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Penn faculty talk about what lies behind the Occupy phenomenon, what may lie ahead, and what the recent spate of protests across the political spectrum portends for the republic.

BY TREY POPP



To go by Penn’s campus calendar—or the nation’s unofficial political datebook—the main event of October 21, 2011, promised to be an installment of the Wharton Leadership Lecture series. The scheduled guest was US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who planned to talk about income inequality.

It didn’t quite turn out that way. Word had spread the previous day that a group of demonstrators from the Occupy Philadelphia encampment near City Hall planned to march to Huntsman Hall, where, joined by a group of Penn students, some intended to attend Cantor’s lecture. When that word reached Cantor’s office, the Republican Congressman canceled his speech.

“The Office of the Majority Leader was informed last night by Capitol Police that the University of Pennsylvania was unable to ensure that the attendance policy previously agreed to could be met,” Cantor spokeswoman Laena Fallon wrote in an email several hours before the scheduled lecture.

University spokesman Ron Ozio politely took issue with that characterization, responding in a statement that the Wharton Leadership Lectures are “typically open to the general public, and that is how the event with Majority Leader Cantor was billed. We very much regret if there was any misunderstanding with the Majority Leader’s office on the staging of his presentation.”



As events unfolded, Cantor’s cancelation did not remove the subject of economic inequality from the campus’s discussion agenda. When several hundred protesters turned up outside of Hunstman Hall to find that Cantor had backed out, a contingent entered the building anyway. Inside, as captured by videos later posted on YouTube, a confrontation ensued between the self-annointed “99 percent” and students who looked down upon them from the mezzanine balconies.

There were no physical skirmishes, but plenty of chanting. The Occupy crowd—holding signs whose messages ranged from “Join Us” to “$old Out”—shouted slogans including “Ain’t No Power Like the Power of the People” and “You are Us!”

Students on the balcony for some part looked on quietly, but some also chanted responses like “Get a Job.” One student brandished a poster reading “Get in Our Bracket.”

In the weeks after the episode—which was brief and more or less orderly, if also marred by sophomoric behavior that reminded one Wharton professor of Marie “Let Them Eat Cake” Antoinette—Gazette associate editor Trey Popp spoke with University faculty from a wide range of departments, from finance to history to communications, about the Occupy phenomenon. Their perspectives were as varied as their areas of expertise, and they addressed a lot of questions. Is Wall Street really too powerful, and how would one know? Is economic inequality inherently bad? What are the historical parallels of Occupy Wall Street? What role has violence played in past American social movements? Why did American media start off by ignoring the phenomenon—while Arab channels zeroed in on it from the beginning? Their answers still seemed relevant as the public occupations ended in late November, and participants began considering what might come next. In the spirit of inter-disciplinary teaching, here are the most interesting parts of those conversations, woven together into a re-engineered seminar on Occupy Wall Street’s historical precursors, political implications, and possible trajectories.

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The Participants:

Steven Hahn, Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History
Walter Licht, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History
Michael Katz, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History
Rogers M. Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science
Daniel Gillion, assistant professor of political science
Janice Bellace, Samuel A. Blank Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics; professor of management; chairperson of the Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department at Wharton
Gregory Nini, assistant professor of finance
Jeremy Greenwood, professor of economics
Michael X. Delli Carpini C’75 G’75, professor of communication; Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School

Occupy Philadelphia was mostly centered around City Hall, but members of the movement marched to Huntsman Hall in October for what turned out to be Eric Cantor’s non-speech.

 

 


 

 
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