The NYU instructor and author discusses his new book, The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement.
Author Michael Gould-Wartofsky
Tavis: Michael Gould-Wartofsky was one of the first social scientists on the ground at the start of Occupy Wall Street when the first protestors gathered in New York’s Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011.
He has since written a new text that examines the Occupy movement, its spread into nearly 1500 towns and cities, and its national impact on progressive politics. The book is called “The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement”. Michael, good to have you on the program.
Michael Gould-Wartofsky: Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Why did you want to write this? What do you want us to get out of it?
Gould-Wartofsky: I’m part of a generation that I call the children of the crisis. We are a generation that, you know, has really felt the effects of the crisis firsthand.
And I thought that this was a place where, you know, a lot of these movements that I’d been a part of and also had studied as a sociologist had come together for the first time, had found a point of unity and then had been very violently broken up. And I wanted to understand the making of the movement and also the unmaking of the movement.
You know, why it was that when people came together in a movement in defense of democracy, democracy that is increasingly under threat in this country and around the world, why it was forcibly dispersed and sort of what endured, what remained after the camps were cleared and the occupiers were evicted.
Tavis: I think the first and most obvious question is who were the Occupiers?
Gould-Wartofsky: So the Occupiers were–it was actually an intergenerational and a multiracial and across class coalition of the downwardly mobile millennials that I just spoke of, the older newly vulnerable workers who were facing the effects of austerity, and also communities of color around the country who’d been fighting for a long time for racial and economic justice.
You know, this was a place where Zuccotti Park and other occupations like it were places where people could come and find common ground and find a means to remake and reinvent democracy in public space, you know, and to confront the power of the 1%.
Tavis: Is what they set out to accomplish in fact what happened?
Gould-Wartofsky: Certainly not, certainly not. I do think that they faced enormous challenges not only in trying to take the square, but also in trying to make a movement. There were not just the brute force of the police batons, but also there was a distribution of inequality within the movement itself and made it harder for some kinds of people to participate than others in that kind of movement.
And I think that because of how people had been struggling, you know, struggling to pay the bills just to make ends meet, you know, it wasn’t easy for everyone to participate in a 24-hour occupation.
And I think there was also the fact that we have a political system that does not make space for this kind of dissent and this dissent has been criminalized, as we’ve seen.
Activists have been equated with criminals and dissidents with domestic terrorists and I think that it was very difficult for the movement to find a way forward in that context.
Tavis: In retrospect, what did you learn and what does the reader learn in this book, “The Occupiers”, about the way that brute police force attacked and broke up these dissenters?
Gould-Wartofsky: So when police come in with their batons and beat people up, I mean, I was documenting it at the time, so I was also at the front lines. I felt some of that myself. But, you know, we were just feeling something that people have been confronting for a long time this country.
It was the first time a lot of young white people have felt this. But it also had an effect on people watching, people who would have participated in these protests, but the costs were just so high. The risks were so high.
How can you ask people with families or, you know, people who are trying to keep their jobs, just trying to survive, to come out every day and confront that? It was an unequivocal signal that dissent was not welcome and that there was a kind of fight-back.
People fought back and there was resilience, there was resistance, of course. But it’s very hard to do movement building when you don’t even have the space or the time to gather in public or to assemble to exercise your constitutional rights.
Tavis: I want to ask you a couple of questions, Michael, about the leadership of Occupy. I use that word cautiously, as you well know, because there was a unique kind of leadership apparatus, if I can call it that, inside of Occupy which led to a great deal of critique outside and certainly in the mainstream media.
Who are your leaders? What are your demands? Who’s your spokesperson? I mean, so talk to me about what that apparatus looked like on the inside and then talk to me about how you saw the critique from the outside of what that apparatus was or was not.
Gould-Wartofsky: Right. So on the inside, I mean, there was certainly a leadership within Occupy and within the movement. It was not the kind of leadership that traditionally we associate with social movements in this country. To a certain degree, I think it was less accountable because it did not admit to being a leadership.
And I think that, you know, if we’re going to have democratic movements, truly democratic movements, we have to find ways to create leadership and empower the participation of the historically oppressed and the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in those spaces of leadership.
I don’t think that Occupy, you know, was all too successful at doing that, but I think that Occupy did try. I think, you know, next time we have these lessons that we’ve learned.
You know, it was a leadership that did not admit to being a leadership and I think that we need to empower the leadership of the people who are directly affected by these problems. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need leaders or a single figure, but we do need leadership.
