Recently the Occupy protesters in Oakland clashed with that city’s police force. A veteran of the Iraq war was severely wounded in the head by police, and later some protesters destroyed property downtown. Historically, what role has contentiousness and violence played in American social movements?

An important one … If you look at [the] very critical time from about 1935 through 1945, when you get the organization of 10 million workers—8 million in the mass-production industries who had never been touched by organization—and they made accommodations to a world of large-scale institutions, that didn’t come along easily or prettily. It did involve some pretty violent confrontations. You have the sit-down strikes and battles in the automobile industry. You have some really violent actions in the steel industry, at Ford. So there was a background to mass organization and the potential for violence there. And then you have instances where there are corporate leaders who want to escape this, who recognize they can achieve some peace on the shop floor by meeting with these new union bureaucrats. And they would retire to the hotel rooms to work out these large-scale negotiations. But always, in the background, there’s that potential of people taking to the streets.

What do you make of the way the mainstream media in America have covered the Occupy protests?

Delli Carpini:
I’d say that it’s followed a very, very traditional and typical pattern. First it ignored it. And I think you could understand that at one level, because it was unclear about how big this was, how important it was going to be. But it’s also telling, I think, that these kinds of grassroots protests tend not to be considered newsworthy unless something special happens. And I think you could see that even with The New York Times’ local coverage … If they do get coverage, it’s usually not because of the protest, but because of some conflict or violence or other dramatic incident that is attached to it. And I think you could see that with the first major coverage being when the police allegedly overreacted, and a pepper-spray incident which was pretty clearly an overreaction.

What’s behind the tendency to focus on things other than the actual substance of the protesters’ grievances?

Delli Carpini:
When you ask journalists and reporters and producers why it doesn’t get more coverage, they will tell you, in part, that [the OWS participants] don’t have a clear-cut agenda or goal. And they don’t have a clear-cut leader or spokesperson. And that I think is a reflection of the news media, not of the movement. They don’t have a single spokesperson because that’s by design. They have a kind of a decision-making process and a structure that is a little bit on the edge of anarchy, but is designed to be more consensual, democratic, more flat than hierarchical. And the fact that the news media doesn’t know how to deal with that is, I think, the problem of the news media, not of the organization or the movement itself.


Some observers have noted that while American news outlets were slow to cover the Occupy protests, media outlets in the Middle East paid attention from the very beginning. Do you think that shows some kind of connection, in style if not in the substance of the demands, between the so-called Arab spring and what’s happening here?

Delli Carpini:
Absolutely. I’m not an expert at Arab media. But I know that Al Jazeera, which is available in the United States and highly influential in the Middle East, has treated the Occupy Wall Street movement as one of the stories that it covers in the context of all these other, more Middle East-organized demonstrations, protests, revolutions. And so even when you go to Al Jazeera [online], you can click on what’s going on in Libya or Egypt or Yemen or Syria, and what’s going on in the United States. And so it puts it in a context of something happening that seems pretty broad.

And while I do not want to compare the United States to the repressive governments of the Middle East, nor do I want to suggest that this movement has the same legs or the same intensity or the same set of purposes as the movements in the Middle East, the parallels are not completely outrageous. And it’s interesting that protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt—again, this is based on just my reading, not on any kind of a formal study—more quickly got more regular coverage [among American media] than the protests here in the United States. And I think that is one of the blind spots of the mainstream media … Mostly, what happens in the US is [considered] more newsworthy than what doesn’t. But when it comes to things like protests, those protests seem more newsworthy when they’re somewhere else than when they’re here in the United States oftentimes. And so it’s an ironic kind of situation.

Occupy Wall Street has been criticized by both sympathizers and detractors for lacking a specific demand or articulating concrete proposals. What do you think?

It is a weakness. If there were a more clear focal point, I think the protests could be still more effective. But I also think it’s wrong to dismiss them just because people with a diversity of concerns have chosen to protest. I don’t think that there’s any real question that the central concerns are joblessness and heightening economic inequality.  That core set of concerns comes through. And in every political movement, or political protest, there are a lot of people who show up for other reasons. If you tried to prevent that from happening, you’d never have a movement at all.

Katz: In my view, most of the really important social changes that have been legislated by state legislatures and Congress since the 19th century have been the result of social movements. They’ve originated outside of Congress. Abolitionism, for instance, or temperance, or the civil rights movement, or the women’s movement, or the anti-war movements. They began as social movements and then in a sense they became so powerful that they were able to influence legislative action and decisions. Each had a clear goal and purpose, and I think it had more organizational structure—or at least a series of existing organizations that took the lead and worked together. In those ways, this OWS seems to me quite different. And I wonder why. Partly I think maybe in the United States this is the first great movement of the digital era. Because there are now ways of mobilizing, keeping in contact, and spreading information instantly and with astonishing rapidity, a capacity that never existed before. And certainly young people seem truly adept at using them.

I guess this is what people wrote about in Egypt. Maybe the nearest precedents for these are not in US history, but in the movements we’ve seen since the spring in the Middle East.

You want to be able to express some sort of grievance—that’s what’s most important … If we look at this from a historical standpoint, at times protests were spontaneous reactions to events—that sometimes spiraled out of control. Take the situation with the Rodney King riots, for example. We call them riots, but they still fall within the borders of protest—at least Maxine Waters in her Congressional district viewed them as protests. That’s something that was spontaneous. People were wondering, What’s going on here? Why are they going around destroying things like this? They have no message! Who are they targeting? Maxine Waters rightly picked up on [the idea that] this is what has occurred among racial and ethnic minorities in this community in terms of unemployment … She introduced various bills to address minority unemployment—and actually, [President George H. W.] Bush came out and implemented an executive order called the Weed and Feed program, where they would try to weed out various negative aspects of the community and feed in more money. Now, you can’t say the protesters had in mind, when they went out rioting, that the president was going to put forth this executive order that would improve the employment situation for racial and ethnic minorities. I doubt that any protesters would have thought that, but nevertheless you can attribute the successes to these activities that took place. And you might see that with Occupy Wall Street. They might get various fiscal policies that they’re not specifically expecting.

Hahn: I think many movements historically have begun when a small group decides they’re sick of this, and they’re going to protest in some way, shape or form. Most of them go nowhere. Most don’t attract a lot of attention. And most don’t necessarily have the staying power to do much more than make a limited fuss. But at certain moments they attract other people and begin to grow, they form organizations; they begin to talk about what their political visions are. Sometimes they can’t agree, and collapse. Sometimes they can agree. Even abolitionism, which is one of the great movements in American history, in some ways began with people in many different contexts feeling that there was something really wrong and they had to do something. And it took them a long time to develop institutions and coherent politics, [and] develop themselves into what we would call an abolitionist and antislavery movement. It didn’t happen overnight. But it started in the same way, with people who were suddenly morally offended, either because of their religious views or because of a new sense of humanitarianism, and they first needed to find each other. … While most episodes like this don’t go anywhere, all phenomena that do go places start like this.


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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

By the beginning of December, OWS encampments across the country had been cleared by authorities.




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  ©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 12/23/11