From Protest to Disruption: Frances Fox Piven
on Occupy Wall Street
Frances Fox Piven has spent decades writing about and
participating in social movements in the United States.
She was gracious enough to sit down for an interview with
Chris Maisano, a writer and activist in the New York local
of Democratic Socialists of America, to discuss the Occupy
Wall Street protests, the complex interplay between social
movements and electoral politics, and the future of the
Chris Maisano: What have you thought of the protests so
Frances Fox Piven: I think they've been pretty terrific.
And I really am hopeful that it's the beginning of a new
period of social protest in this country. I think a lot
about the protest is absolutely on target, it's so smart.
It was so smart to pick Wall Street because Wall Street
looms so large not only in the reality of inequality and
recession policy, but it looms so large in the minds of
people now because everybody knows that they're stealing
the country blind. So they picked the right place, they
had somehow -- I don't know how self-consciously, maybe
self-consciously -- absorbed a kind of lesson from Tahrir
Square of staying there, because usually we have
demonstrations and marches and parades and things, and
they're over in a nanosecond. And all that the authorities
have to do is wait, because they're gonna be over.
So what they tried to do is take this classical form of
the mass rally -- they didn't do it alone, obviously it
happened in Egypt too -- and connected it with the
disruptive potential of mass action because they said
"we're staying." And "we're staying" is more troublesome.
Not only that, "we're staying" makes it possible for them
to organize and mobilize throughout the course of the
action, which is what they do. So that part of it was
pretty, pretty smart.
They are smart in being very inclusive. I mean, they're
very happy to include everybody, and they've actively
reached out to the unions. When has a youthful protest
done that in living memory? A very long time since that's
happened. But they knew from the beginning -- probably they
were helped to learn that from Wisconsin. And they're so
happily counter-cultural, you can't even get angry at them
if you're a stiff old person! Then you read their
statements, I'm sure you do. Well, I do too. And I think
they're very thoughtful for statements issued by a general
assembly sitting on the cold cement - they're very good
statements, and they really are statements that include
the 99%. So it's great.
It's also true that when I say I think we may be on the
cusp, at the beginning of a another period of social
protest and [Occupy Wall Street] is the sign, I don't
think that social protest works as a little explosion and
gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. It doesn't
happen that way. It's much more interrupted, dispersed,
there are periods of discouragement -- 1959-1960 the civil
rights movement people thought it was over, after 1962 in
Albany, Georgia -- this movement is going to be like that
CM: Why do you think it's starting now, rather than say,
three years ago when the crisis broke out? What do you
think is behind the timing of the protests?
FFP: Well, I think a lot happened in the last three years
that were quite shocking. Like the failure of corporations
to invest any of the money they are sitting on so that the
jobless rate continued to increase. Like the refusal of
Republicans who are obviously the political allies of
these people, the refusal of the Republicans to support a
serious jobs program. And you know, the banks took a lot
of taxpayer money and what did they give back for it? They
gave themselves the money in executive bonuses. Everybody
-- well, not everybody -- but a lot of people know that now,
and certainly these young people know that.
So I think that's part of it, but you know things don't
happen on a dime anyway. 1929 was not the year of big
protests in the 1930s. If there was a big year, it was
1935, 1936, 1937.
CM: Do you think disillusionment with the Obama
administration is playing a role too?
FFP: Yeah, probably. I think that's right.
CM: We've already talked about this a little bit, but many
people, including a number of people on the left, have
criticized the protests for lacking a formal
organizational structure or leadership, or an articulated
set of demands. A lot of people have been saying "what do
you want?" What do you make of that criticism?
FFP: I think it's so misplaced. It's so irritating, it's
so -- I can't stand it! I've been listening to it for like
10 days, 15 days. The contempt, especially the mainstream
media people. I wish they would just stuff their feet in
In the first place, it's not true, and they're not
listening. It's like they're so eager to spout off this
line of criticism because the protesters' shirt-tails are
not tucked in or something like that. In fact, I think the
intelligence that has gone into this protest is very
impressive. And the list of articulated demands that came
out yesterday -- it's not only intelligent, it's artful
because it takes into account the grievances of such a
wide range of constituencies and shows that they fit
together pretty well. So that puts the lie to that
As for "they're not organized," they're not organized the
way you think people should be organized. But if you mean
by organization coherence and coordination, it works fine.
The general assembly meets every day, the human mic is
really a pleasure.
CM: It can take a while, though.
FFP: [laughter] But it works! And it's so much fun to
speak to the human mic, because when else do you hear your
statement echoed across a square? So I totally disagree
with that. And I think they [left critics of the protests]
better get their heads on straight because they should be
supporting this movement -- it may be their only chance.
CM: These protests have clearly struck a chord. We've got
Occupy Philly going on, Occupy LA, Occupy Boise -- they're
all over the place. Why do you think these protests have
struck a chord and spread when earlier protests, such as
last October's One Nation Working Together rally in
Washington, did not?
FFP: Well this didn't at the beginning either.
