From the Issue: Columbia Occupied

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Illustration by Eloise Owens

Be on the lookout for the December issue of The Blue & White, which will be arriving on campus this week. In the meantime, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting features from the upcoming issue. Such treats include a breakdown of Barnard’s budget woes, a look at Columbia’s proposal for a new engineering campus, and the politics of space in Lerner. Below, find the transcript of our interview with Todd Gitlin.

Columbia Journalism School Professor Todd Gitlin first immersed himself in protest culture when he got involved with New Left political activism in the 1960s. After a stint in the underground intellectual and writing culture, Gitlin turned to academia, becoming a prominent public intellectual and prolific author. He has recently asserted himself as a prominent and informed voice in the debates about the Occupy Wall Street movement, upon which he is currently writing a book. Gitlin recently found the time to sit down with Blue & White contributor Anna Bahr to discuss the trajectory, politics, and core values of the movement.

The Blue & White: In the last month the majority of media attention on the movement has been more focused on police brutality than what Occupy Wall Street has actually been accomplishing. Do you think the shift in focus has negatively affected the purpose of OWS? Can you comment on the vilification of the police force?

Todd Gitlin: Right after the eviction [from Zuccotti Park], I was hearing a lot of indignation and outrage about the police tactics and [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg. That was about two and a half weeks ago and it seems to have faded. In the conversations I’ve had since them with people since then, with people who had been deeply involved, there wasn’t that much about the police. They rolled up their sleeves and started to address other issues.

In terms of the outer impression, it probably looks to people who have not been paying such close attention that the big story is this collision, the confrontation. That always happens whenever there’s violence—that’s what happens.

B&W: Has the public and media attention on instances of violence detracted from the effectiveness of the movement’s other efforts?

TG: My judgment would be yes. It comes with the territory. There’s something so visceral about structured, patterned violence. It tends to become the central structure of a story, no matter what it is. People find themselves preoccupied with the tactics that were thrown up in front of people rather than the larger thrust of the movement.

However, I wouldn’t assume that this diversion lasts. All this is part of the process. If it really is as absorbing, if it does touch on such deeply held emotions, as I believe it does, then the popularity of the movement rises and falls, but the movement is sustained.

B&W: That may be true, but can emotion really be enough to carry the movement? It seemed like the
protesters in Zuccotti were actually losing steam until Bloomberg cleared the park, which conveniently revitalized the movement just before the cold set in…

TG: You’re absolutely right. I have yet to meet somebody who thinks that the movement was thriving before the police arrived. The general consensus—in fact it’s unanimous—is that Bloomberg actually rescued the movement from some difficulties.

B&W: There was an immediate impetus to occupy another physical plant after Zuccotti was closed down, that manifested itself in the occupation of the New School.

TG: Sure, and that’s one thing that people talk about. I’m sure it will happen, but it won’t be a single locus. It’s highly unlikely that there will be a center. If for no other reason than that lower Manhattan doesn’t really offer it—there is no candidate [for a space].

It’s been two and a half months and the idea that there is a movement is installed in the culture now. Some of its phrasing is commonplace now, “99,” “1 percent,” and there are these networks that are organized projects. Obviously the Internet makes it easy for people to feel involved in something… It seems to me that there’s a critical mass of the activists who are thinking about the next phase—beyond next week.

Movements always have problems of self-maintenance and growth and questions of what to do for an encore. Some people will want to try to create a social equivalent of the kind of community that they experienced in Zuccotti Park. Maybe they will find substitute locations. Maybe there will be a proliferation of them. Maybe they will find interior locations to occupy or to utilize. That will be one component.

Then, at the other end of the vectors of ambition, there are the revolutionaries who see this movement as a launch into some sort of ongoing revolutionary movement that stands a chance of transforming the world. Then there’s a very large ground that lies somewhere between those poles that runs a gambit between people who want to keep the focus on particular economic-centered actions like focusing on certain banks, government regulations, or the need for taxing financial transactions; there will be some who want to play a part in political life in the longer run, and others who want to avoid being co-opted by the Democrats.

B&W: That seems like a fundamental inhibitor to the progression of the movement, though. How can a group that makes decisions based on consensus ever decide on a specific issue to delegate its attention and efforts to?

TG: There won’t be! This movement really is decentered. But these working groups are not just rhetorical. They exist, they have specialized functions and they’re doing their things. That’s what makes it possible for a great range of orientations and activities to coexist. They will go one coexisting. They will be disgruntled, and there will always be people who think the old structure needs to be restored or that one activity is interfering with another, but those are normal tensions within a large movement. And it is a large movement that incorporates several cultures at once—and not just different demographics. That is built into being a large movement.

B&W: But none of those tensions could prove significant enough to fracture the movement?

TG: There are people who think cooperating with unions is a sellout, because they’re hierarchical and stuffy and they don’t want to go out to the streets. On the other hand, there are people who think that only when you maintain working relationships with such groups do you have a substantial political presence. But I haven’t heard anyone warning of fragmentation. If there were major outbursts of violence, I could see some serious cleavages developing, but so far, that hasn’t happened.

B&W: One of the elements of OWS that has been posited as a success of the movement is that it works outside of the political process while forcing politicians to react to its actions. Yet public discussion of the movement among elected officials has been relatively limited. Do you think it needs official recognition by government?

TG: The movement reasonably appraises its prospects as relying on their ability to sustain an independent identity. Not in a formal organization, necessarily, but even among the most reformist members of the movement, I don’t think there’s any desire to see the movement collapse into a support squad for the Democrats. The thrust of the movement is to have an independent identity.