Tavis: The second part of my question was how do you view, again, with so much in the rearview mirror now, how do you view the way that those of us in the mainstream media and others were critiquing this lack of visible traditional leadership on the part of Occupy?
Gould-Wartofsky: I think that there was such high expectations placed upon the Occupiers at the time. It was like all of the effects of 30 years of trickle down economics and top-down politics.
You know, it’s like we were supposed to wave a magic wand and it was all supposed to be resolved. You know, I think that we live within this society, we struggle within this society. Social movements have to confront the issues that are real within this society.
And a lot of people in the media–I think you were a notable exception–but a lot of people in the media placed an undue burden on some young people in part to just erase the effects of capitalism, of racism, of structural inequality. And that wasn’t just going to go away overnight.
I think that one of the lessons that we’ve learned is that this is going to take time. It’s going to take a patient process of rebuilding social movements, rebuilding the left in this country.
Tavis: What did you learn about how Occupy got along with its allies, unions, etc., etc.?
Gould-Wartofsky: I think Occupy wouldn’t have been Occupy without those allies. You can’t make a movement alone by yourself in a park. And it really was when labor came out–what’s left of labor–when allied movements for racial and economic justice came out together that you really saw that the power of this thing.
You saw the staying power of this people power–and a lot of those movements and those connections between them have endured after the Occupy moment. And I think that’s one of the most enduring legacies is the connections that were made and the potentialities for further collaboration and creation of a new society together.
So I do think you saw young people, students, workers, citizens of color, noncitizens, all coming together around this common enemy, as they saw it, and a common struggle. I think that was really what made the movement was that coming together.
Tavis: What do you make these years later now of what some regard–and I’m part of the some–as the brilliant framing of this conversation, the framing of this debate? If they get credit for nothing else, the way this thing was framed was something–I mean, I do this for a living. Words matter.
Gould-Wartofsky: They do.
Tavis: The 1%, the 99. The way this thing was framed was so beautiful that it allowed people, one, to take hold to it. Two, it allowed it to spread around the country to cities and towns.
And it also, you know, allowed the mainstream media, sad to say, a way in to the conversation because it had been framed for them, something that we should have been doing, I think, a long time ago.
But it was framed for us, so at least the conversation jumps off. But what do you make of all–what’s your research tell you about the brilliance of the way this thing was framed?
Gould-Wartofsky: That framing was something that emerged out of social movements and it didn’t start in Zuccotti Park, and it didn’t end there. The 99 to 1 strategy was a strategy, not just a statistic, was something that actually came out of poor peoples’ movements in New York State in the spring of 2011, I found. It wasn’t the invention of academics.
It was something that really spoke to people and with which people were able to speak about, something that affected all of them, and to break out of their solitude and be able to see that their struggles were shared with others and that they could make common cause with other people who had been affected by this crisis and this unequal recovery.
And I think that 99 to 1 strategy persists today in the struggles of working people fighting for $15, you know, living wage in a union for a future for their families persists in efforts to keep families in their homes and in good health, persists in universities and high schools where students are fighting for the education that is their right.
And I think that 99 to 1 strategy allowed them to see a kind of identity that they could share, a collective identity, and that was the basis for collective action that they could take together.
Tavis: Finally, how do you see this particular struggle–put another way, situate the Occupy movement in the larger struggle for social justice throughout the country?
Gould-Wartofsky: As I argue in the book, it didn’t begin and Occupy Wall Street didn’t end in Zuccotti Park, and I think that was a moment in the longer way of immobilization that began probably when we were a bit younger. This pushback against this top-down politics and this trickle down economics, you could actually trace it all the way back to Dr. King’s struggle.
I think there was a quote that struck me. You said Martin would have been the original Occupy. And I think the triple threat that he confronted that we continue to confront today of poverty, racism and militarism, we’re starting to see movement that is ready to take on all those together because they are inextricably linked.
There is no economic justice without racial justice. There’s no racial justice without economic justice. And the generations of the black freedom movement have taught us there is no justice if there could be no peace.
So I think this is one moment in a larger movement and the Black Lives Matter movement is another movement, a new chapter. And we’re going to see a continuing generational resurgence, I think, of the democratic spirit through these movements.
Tavis: Many of us participated in it. Others watched it, but it is something worth a drill-down and I’m glad that somebody finally got around to putting on paper what this Occupy movement was all about.
The book is called “The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement”. Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky is the author of that text. Michael, good to have you on the program.
Gould-Wartofsky: We are joined by my illustrator, Ryan Coretti, and I’d like to thank him too.
Tavis: You just did. There you go. Good to have you on, Michael.
Gould-Wartofsky: Thank you.
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