October 13, 2011

A Sociologist Visits Occupy Wall Street

WynnAuthorPhoto1 By Jonathan Wynn

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

I recently went down to see Occupy Wall Street, in New York’s Zuccotti Park. I was interested in what an occupation looked like. The images I saw on the news were of angry mobs and police pepper-spraying demonstrators, but I saw something different.

Initially, it looked like a massive, unorganized crowd. Hundreds of people, and dozens of signs were glutting my view. As my eyes adjusted, I began to see an order.

I first came to the ”General Assembly” (“GA”) at the eastern end of the park. There, charismatic philosopher Slavoj Zizek was conducting a Teach In to a rapt audience. The GA uses the ”human microphone” technique--something like the game of telephone--since protesters weren’t allowed to use an amplification system: a speaker says a brief statement, and it is repeated by people in the middle of the crowd, and again by those at the edges, so those out of earshot, like me, could still listen in.

For example, when Zizek was talking about false consciousness, the crowd repeated it: “They say that you are dreamers (They say that you are dreamers... They say that you are dreamers), The true dreamers are those who think (The true dreamers are those who think... The true dreamers are those who think), things can go on indefinitely the way that they are..." (See some of it here.)

photo-2People speak through “progressive stacking”: a facilitator assures that the voices of women and traditionally marginalized groups are included in GA procedure by design.

Walking around, I noticed that there were taped off walkways, so that people--protesters and gawkers alike--could mill around easily. There was a lot of protest voyeurism, and a lot of passerby-to-protester chatter.

Away from the GA were many disaffected young people with facial tattoos, and homeless men mixed in with dozens of signs, and drum circles. There was a divide between the grad student crowd gathered to hear Zizek and the more rough-looking youth in the western part of the park who were camping out on cardboard and sleeping bags. I asked one twenty-something what he thought of a world renowned philosopher coming to speak at the park. He told me, he had "zero  interest. People come, people go,” he said, “Cameras come and go. I've never heard of him."

I noticed specific zones of activity: a makeshift medical facility, whose workers taped red crosses on their shoulders; an information booth; an elaborate kitchen  area, with volunteers furiously washing dishes in tubs with clean gloves; a media area with a large TV and internet hookup; a clothing exchange where donations were distributed by a woman sorting them by size and gender. I learned that there were over a dozen “working groups” (e.g., the ”Sanitation Working Group”) that make decisions through, and reports back to, the GA.

At different points I bumped into volunteers with trash bags who were looking for debris and checking in with other protesters. The NYPD was stationed at the edge of the crowd, and long-term campers and passersby alike seemed to enjoy asking for the officers’ take on the protest.

Some took pictures. I walked by a man who wanted an audience and since the ethos there was that everyone had the right to speak, and all voices are respected, he engaged in process: He yelled out "Mic Check!" Three people responded: "Mic Check!" He said it a second time, and ten people responded, to which point he had gained the sizeable audience he desired, and spoke of keeping the park clean. photo-3

I chatted with a young man from Florida, protesting to give voice to the people in his hometown. He had a sign that connected the protest to drug legalization  and featured a Mercedes-Benz symbol instead of a peace sign.

Across the street was the real circus. Standing on the sidewalk seemed to guarantee a media interview. My friends and I were talking about avoiding media, for fear of being edited into incoherence, and yet we felt a sense of responsibility to say something positive.

Pierre Bourdieu, France’s one-time public intellectual, was deeply concerned about scholars who were willing to speak without a learned grasp of the issues, yet he was constantly badgered for interviews. (For more, read On Television.) During our conversation a BBC correspondent approached our group and began asking questions.

As I took the subway back uptown, I wondered how this social movement was different from others I’d seen on television. I wondered whether or not their communication system was unique, and how their organization reflected OWS’s political message. I wondered if the media representations that focused on the conflicts or the appearance of many of the young people at Zuccotti Park distracted from their official position, or how well organized that crowd really was.

Through conducting first-hand observations, what social scientists call ethnography, we can learn more about this story, beyond the news accounts that sometimes highlight the unusual, rather than typical experiences of participants.


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Jonathan, I appreciate your observations and sociological reporting. Cable news representations have been predictably simple. I like your point about media focus on the appearance of protesters being a distraction. It didn't take long for media outlets to stereotype protesters as relatively well-off college educated youth who are reliant on technology but reject the capitalist system that produced it. Some media have framed the activity as "Tea Party of the Left." There has to be more to it than simple representations and soundbytes. Thanks for providing nuance and a different view of things.

