The Occupy Wall Street protest is now in its third week and continuing to grow. A large group continues to camp out in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, near Wall Street, and supporters have launched satellite protests across the country, from Boston to Los Angeles.
In New York, the police seem to have reached a tacit agreement not to remove the protesters from Zuccotti Park, choosing instead to arrest people when they leave the park to demonstrate elsewhere. For instance, when the protesters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday, several hundred were arrested for blocking vehicle lanes.
The International Business Times spoke with Heather Gautney, a sociology professor at Fordham University in New York City, about the significance of the protest so far and where it might go from here.
IBTimes: You've called Occupy Wall Street a leaderless movement. What are the benefits and drawbacks of a leaderless movement? Do you think it is an effective structure?
Heather Gautney: I've written about and been active in the global justice movement, and I think a lot of this stuff is emanating from that. One of the benefits of not having these sorts of leaders was, we said, there was no head to chop off. When you don't have those couple of charismatic people, then you don't have that problem of, if the police arrest your leader or if that person becomes incapacitated in any kind of way, the movement kind of falls apart. That said, the movement doesn't have leaders, but it certainly has organizers, and there are certainly people providing a human structure to this thing. There might not be these kinds of public leaders, but there are people running it, and I think that's inevitable.
[Then there is the] ability to sort of move away from any kind of targeting that police or government might want to engage in. This is another thing that's coming out of this previous [global justice] movement, is that there's a real desire to avoid the hypocrisy that's been present in other movements in terms of recreating authoritarian structures. There's this desire to be radically democratic, to avoid the vanguardism of previous Western movements and to rotate these organizational positions and give everyone an experience of engaging democratically and being part of the decision-making process. There's a real integrity in the actual functioning of the moment, and that's in agreement more with the message of the movement as a democracy.
The drawbacks are, the meetings take forever -- they're tedious and it takes a very long time to make decisions. With any kind of operating according to consensus, it just takes hours to agree on even some of the most minor points, so that can be a real problem. It can be an inefficient way of making decisions, and in protest situations, sometimes you need to have some of those last-minute kinds of processes. Another drawback is that the unity of the message can get diluted. [The protesters are] really making significant strides toward overcoming that problem by issuing lists of demands, but the process by which those demands have been arrived at has been a long, tedious process because you've opened it up to so many people.
You asked if it was effective. In terms of efficiency of decision-making, maybe not, but I do think that there has been in this, Occupy Wall Street -- however the leaderless aspect has been operating, I think it's been very effective in communicating with the media, I think their internal organization has been very effective, and I think they've been effective in generating an energy that we haven't really seen in a while. Time will tell whether or not they'll be effective in actually getting people at higher levels, at mainstream political levels, to actually pay attention to their demands.
IBTimes: You've said that Occupy Wall Street could gain similar momentum to the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, and that's certainly what the protesters have alluded to by saying they want to turn Wall Street into Tahrir Square. What makes you think that's possible?
Gautney: I have ambivalent feelings about it, to be honest. I think on the one hand, the momentum could grow, as in the case of the Egyptian situation. There seems to be this kind of desire to assert power, and I think there are some similarities in terms of the movements' goals of empowering everyday people, even though the systems are quite different. The fundamental difference is with this movement, if there are the same kind of members, they're going to be very decentralized. [There have been] protests in Boston, on the west coast -- there will be these kind of decentralized expressions, but I don't think we're going to see the kind of concentrated, millions of people in one place every day like in the Arab Summer.
There are interesting similarities -- like you said, the protesters were inspired by what was going on in the Arab world, and I think that's significant. Some similarities -- the unemployment rate was about 10 percent in Egypt particularly, and we're pretty close to that here in this country. So while you have dissimilar political conditions, and of course the societies are different, there are some comparative aspects in terms of the kinds of discontent and the kinds of problems unemployment can cause in a society. [And also,] when people are unemployed, they actually have time to protest.
There is that kind of similarity, but I don't think the form is going to be similar. Our country is way too large and way too decentralized to see those large, concentrated numbers.
