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They’ve Occupied—Now What?

Teach-in looks back, forward at Occupy movement

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With less than 24 hours left on a restraining order barring the city from evicting Occupy Boston protestors from Dewey Square, BU professors and students met Wednesday evening to discuss the origins of the Occupy movement and the likelihood that it would have a lasting impact on society. The movement, which began in September with a small encampment of protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park, spawned dozens of camps in cities across the country.

In Boston yesterday, a Suffolk Superior Court judge extended the protestors’ temporary restraining order until December 15, making Dewey Square the site of the nation’s longest running occupation. And while many Occupy camps in other cities have been cleared by police in recent days, the spirit, and the language—“We are the 99 percent”—of the movement are very much alive.

At Wednesday’s teach-in, which was attended by about 30 people and hosted by BU Occupies Boston at the College of Communication, professors argued that any lasting influence would depend on new legislation based on the movement’s demands, and on the effectiveness of leaders who might emerge from the movement.

Walter Fluker, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership at the School of Theology, applauded the movement for its “horizontal and directly democratic structures.” But he stressed the importance of having central figures associated with it in making real change, citing the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) on the civil rights movement.

“It’s a necessity to begin to think about leadership,” said Fluker (GRS’88). “It’s high time we begin to rethink how we perceive that conversation.”

Discussing the movement’s roots, Susan Lee, a College of General Studies senior lecturer in social sciences, said the Occupy movement sprang from frustration with a widening economic gap between the wealthy and the poor. She cited data from the Congressional Budget Office showing that between 1979 and 2007, the incomes of the top one percent of the population have grown about 277 percent, while those of the lowest fifth have grown only about 18 percent.

“When there’s so much money stuck at the top,” said Lee (GRS’03), “money does not circulate, and it slows our economy down. That hurts everyone, but it hurts the poor most of all.”

David Lyons, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of philosophy and a School of Law professor of law, agreed that the growing gap between the rich and the poor is a large part of the problem.

“Inequality undermines democracy,” said Lyons. “It undermines our ability to have an impact upon the political system, and that’s a problem.”

Cathie Jo Martin, a CAS professor of political science, suggested two political steps forward to achieve the Occupy movement’s goals. She advocated for replacing a two-party electoral system with a proportional representation system, which would allow more opinions to be expressed in Congress. She also favored a larger public sector, in the model of Scandinavian countries.

“The big public sectors in these countries are actually great sources of support of crises and engines of economic growth,” Martin said.

Ruha Benjamin, a CAS assistant professor of sociology and African studies, said the Occupy movement came to life because “people are rejecting the unspoken structure of our society.

“While the elite get to put their feet up, somehow the front rooms of government and the good life are not meant for everyday people who actually built the house,” she said. She described the movement as “a critical mass exodus from dens and backyards, kitchens and bedrooms, to the front room, peeling back the farce for a transformation of the status quo.”

Event organizer Anna Kelsey (CAS’14), a member of BU Occupies Boston, said she hoped the discussion would “spark more of a dialogue on campus,” especially with insight about the movement from professors.

“We’ve succeeded in establishing what the problems are,” she said. “We’ve reached people, and people are thinking about it. I’d like to see it move in a direction that takes more action.”

Allison Thomasseau can be reached at althoma@bu.edu.

10 Comments

10 Comments on They’ve Occupied—Now What?

  • Concerned user on 12.02.2011 at 6:32 am

    Could we talk them into occupying BUWorks?

  • Nathan on 12.02.2011 at 8:51 am

    Rejecting a call for leaders

    You don’t need leaders for a true grass roots movement – a recent example is national Marijuana reform. No one really cares about the leadership, they just care about the progress. – The OPPOSITION to Occupy wants leaders so they can demonize and corrupt them. The deliberate choice to keep the movement organization and goals democratic is a strength, not a weakness.

    Tired of the question “What next?”

    The media loves to ask questions like “What next?” The answer is that of all grass-roots movements – continue doing whatever works until sufficient results are achieved. The question is usually based in fear “Will they turn violent? Will they disrupt my daily life?” I don’t mind that some arrogant people living their life with a sense of entitlement are now feeling fear – but then I’m not as nice as the Occupy protestors.

    • Paul on 12.02.2011 at 11:38 am

      Until the movement has a platform and a leader, it is just going to be a mob-ocracy of college kids and post grads who are ranting about how tough life really is. Collective think and Mob-ocracy is a weakness, not a strength.

      • Post grad on 12.02.2011 at 10:00 pm

        Paul, friend; turn off the TV. Have you been to Occupy NY? Boston? DC? I have. I’m afraid you’ve fallen for the media’s mischaracterization of this cross section of the citizenry as young, dumb, and entitled.