I liked the way you incorporated the different types of people in the protest because the media usually only shows the bums protesting. Your blog post informed me that the 99% are everybody fighting against the crash of the stock market. I liked the way you emphasized on the volunteers cleaning the park. This shows that the protesters are actually reasonable and understanding. By cleaning it shows that they are not looking for anarchy. But instead they are protesting for a better life style, a better future for the children and most importantly not for it to happen again. Thank you for informing me about the situation at Wall Street

"I liked the way you incorporated the different types of people in the protest because the media usually only shows the bums protesting."

I agree. As a supporter and active participant, I'm often dismayed at how the protests are portrayed (in media in my hometown). On the ground, I've seen and spoken with a diverse crowd.

Thanks for the great article!

Give it time, Jonathan. It's been my experience that the "leaders" don't generally show up until the "masses" show they're in it for the long haul. Enjoyed the article.

"Foreclosure of American Dream By Wall Street"

- Nalliah Thayabharan

Wall Street is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises, gambling, bets and rampant speculation. Wall Street doesn’t manufacture or produce anything. The Wall Street however attractive it may appear is built on paper.
Modern day bank robbers are at Wall Street but they wear grey suits and not masks. Rampant speculators, propagandists and financiers of Wall Street are given some unfair advantage over the average consumers and taxpayers and the cumulative effect of the people watching selfishness prevail over the public interest has been an undermining of the public’s trust in the present US government. There’s no question the Wall Street is rigged against the average consumers and taxpayers. The Wall Street has a lot more information. Wall Street jerry-rig the system so that Wall Street always win. If the Wall Street loses trillions, the US Treasury will bail the Wall Street out so it can go back and do it again.
50 trillion dollars in global wealth was erased between September 2007 and March 2009, including 7 trillion dollars in the US stock market, 6 trillion dollars in the US housing market, 8 trillion dollars in the US retirement and household wealth, 2 trillion dollars in the US individual retirement accounts, 2 trillion dollars in the US traditional defined benefit plans and 3 trillion dollars in the US nonpension assets. Greed, arrogance and incompetence created a massive meltdown, cost trillions, and still Wall Street comes out richer and more powerful.
There are trillions dollars of new money taken again from Americans to make deals and hand out outrageous bonuses. And when these trillions run out Wall Street will come back for more until the dollar becomes junk. The value of the US dollar declined very significantly during the last 70 years. The value of the US dollar in 1940 was worth 2,000% more than the value of the US dollar now.
Many big US manufacturers are outsourcing to Mexico and China to increase their profits, adding more unemployment in the USA. Manufacturing jobs in the USA declined 37% between 1998 and 2010. Since manufacturing industries declined in the USA, the US competitiveness in the global marketplace is also declined.
The demise of Glass Steagall act helped spawn the credit crisis by allowing the US Banks to reinvest money that was not theirs; they gambled; they failed; they passed down the burden to the people.
The top 6 US banks had assets of less than one fifth of US GDP in 1995. Now they have two third of US GDP. The financial crisis was created by the biggest US banks to consolidate power. The big banks became stronger as a result of the bailout by the US Treasury. The big banks are turning that increased economic clout into more political power.
Oligarchy is the political power based on economic power. And it’s the rise of the Wall Street in economic terms, that it’d turn into political power. And Wall Street then feed that back into more deregulation, more opportunities to go out and take reckless risks and capture trillions of dollars.
Wall Street only has the lobbyists. Today more than 42,000 Wall Street lobbyists manipulate USA's 537 elected officials with huge campaign contributions that fund candidates who support their agenda. It no longer matters who's the President of USA.
Since the heads of Wall Street and their representatives are afraid because they don’t have the substance or the arguments, they will not come out and debate with the people who occupy the Wall Street.
The political and economical leadership of the US has chosed to cartel profits and transformed the US economy to serve the colluding and unlawful oligarchy. The political and economical leadership of the US is bailing out failed paradigms with trillions of dollars while committing social injustice to its people. The political and economical leadership of the US including the US Congress have now become Wall Street's "Trojan Horses". The US banks are borrowing money at near zero interest from the US government, then lending it back to the US government at even mere fractions higher interest than they are paying. The net interest margin made by the US banks by lending the money back to the US federal government in the first 6 months of 2011 is 210 billion dollars.
Due to the oligarchs’ rapacious looting and their purchase of a politically protected luxurious lifestyle, the people of the US are on the road to permanent serfdom under a police state. The democracy was not given to the people of the US on a platter. It is not theirs for all time, irrespective of their efforts. Either people of the US organize and they find political leadership to take this on or they are going to be in deep trouble.
The failure of governance to address the current critical issues have already produced catastrophic consequences. Now we are experiencing a major global paradigm shift and it is still unfolding.

Enjoyed this piece a lot.
Particularly noted the Mass Media's influence on how Occupy Wall Street has been portrayed. What you describe seems to be far from what makes it to the news, how sad.

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