IBTimes: Both Occupy Wall Street and the Egyptian movement call(ed) for broad, long-term social change, but unlike Occupy Wall Street, the Egyptian protests had a specific short-term goal: to force Mubarak to step down. While Occupy Wall Street has a number of specific criticisms, it doesn't have a concrete short-term goal like that. What do you think would be an ideal outcome for the protesters? What would constitute success?
Gautney: It's tough, because I think you're absolutely right. In the Egyptian context, it was clear. There were social aspects to that, but it was a political movement, and this is -- Occupy Wall Street, I think it's really just starting to define what would constitute success. I think there's an aspect of success in just getting people onto the street in a country where that's not the normal state of political expression. There's success in the fact that you have people going crazy all over the Internet, reading things and actually thinking about these issues and concerning themselves with these issues. I think the media response has been remarkable. [The media is often dismissive,] and I think there is that element, but there's also an aspect of, Hey, this might be something. I think when you capture the imagination of the media and the sympathy of the media, then you have quite the resource. The media is an important part of the way the public expresses itself.
[The movement has had some] successes already, which is probably why there is this sort of audacious quality -- there's this confidence; it's wonderful. They never expected things to grow at this rate and for people to be listening as much as they are. On the other hand, they're coming out with lists of demands, and a lot of these demands that I'm looking at are focused very specifically on policy at the congressional level. Many are focused on reinstituting policies aimed at regulating corporations. When you go down, there it's not like people are saying regulations, regulations, but the demands reflect a desire to see, specifically, Congress step in and play more of a role in revising policies aimed at that. There are also some [demands] based on better aims at prosecuting some of the fraudulent activity and what they're calling criminal activity on Wall Street. If a figure that sort of represents the corporate greed was suddenly prosecuted, that might be a success for the movement. They're interested in seeing some kind of institutional change with regard to the government's relationship to big business.
When you get into that less concrete area, they're interested in seeing significant changes in wealth distribution. I don't think that's something that's not on the list of politicians. [President Barack] Obama himself has talked about the problems associated with the growth distribution -- the very wealthy, a very small percentage of people, having acquired a huge percentage of wealth in this country. People know this is a problem, but what measures are being taken to solve that problem?
[The protesters also want] a revision of the way in which we practice representative democracy in this country. One of the reasons people are out there in the first place is they don't feel there are other avenues for political expression, so they're problematizing that as well. So it's messy -- it isn't as clear-cut, and in some ways that's a fact of having a less repressive situation and having the luxury to be able to demand these things, but it's also a symptom of the economic recession and concern that we're not moving in a positive direction in terms of solving our economic problems.
[There's the] idea of participatory budgeting, with some groups pushing for that to become a practice at least at the municipal level. These protests came out of, at least in part, the budget cuts from [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg three or four months ago, and so I think that that would be something that they would consider a real success, if there could be a way in which budgeting was opened up to the involvement of community groups or to have some kind of public involvement in that process. I don't think it's a popular idea, and I'm not sure that will make their final list of demands, but it's an idea that's been festering, and it's not something nebulous like, Let's have more democracy. It's a real practice that reflects that idea.
IBTimes: One of the main criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street protest has been its lack of specific demands, which some people see as disorganization. Do you think it is necessarily a negative thing that the protest is based on broad injustices rather than specific demands, or that different protesters cite different causes when asked why they are there?
Gautney: In a way it's a strength, because you have people that are able to have different issues that mean something to them, and yet they're able to connect those issues. Most social issues don't exist independently of each other; they're linked to systemic issues. It's a reflection of the complexity of the situation, and there isn't this competition -- and we used to see this -- where my issue is more important than yours, so we can't protest together.
I think they're in the process of responding to that critique. It needs to be -- if the media is going to be the main source of expression, then it needs to be something that can be digested. They're not going to disseminate treatises [on the benefits of socialism], they can't operate like that, and I think that there's a real recognition within this movement that there also need to be concrete ideas, and that these concrete ideas could lead to more significant social change. But unless you're calling for a full-scale revolution, which is often violent ... then you're not going to get anywhere [with broad demands]. While you might have a certain radicality festering beneath the surface, there are people who are concrete-minded or practically minded enough to know that that [specific demands] is probably the best way to be heard and to see some changes occur.
