox BECAUSE the Tea Party movement is IN THE INTEREST of corporate America and the Wall Street movement is NOT, in fact if it grows, it will constitute a genuine threat to corporate forces. There is big money to made by a powerful Tea Party pushing for deregulation, reduced taxes, etc.

Sep. 29 2011 10:30 AM
Howard from Bronx

This is happening because Obama said to the bankers "I'm the only thing between you and the pichforks" HE should have been carrying a pitchfork!

Sep. 29 2011 10:29 AM
John A.

If OccupyWallStreet unifies with Hackers/Anonymous then this country is going to go into FBI lockdown. Try to keep it peaceful guys.

Sep. 29 2011 10:29 AM
Robert from NYC

Kristia's great education certainly paid off. She is the tops (even though she often angers me) I don't know anyone as smart or articulate as she is.

Sep. 29 2011 10:29 AM

Bring back mutton chop mustaches. Only thing that's missing in U.S. from Gilded Age is the costume.

Sep. 29 2011 10:28 AM

What is she talking about?.. the people at the "top" and corporations don't care and will take as much as they can until the people say enough. It's not complicated.

Sep. 29 2011 10:28 AM
gary from queens

Public employee unions and George Soros fund these protests and the ones in Egypt.

Every movement has its funders.

And Rush Limbaugh NEVER encourages demonstrations or boycotts. your guest is wrong.

What he's thinking of was "operation chaos"---in which he simply urges Dems to vote for Hilary. but not do any protests.

Sep. 29 2011 10:28 AM
Robert from NYC

Yes that comparison between FOX and MSNBC that often happens is just not congruent. They are not exactly what one would call opposites. Correct MSNBC has not jumped on this with maybe the exception of Dylan Ratigan (bless him) and posibly Ed Schultz (don't know because I don't watch him). But point is that MSNBC is not the FOX of the left. In fact where has Rachel Maddow been on this! Nowhere. Very odd indeed and disappointing. In fact I hear more reporting about republicans on that station (Chris Matthews [twilight zone music here] for example) than I hear about the left! The man spent an entire hour jabbering about Romney, Perry, Palin....

Sep. 29 2011 10:27 AM

what part of 'end the war. tax the rich' don't you understand?

Sep. 29 2011 10:27 AM
cwebba1 from Astoria

I was downtown on business last night and so I went to see the protest. I had to look for it. The students are penned within a park, isolated from the Wall Street area where white-collar fat-cats can be seen guzzling wine in their restaurants, as usual.
The students are a media decoration. That's OK. What is needed is external action, a response organized on a large scale by all elements of society. What can I do? Everyone in your business – take an organized action. Invest time and money into the dialogue.
I saw one kid with a Ron Paul shirt and an anti-patriot act sign. It's that easy to hijack the message. I am thinking about what I can do as a contribution. It is not necessary that my action take place there. I can do it anywhere.

Sep. 29 2011 10:26 AM
brian from midtown

Why has the media given the tea baggers an opportunity to voice their ignorant, parochial opinions and not given the Wall Street movement a voice at all?

Sep. 29 2011 10:25 AM

the last caller made an excellent point about going down to FiDi and seeing/hearing what is being done, which you could have taken deeper. But instead, you flipped to the Tea Party???? jeez, are you trying to top Brian's work yesterday for the worst show ever????

Sep. 29 2011 10:25 AM
The Truth from Becky

You have to be allowed to peacefully protest without the fear of getting tazed and or killed by the law enforcement,the supposed "peacekeepers".

Sep. 29 2011 10:23 AM

It wasn't raining in Tahrir Square.

Sep. 29 2011 10:23 AM

Also, one protester was caught on tape saying that this is beyond Repub or Dems -- that the two legacy parties are so enthralled to big money that they are both creatures of Big Corporations and Big Money.

These people want to create something which will work for the "rest of us," the non-wealthy, the 99 or 95% who are not reaping the rewards of buying off our politicians.

I know this is astonishing to those who are in that top 5, maybe even top 10% earners, and to MCMers (members of the Mainstream Corporate Media) whose livelihoods depend on access to power, but, really, the American middle class has been stagnant in actual buying power for the past 30 plus years, and now is actually losing ground more rapidly.

And it's getting very hard to maintain that middle class, even lower middle, life. And the Dems seem just as bent on protecting rapacious banksters as the Republicans.

Sep. 29 2011 10:22 AM

Gosh another NPR station questioning whether there's a movement instead of investigating the broad range of issues being protested & HOW they link together to tell the stories of the past 30 years & how changes since 1981 have destroyed our economy, shredded our social fabric.

