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November 23, 2011

Pitt researchers weigh in on “Occupy” movement

Who does the Occupy Together movement represent? Who are the 99 percent? And what are the prospects for the future of the grassroots movement that has spread internationally from September’s Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York City?

In a Nov. 18 panel discussion moderated by sociology faculty member Jackie Smith, researchers offered their observations on the Occupy Pittsburgh protests and related activism, presenting both scholarly and first-person points of view.

Smith, whose research includes study of the U.S. Social Forum and World Social Forum movements, said the Occupy movement’s activists, in contrast, are mainly young and politically inexperienced. “For many, this is their first real political engagement,” she said.

The Occupy movement is bringing together different streams of activism and communities in a context of high urgency in which many decisions need to be made “by people who don’t know each other, and by people who don’t understand how each other thinks or what their political motivations are, so they don’t necessarily trust each other, and they don’t necessarily know how to work as groups,” Smith said.

“In Pittsburgh, I think some of the stuff you’re hearing about is really this weird context of urgency and intensity and the real need to make decisions collectively without any tools or preparation for doing that and really not even a sense of group identity.”

But Smith expressed optimism about the movement’s future. “I think what we’re seeing is a lot of learning going on, a lot of new networks being built,” she said. “This process of learning and network building is really going to be the big impact of this movement. It’s not going to just go away when the camps get closed or when it gets too cold. These networks are going to endure,” Smith said.

The movement comes at a time of global crisis, serving to expand popular understanding of the problems and of political elites’ failures “for both their implications in the global financial crisis as well as the failure to really address this persistent problem of inequality,” she said.

The influence of social media

Citing recent protests such as the 2009 “Twitter revolution” in Iran and “Facebook revolution” in Egypt and Tunisia, sociology postdoc Alice Mattoni said some scholars argue that social media made such movements possible.

“On the other side, we have other scholars saying that the French Revolution happened and Facebook didn’t exist,” she said.

Mattoni argued that such comparisons don’t present the right perspective from which to examine new media. Rather, she says, the question is how these communication channels shape the movement’s democratic processes and define who “owns” it.

Facebook is being used as a means of communication in the Occupy movements, “but you have to wonder in which way Facebook is connected to the physical space where the campsite has been set up and also the interaction and intertwining of Facebook with other means of mediation and communication,” said Mattoni.

The strong presence of Facebook and web sites on which supporters of the movement can donate money presents a challenge for social movement activists and scholars alike. People who donate feel they are part of the movement, even if they are not physically joining occupiers who have set up camps as part of their protest, she noted.

The integration of these various “spaces” of struggle affect the democratic processes within the movement, Mattoni said.

Is it solely people in the campsites who “own” the movement? Or are those who interact with them and those who discuss the issues online part as well?

Social media also are playing a role in the democratic processes within the Occupy movement’s “general assembly” planning meetings, Mattoni said. Often the events are streamed live online, meaning that “virtual” attendees can comment or ask questions.

In such meetings, she said, the person tending the live stream may relay comments from the virtual viewers to the participants in the room, shaping the content of the session and affecting the democratic process.

Who are the 99 percent?

Sociology graduate student Suzi Wagner, who is involved with Occupy Pittsburgh because she agrees with the broader Occupy movement’s community-mindedness, said one question on her mind, particularly as Occupy expands across the globe, is who are the 99 percent?

In the United States, “it seems pretty obvious,” she said. “If you don’t make a couple million dollars a year, you’re part of the 99 percent if you choose to be. But there’s an international aspect to the 99 percent and most Americans would fit into the 1 percent. … There’s a separation between the 99 percent of the world and the 99 percent of people in the United States.”

Social work faculty member Carl Redwood agreed that global thinking is needed. “The vast majority [of the 99 percent] are not in the United States.”

Mattoni said the “99 percent” label is a catchy and powerful statement connoting internal solidarity that at the same time needs to be deconstructed in recognition of the strong differences within that 99 percent. “This label creates a lot of room for interpretation,” she said, noting that differences relate not only to income, but also to factors such as gender and race.

Smith agreed. “It’s not just about wealth, it’s about political power,” she said.

Decision-making struggles

Wagner said the lack of communication between online Occupy participants and those in the camps begs the question of whose voices matter most when it comes to collaborating on proposals for action. Many people in the camps don’t have access to technology, which contributes to the communication gap.

In a larger sense, reaching consensus has not been easy in the Pittsburgh movement, which has endorsed consensus participatory democracy as the process, Wagner observed.

“There are several different perspectives about how decisions ought to be made and what’s best for the movement,” she said.

“What’s interesting is the conflict between people that are very much endorsing 100 percent rigid consensus participatory democracy versus other people who are suggesting it should be participatory and consensus but only up to 75 percent and that people who are blocking passage of decisions can actually be overruled in the long run because it’s for the betterment of the group.”