I haven’t heard anybody advocate that the movement become partisan. All the movement rhetoric is against that. Nonetheless, it is a force in society. In this ongoing argument about how Occupy is not like the Tea Party, the Tea Party from the beginning had a symbiotic relationship with the Republican apparatus.

It all boils down to different attitudes toward authority. The Tea Party people, even in their rambunctiousness, tend to be respecters of authority. The left is not. There couldn’t possibly be an equivalent of Freedom Works or the Koch brothers for the Occupy people.

B&W: Does it seem like the demographic makeup of the actual occupiers has shifted? The majority of occupiers seemed to initially be young, white, male, educated, and jobless. Now there is a significantly larger homeless contingent.

TG: Some people are saying if we can’t welcome the homeless then we’re worthless. Others are saying, yeah we’re for the 99 percent, but the homeless aren’t the 99 percent; they are a fraction of the 99 percent and we have to keep our eyes on the prize, which means curbing the power of the plutocrats and changing the structure of the political economy.

B&W: But has that presence changed the movement’s legitimacy in the eyes of the media or the public?

TG: It probably weakened it. Then came the police to rescue the movement from that image. It wasn’t so much homeless people as such, but criminality, drugs and violence, especially against women [in Zuccotti]. And now it won’t be so easy to tar them with that brush now that the tents are gone.

B&W: I want to go back and touch on police presence. Obviously, it is crucial that there be a police force at major protests to maintain order, but there is also value in disrupting stability to criticize political institutions. What is the appropriate role for the police in these situations? Should there be a confrontational element between dissenters and police forces in social movements?

TG: I’ll give you the weasely answer—it all depends. There’s certainly a moral factor for the more militant people in the movement. The trick for a social movement that practices civil disobedience is to avoid demonizing itself in the eyes of people who are not yet committed, but open-minded.

Secondly, all of these movements are theatrical, and the challenge is to perform for a large audience that, in no small part is people who are uncommitted but troubled by the current economic and social conditions and don’t know why they should take this movement seriously. Those people need to be convinced that something can be accomplished. Those people won’t be thrilled by streets being blocked. Those people want to see that something concrete can be won, not necessarily confronting the police, but getting legislation passed.

Andrew Cuomo has recently reconsidered his objection to the “millionaire’s tax.” I think the movement can take credit for that. The movement needs to be able to take credit for such phenomenon. Also, if it can actually change bank policies, if it can help people who have been dispossessed, that proves its reputation with the larger public.

There are forms of direct action that optimize the look of movement as being a movement on behalf of the general good. There are also forms of the movement that center on disruption that detract from it. There are debates about which is which. We will probably see varieties of both types.

B&W: Do you see OWS as still being in flux? That is, does it still have the potential to look different a month from now than it did a month ago? Or has it reached a plateau in terms of its presentation and strategy?

TG: All movements are constantly influx. Occupy Wall Street has already learned so much from itself. It’s already polymorphous and various. There are a lot of activities going on that don’t make splashes in media. That will continue to be true through the winter months.

I would guess that the pattern has been set since the evictions will continue for a few months. But when the spring comes around I’m sure… there will be people who want to renew the bigger, more conspicuous occupations. And the police and politicians will have something to say about how they develop, too. If the occupiers are met with cannon shots of pepper spray, which is what the New York Post recommended, that will produce all kinds of reverberations. If the police are more genteel and accommodating, then something else will happen.

B&W: Occupy Wall Street has anarchist roots. How do you think the anarchist ideology has contributed to the success of OWS’ attempt to create a genuine democratic assembly?

TG: It’s contributed a lot. The whole notion of self-regulation and self-management, the disdain for formal authorities, the suspicion of leadership, the confidence in the capacities of people to govern themselves through direct democracy—those are time honored anarchist ideals. The impulse toward horizontality seems very powerful in this movement. Not everyone is enamored with these general assemblies—not everyone thinks that all the work of the movement can be done through them, but the default position of the movement is anarchist. That has been the central cultural tradition of the left for most of the last 40 years; it really is now the norm.

B&W: It seems like a movement without an official speaking head and without a formal way to address “the people” or the public. So far it’s successfully held onto its multifaceted, though officially undeclared, mission. But are those horizontal tactics really sustainable without an identifiable leadership?

TG: The mission is to arrest the power of the plutocracy. It doesn’t have to be officially stated. What does it mean to say we are the 99 percent? I’m not saying there’s no function to leadership, but it’s obvious what this movement is about. Not in its particulars, but in its thrust.

I’m not saying leaderlessness works for all purposes. The movement does need to institutionalize itself. It needs to be a regular feature of public life in order to have an enduring impact. It needs to constantly generate activity, constantly find work and meaningful place for new people so even if you’re [casually involved] there’s some work you can do to sustain the movement. That needs to be done in such a way that the structures are responsive to people’s desires, but also capable of growth—also conducive to both enlargement and responsiveness to the variety of claims.

Not everybody is an anarchist; not everybody has the same view of the total corruption of the political system. All people have to feel there is space for them in this movement. How it could conceivably come to pass that there’s a generally agreed upon leader… that’s a scenario I find it hard imagine.

The media has a tendency to step in when there are no formal structures and certain people become celebrities, but this movement is highly averse to that process. What would be the scenario by which
someone tried to place him or herself in that position and would be both a celebrity in the media’s eyes and a legitimate leader of the movement? I don’t see it. Not impossible but it would require a wrench in the spirit of the movement. So, I think it’s going to rumble along just as it is now.

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  1. blue and white

    used to have better interviews with bigger-name people (ira glass, anyone?) what happened? is that the editors' fault or did you guys do something to make them mad?

  2. Anonymous  

    Wonderful interview.

  3. Anonymous  

    great illustration, Eloise!

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