Ms. Freeland is correct in her comments on the DC Bubble people. Being out of touch is fatal for politicians and their advisers.

Fatal = loss at the polls.

Go for substance, not the "form" or the "visuals"

Sep. 29 2011 10:22 AM
john from office

Spoke to the guy that owns the Subways and the local food stalls, they love this, lots of food sales. Also, cops love the overtime, it is a full employment act for NYPD.

They are stimulating the local economy.

Sep. 29 2011 10:22 AM
Fuva from Harlemworld

Substance is critical. And critical to it is information; that the stand being taken is informed.
But form also matters. "The movement" needs to be mindful of what devices resonate -- devices that, of course, don't compromise the substance.
"The movement" too often fails on both counts, because it too often can't be bothered with the unsexy work these require.

Sep. 29 2011 10:21 AM
Edward from NJ

With the Tea Party "protests" of the past couple of years, it may be that the media have forgotten what an actual protest looks like.

Sep. 29 2011 10:20 AM

This is the reason we occupy in NYC and around the country:

We are just getting started:

Sep. 29 2011 10:20 AM

Even though the Wall Street demonstrations are not a bad thing, the point would be far better made if those protestors took to Washington, making their presence known, not so much in front of the White House but in front of the Department of Justice and Capitol Hill.

Sep. 29 2011 10:20 AM
Jacob from Brooklyn

I was down there the other day. To me, it seemed like there were a lot of disillusioned Obama supporters from '08, not a lot of the same old lefty types.

Criticize if you want, but what are you doing?

Sep. 29 2011 10:19 AM
john from office

Saw a guy with multiple tatoos, a nose ring and dreadlocks with a sign that he wants a job. Start with GROOMING DUDE. Spoiled slackers.

Sep. 29 2011 10:17 AM
clif from Brooklyn

I've joined the protestors in spirit and have been staging this protest for over 20 years.

What makes America different than the Arab countries whose dictators are oppressing their own people who are protesting for a better life?

We are no better than they are. Furthermore, the powers that be "...have lost their claim to legitimacy..." in light of their violent & oppressive actions against the peaceful protestors.

The whole point of protesting is that is disrupts the everyday flow of American life and gives people pause to think about what's going on. To force protestors to get permits, follow guidelines, etc... is to de-fang the protest and render it a public spectacle with no real power.

This is America people! If we cannot peacefully protest when, where & how we want than our constitution has been drastically compromised. Furthermore, if American social & political life is truly equal for all, then the need for large-scale protests should be little to none.

Also, what about the Tea Party!? They are the most radical & violent group of protestors out there.

Sep. 29 2011 10:17 AM
Mark Read from Brooklyn

The message is evident in the form and location of the action itself. Meaningful democracy for the 99% and real accountability for the 1%. Its the same thing that people are standing up for in the Middle East and in Europe.

Sep. 29 2011 10:17 AM
marcos from the bronx

What is your number in numbers?

Sep. 29 2011 10:13 AM
Robert from NYC

I don't know what all the questions are about! Is the media that stupid that you don't hear the protesters? They're protesting the fact that "Wall Street" hasn't paid for the ruin of our economy and they should be held responsible for many aspects of the financial and economic failures they caused. They include many aspects of the economy and financial institutions and they are all represented under the one umbrella. Does that confuse the media?

Sep. 29 2011 10:12 AM
gary from queens

I'm confused. why aren't the protestors rallying at the white house? Obama is the one bailing out one business after another. He gave wall street a big thank you present by signing into law the toothless Dodd Frank bill.

You protest the guy who is taking your money and giving it to other people. no?! And these protestors don't have to buy stocks or mutual funds. i don't. And taxing every penny of the people on wall street wont be enough to run the gov for more than a few weeks.

And finally, what happened to the Democrat idea of uniting americans, and to stop the hatefull bickering? --gary

MSNBC, Lawrence O'Donnell, has done a great piece spinning what is actually occurring. If you can stomach it, you can watch the 9 minute video here:

Sep. 29 2011 10:08 AM
john from office

Some observations:

Was walking down Broadway and was asked by a young blond guy, who was intoxicated, if I was going to the demo on wall street, turns out he was there for the last three days. A movement is not a chance to party

What is the point of the nudity??

Susan Shrandon was there for a few hours and then left for ITALY!!! Another great progressive, limo liberal.

Sep. 29 2011 10:08 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by