In the New York general assembly, a proposal to create a parallel Congress is being negotiated, she said. Although it has not been endorsed, the proposal calls for a male and female representative from each Congressional district to meet in Philadelphia next July 4 for a general assembly in which a statement of expectations or demands will be generated and presented to Congress.

“That’s not participatory direct consensus decision-making, that’s representative. It’s an interesting question how it’s going to play out in the long run,” she said.

The limits of consensus

Smith said the concept of the consensus decision-making process “has been in social movements forever,” but in the case of Occupy Pittsburgh “is being misapplied in this movement or applied without a real awareness of its limitations and the preconditions that are needed in order for consensus to work,” she said.

“Groups need to have a common goal, and that’s not apparent [in Pittsburgh],” she said, noting there is internal tension between anarchists “who don’t want any structure, don’t want anyone to use money,” and the majority “who actually believe those are good long-term goals, but we live in a system that is dependent on these things and if we want to build a movement we have to make some compromises.”

Learning from others

Smith said the movements in the United States have a surprising lack of knowledge about what’s been done in global movements.

“I’m surprised that people who are so active in this movement on the economic inequality in the U.S. are oblivious to the fact that it’s really connected to a global movement that’s been going on for quite a long time, that actually has some good analyses to offer to U.S. movements,” she said.

For a decade the World Social Forum has struggled with creating an open space that is participatory and welcoming to all while ensuring that people who have been most marginalized by existing social structures can participate, she said.

The group’s charter includes the ideal that the people who have been most harmed and excluded by the processes of global capitalism should be privileged. “There’s tension in this idea that you want to be inclusive of everyone but especially inclusive of people that you know have been disadvantaged by this system,” Smith said.

“I think this is the conversation that needs to be had in the Occupy movement,” she said, noting that exclusion occurs in supposedly open practices such as Facebook or webcasting or even in general assembly meetings that exclude people who can’t attend.

In the general assemblies, she’s observed the audience is largely white, young and has more male than female participation. “There’s definitely some exclusion in the process. I think the U.S. Social Forum process has been a model to remedy exclusions in open space. They have a more deliberate process of cultivating leaders from the most excluded groups. They are looking to people of color, women, indigenous groups, to serve as leaders and to guide the movement because these folks actually know how capitalism works and how it excludes people and how it marginalizes,” she said.

“White folks are largely just figuring this out or starting to experience it in new ways, but the U.S. Social Forum puts poor people and marginalized groups front and center, transforming the idea of open space and putting some limits and guidelines on it,” she said.

“I think there’s stuff to learn from other movements but I think there are also some promising developments in the networks that are coming along in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.”


The Occupy movement has been criticized in the media for lacking specific demands, but  Mattoni said demands will emerge over time. “It takes time to construct a public space to learn the rules of discussion and then let the demands emerge.”

Wagner said the problem is too big for any single answer. “When I hear there’s no goal, it bothers me. … I think the goal is to start the conversation about what a list of demands ought to be.”

Smith said, “I think there is a very clear demand for the radical redistribution of wealth and power in this country. It doesn’t fit in the political system that we have. It’s not the answer that journalists want. It’s not the answer that politicians are looking for.”

She noted that Republicans quickly found a way to plug Tea Party ideas into their political agendas, but in the case of Occupy’s ideals, “The Democrats don’t want a radical redistribution of wealth and power in this country, so they’re going to ignore it as much as they can,” she said.

Activists in the World Social movement and U.S. Social movement talk about creating new kinds of politics, Smith said. “There’s not a clear sense of what we need as the alternative, but there is a clear sense that we can think about a process that maximizes the values that the movement has articulated over time: Privileging the most excluded and the most marginalized voices as leaders toward an alternative system that’s not about inequality and that’s not hierarchical, but that can be more equitable.”

She said, “We’re making a path as we walk. We have some general sense of what we’re about. But we don’t know where we’re going and the models that we have, we know are flawed.”

Human rights

Redwood said, “The best set of demands we could have for the Occupy movement is the [United Nations] International Declaration of Human Rights. It gives us a framework of what we’re working around but then we will have to make specific demands related to some or many of those things.”

Smith noted that the language of human rights has been a way for diverse groups within the World Social Forum to bridge differences and discover they have leverage to transform the system. She noted that a planned Dec. 10 Occupy Pittsburgh human rights day action focusing on the gentrification of East Liberty will call attention to the declaration.

Wagner said she doesn’t want to see rights alone as the basis for demands, asserting that the concept of responsibility would be equally powerful in the Occupy movement.

“Not to say that human rights as an idea is a bad thing, but that maybe it needs to be balanced a little bit more with responsibility. What I see as an element of the movement is community-mindedness, which entails not just rights. It’s not just focused on the individuals but it’s the responsibility to your community and the people around you,” she said.

“We all have a responsibility to take care of the people around us because we’re connected. It’s in the interest of the future of the world for us to take care of the people around us.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 44 Issue 7

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