Some of it is just a function of, I think there's so much that these people are concerned with that it becomes so difficult to articulate the complexities, and so I think it's a high standard to hold someone to, to be able to ask them to articulate perfectly. I think that most of the time, when people can come up with sound bites that are palpable and interesting and digestible, it takes time and thought, and I think those things are happening, but they're happening collectively in this very energized environment. The labor unions are very smart about this stuff: We want to tax the wealthy, period. They understand -- they do this public-relations stuff all the time, so they know, but an 18-year-old kid in the park who has been taken up with some of the issues is at a little of a disadvantage in terms of doing media communications.
IBTimes: In the short term, what do you think is going to happen to the Occupy Wall Street protest? Will it grow or shrink in numbers? Will it be broken up by the police? What will the protesters do if that happens?
Gautney: I think right now, the police are sort of of two minds about the police response. They seem to be leaving the park -- allowing what's going on in the park to continue. I do not get a sense that they are nervous about what's going on or concerned, and it is contained. They are charged with containing what's going on in the park. With the splinter marches, there's obviously been a practice of removing people, rather than allowing them to continue and disrupt. When the numbers become larger, if they become larger, that tactic is not going to work, and so that remains to be seen.
It'll be interesting on Wednesday [with the labor march.] You'll have much, much larger numbers of people and a different population of people, people that probably would relate to the police officers as neighbors -- they're in the same age group and kind of a similar demographic, so that becomes more difficult to control, although those people [labor organizers] tend to remain more within the bounds of the law.
[If the movement grows,] the police will up the ante. I get that sense from Bloomberg. But I think that just radicalizes people -- having those radical situations actually draws people in. So the police are a factor, but I don't think they'll have the ability to break it up entirely. I think they can affect sort of the different daily manifestations. But what I do think points in the direction of growth is the Internet activity -- that just seems to be growing exponentially, and it's so easy to touch so many people through these social networking mechanisms, and it seems to be catching on in places outside of New York. I suspect that we're going to see a pretty significant growth in numbers over the next two weeks, but whether those people are going to be able to withstand 30-degree weather and whether they can arrest when they're out on protest marches, I'm not so sure. I'm not sure how sustainable that situation [the physical occupation] is. I'd like to think that even when the activity from the street disappears, now that the ideas are out there being discussed, it might take on a different life.
There's this activity in Europe, and I think that if the people here and if the people there start to make the connections with each other, then you could see it blow up into something really large. But those protests almost always occurred around G-8 meetings or World Bank meetings, things like that -- it's not sustained like the thing that's going on right now. I don't see anything coming along and just wiping this thing out, but whether it'll last and sustain itself over the course of weeks in this sort of physical protest sense, I'm not sure. I mean, nobody knows. People seem very dedicated; I will say that.
Bloomberg cut the police budget, too, and if there's any sector of the police department in the city that starts to identify with these groups in any kind of way, that becomes scary for the administration. You see it in other countries, where the police forces join with the protesters and then you really have a situation on your hands. I don't see that happening, but the conditions are there. It's not like we have a well-paid police force that the administration has really got them as their army. Unfortunately, I don't think the protesters have been doing a good enough job connecting that. In some ways, the police have been alienated when really they should be brought in.
IBTimes: Do you think the Occupy Wall Street protests will inspire similar protests across the country? Do you think it will lead to a national movement? What would that look like?
Gautney: I'm seeing some of that on the Internet. They have Occupy Together, and they'll have Occupy New York, Occupy Boston, and so that sort of networking is occurring in cyberspace. Whether or not that's going to happen in a physical kind of way, I'm not sure. Down at the protest site, there are certainly signs that there have been people coming from other places here to New York. But I suspect that's how that would work. [The Egyptian uprising] was all done by Internet organizing and communication. I think most of that organization will happen on the Internet, and of course that makes it vulnerable to any kind of police infiltration, but this movement seems like it doesn't want to be underground in any kind of way, which is smart.
I think there will be some level of uniformity of demands, although I would also think there would be, in these kind of local manifestations, a reflection of the local politics as well, which I think is the really interesting development. It's a national movement, but because it's decentralized, the demands would reflect local concerns, and they would have to attract people. To attract New Yorkers, you have to be interested in solving the problems that are unique to New York.
