What Occupy Wall Street Says About Protesting in America

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Postal workers cheering on a small group of Wall Street protesters that joined their rally on Houston Street.

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.