        Second, the absence of a face-person does not always signal lack of leadership, though from the beginning, i have suspected dr. flaker is right: identification of the movement with some of the many humane and articulate individuals who are a part could help overturn some of these simple-minded stereotype and take things to the next level. For me, the human microphone is too reminiscent of fight club groupthink for public consumption.

        Finally, there is and has been a platform from the outset: 1. holding white collar criminals accountable and 2. campaign finance reform to get money out of politics. Achieving the measures of social justice and substantive economic rights you claim college kids are whinging about can only follow the rectification of procedural democracy and criminal justice.

  • KC on 12.02.2011 at 10:29 am

    Agree with Nathan on the leader not being necessary, but a leader can certainly be very effective. In fact, I think the question of the leader needs to be answered before the movement can move much farther.

    As Nathan said, the national marijuana law reform is driven by tons of people’s collective desire and consequent cooperation–there’s not one spearheading figure. The problem is, there are certain higher-ups in drug policy reform who definitely care first and foremost about getting credit. Getting famous. Being known as “the one that legalized marijuana.” I’ve met these people. You jeopardize your good intentions as soon as you start thinking of the results as they affect you, and only you. That is one of the main problems that we face with leadership. It’s a position that can be so easily abused that we would have to absolutely ensure that an Occupy leader would meet all the requirements that Martin Luther King, Jr. had as a leader.

    A leader must also be passionate, but more importantly, he or she must be able to *separate* their passion from their cause. To be able to view things as dispassionately as they do passionately. Passion presupposes subjectivity, and this movement *must* be based in love for every human, not what each individual person believes is the best way for it occur. This leader must constantly be aware of the “greater good.”

    So I wonder if electing a leader, or a group of leaders, is even possible or worth the risk.

    But I also wonder if it’s necessary for the movement to actually affect the status quo, and not just people’s minds.

  • Valentin Voroshiliov on 12.02.2011 at 10:40 am

    The “Occupy” movement will not affect anything until there will be formed a clear short-term goal and a clear long-term goal.
    As a short-term goal it could be stirring up peoples’ awareness of the current country economics, and being a strong counter arguer to (most of) active republicans. For example, devouring their ideological clichés on “redistribution of wealth”, “job creators”, etc. Money = power. Redistribution of money = redistribution of power. The democracy had been hacked by financial institutions and they – via most of the republicans – do not want to giving up the power they have gotten over the decades of lobbing.
    As a long-term goal it could be transferring the small negative movement into a large positive one, i.e. aggregating and consolidating people who want to push for the reforms similar to the ones done after the first grate depression (“new depression => new reforms”).

    • Paul on 12.02.2011 at 11:37 am

      I disagree with you here. Democracy has been hacked by all major institutions, ESPECIALLY large scale unions like the ACLU, SCIU, AFL-CIO. They corrupt government just as much as the corporations do. So to say the republicans are the bad guys is blind.

      Frankly, big government reaching its hands into the economy, in major ways, has failed in the past, like in the Great Depression. During that period we had a double depression and really the only thing that pulled us out was WWII and all the jobs in R&D that created.

  • Z on 12.02.2011 at 10:53 am

    Having read and understood the above comments, I first and foremost applaud the idea of at least steps being taken to discuss how to ameliorate the government…the fact that Greece’s massive public sector partially brought DOWN its economy is another issue…However, I guess I still feel confused over the blame game and the actual desires of the movement…what is it that people actually want? No one has said this in a concise, uniform manner! No one!!

    • Nathan on 12.02.2011 at 11:48 am

      The world is not a concise, uniform place. Both problems and solutions are nuanced. There is more to reform than a slogan.

      That doesn’t mean simple concise reforms are not positive. ONE person made a concise appeal to create Bank Transfer Day. The day happened and was news arround the world.

      One University Police officer in Davis California made a unique decision to pepper spray a line of sitting, peaceful protestors. It was news arround the world (the ripple effects may continue.)

      The concise slogan “We are the 99%” has been effective. It clearly communicates that WE (You and I) are the movement. NOONE else will do your part for you. It is a personal choice what part we will play in the history of this country. 99% of us ARE the 99%. We are the Occupy movement. Like it or not, we ARE the 99%.

      Make your own concise statement. You have access to both physical and virtual megaphones. People are listening. Do you have something to say?

      • Nan on 12.02.2011 at 5:36 pm

        Did you see the number of people attending. 30, so I would not say they represent 99 percent of the people. The event started as something, but unable to get people involved, or define their issues, it is now fizzling. It isn’t that they don’t have a slogan, it is because they don’t represent a majority. They have the right to protest, however, they don’t have the right to say they represent all the people.

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