IBTimes: Do you think that Occupy Wall Street, along with any related protests or movements it inspires, will affect the 2012 elections? How so?
Gautney: I think that they will affect the conversation. You know, it's clear that this problem of -- they're calling it corporate greed, right, but the problem of the relationship between politics and corporations in this country -- it's already out there, and this just reinforces how problematic that is. It's a real grassroots expression that that relationship needs to change.
I think that politicians whose platforms reflect those policy changes know they'll have a constituency that is going to support them, and that could be meaningful. A guy like Dennis Kucinich now knows there are growing numbers of people who are going to agree with his platform. It also gives Obama a sense that he may need to make some revisions in his programs, and it opens the door for potential new politicians to enter the mix that aren't part of the old guard.
It's difficult, but what this offers is a culture change. Whether concrete demands will be realized is one thing, but there is at least this expression of a desire for some kind of change to take place, and as a politician -- politicians are interested in votes, and this looks like a potential constituency, or at least something that needs to be addressed in debates or development of political platforms. I do think that there is a possibility for influencing the conversation. And certainly, some of the ideas about taxation -- I think with Occupy Wall Street, implicit in a lot of these demands is a kind of tax-and-spend idea: Tax us and tax the very wealthy and spend that money on social programs. That's a political paradigm and a policy-oriented program that a politician could absolutely adopt and implement, so we'll see if that ends up on the agenda.
IBTimes: That's interesting, because it's a tax-focused grassroots message that is the complete opposite of the message coming from the Tea Party. What do you think that clash would look like?
Gautney: A grassroots organizer from the Tea Party was writing to Occupy Wall Street organizers and telling them how much they identified with what was going on, and said that the Tea Party movement early on was very grassroots like this and very critical of government, and that it was co-opted. I can't really speak to the development of the Tea Party, but this person claims there was early co-optation.
[Within the Occupy Wall Street movement,] there are libertarian aspects, but with an eye for social welfare rather than a free-market kind of libertarianism. Ultimately, that's where you're going to see the big clash: who believes in the free market to solve social problems, and people who are really critical of this idea and don't believe the market is going to solve any problems and in fact creates new ones. Occupy Wall Street is not a socially conservative organization by any standard, and so I think there's a very different culture as well.
I think that that would be an interesting clash of opposing ideas, but for me it was very interesting to see someone who had been involved [with the Tea Party] early on see a similarity and an overlap in terms of the growth.
IBTimes: Do you have any advice for the Occupy Wall Street protesters?
Gautney: One of the key components of a strong movement is to have a media presence, because we're such a large and decentralized country, and it's one of the only ways ideas are brought to people. I think social networking and the Internet are important, but mainstream media and maintaining a kind of presence is very important. I think that this idea of creating demands -- they're on the right track, that would've been my advice, and I think keeping an open structure is very important, too.
Once you start to have people emerge as a leadership, then there's jealousies that emerge from that, and people can take over and have too much of an influence on what's being communicated. There are charismatic leaders in these movements anyway, there are intellectuals who've written books -- these figures already exist, but they've been smart enough not to try to run this thing. It's a youth-generated movement, and you don't want a situation where union leaders take over, because that's where all these internal divisions come out.
Also, keep that legal team, because there are going to be all kinds of legal issues as the days go by.
IBTimes: Are there any other movements, aside from the Arab Spring, to which you would compare Occupy Wall Street?
Gautney: It's extremely similar to the global justice movement. A lot of the same people are involved, the way in which they're organizing is similar, some of the demands are similar, and the missing piece is the connection to people in other countries who are experiencing some of the same problems. Once you start to operate on a global scale, then you've increased your numbers, but you've also expanded your perspective, and I just think that was a huge strength of the global justice movement that could be a strength of this movement as well. The strongest similarity is there, rather than these kind of political movements that were festering in the Middle East. [Occupy Wall Street is] much more focused on the socioeconomic issues than on any singular political leader, and those [socioeconomic] systems are global in nature; they're not limited to the United States.