CM: Then what helped it to grow? Was it the police
FFP: I don't think it was the police repression, because
obviously there's been police repression before. I do
think that their language and demands and the site of
their protest was very sensitively chosen. They were
sensitive to what Americans think is going on in the
country, but it didn't work right away. They couldn't
break through and get into the mass media right away,
which is certainly part of the reason.
I think you've asked a question that we don't really know
the answer to. Which is why I always say to frustrated,
anxious activists, "let's try, let's see whether it works,
whether it resonates." You have to keep trying. And a lot
of movement work in the early stages is like that. When
the Communists started organizing Unemployed Councils in
the 1930s, it was after a series of failures at organizing
-- they didn't always call them Unemployed Councils, bread
councils or whatever it was -- on and off since 1921.
CM: As yesterday's march and recent comments by even the
president and vice-president have showed, a lot of the
more institutionalized forces on the left like the unions
and MoveOn and the Van Jones American Dream Movement are
trying to latch on to the protests and turn them into what
some people have called a liberal version of the Tea
Party. How do you think their involvement will effect the
movement? How should the activists at the core of the
movement relate to them?
FFP: They should be friendly. They should ask them to do
things, they should give them assignments. And not adopt
the insignia of these groups as their own. In other words
they should maintain considerable autonomy, but
nevertheless they should treat these groups as allies, as
they treated the unions as allies. But they shouldn't ever
let unions tell them what to do, they shouldn't let Van
Jones tell them what to do. Partly because they seem to
know better, really. So I don't think that's their biggest
problem, how to deal with their erstwhile supporters.
CM: What do you think their biggest problem is?
FFP: Spreading the movement. Thinking of second, third,
fourth, fifth phases. Other forms of disruptive protest
that are punchier than occupying a square.
CM: In a lot of your writings you say that power that
people have comes out of their institutional location, and
refusing whatever role they're supposed to play within
that institution. I've been trying to use that framework
to think about what the possibilities for disruption for
these protests are, but it's been difficult because we're
not talking about workers working in a specific workplace,
or students in a specific school, where if they all say
"we're not going," the thing shuts down. What is it about
the protests that will allow the people encamped in the
park to exercise their capacity for engaging in
FFP: I think what's happening now is brilliant theater.
This is not a criticism, but it's going to be a really
tough movement, it's not going to win anything easily.
CM: Especially since it's being policed so heavily.
FFP: Not only that, who is it going to win it from? The
American ruling class is so fragmented and cannibalistic,
and it doesn't even care what's going to happen -- the
future for them is about two years. It has no interest in
responding to the demands about pollution, for example, or
safe food supplies. So it's a tough movement, it has to
hang on. Its most likely constituencies are students and
workers. It's not immediately clear to me which workers. I
think that's a little puzzling to me. But at John Jay
yesterday and other schools at CUNY walked out, and they
went down to Foley Square. I was there this afternoon,
they had a meeting on campus, and those students are just
wildly enthusiastic about this thing. They're good, those
CM: It seemed to me, just observing from afar, that once
the mass protests in Wisconsin shifted gears and put most
of its focus on electoral politics and recall campaigns
they lost their power and the degree of popular support
they had. With an election season coming up, I'm sure
there are going to be pressures within the movement and
without to channel it toward the electoral system. How do
you think the movement should engage with that system, if
at all? Should it ignore it, or be involved in a limited
way? I just think that this question has the potential to
cause divisions within the movement and create conflict.
FFP: Yeah, there will be people who will say "we have to
go out and do real politics now and work for Obama." And
Obama, of course, when the general election approaches
will appear as more of a left-liberal than he actually has
been since he took office, and people will forever be
deluded by that.
I think we have to be very careful about that because
electoral politics are important. I've never accepted the
dichotomy of electoral vs. movement politics. I've never
thought that movement politics detracts from electoral
politics excepting in the most obvious sense of using the
time that you could be doing door knocking that you could
be doing for the movement. But there's no inherent sapping
of energy for one because of the other. So I think what
the stance of lefties like you and me should be is that
some people really should do electoral politics because
they're so well positioned to do it and do it effectively
and because the 2012 election is important. They're not
lying. But the movement is also electoral politics. It's a
movement first and foremost but it has an impact on
people's opinions, on the way people see the world, and
the way they act at the ballot box. And the movement helps
people to see what the issues are in a much bolder way
than Barack Obama will, for example. So it's just a little
more complicated as what most people say when the election
approaches but that's what we should say.
CM: In a lot of your works you talk about how the extent
of what a movement can win is structured, to a significant
extent by the balance of forces within the
electoral-representative system, and what the
potentialities for creating electoral dissensus are, for
creating fissures within a dominant electoral coalition
that may have to respond to the demands of a movement. Do
you think that the balance of forces right now is
favorable to a movement like this in terms of winning some
of the demands that are raised?
FFP: Listen, if this movement really develops it could put
the votes of young people, minorities -- or at least young
minorities -- a lot of poor people, it could put those
votes at risk for the Obama administration.
CM: How so?
FFP: I think to some extent they're at risk right now
because  was a high turnout election among a
volatile constituency. The high turnout came from youth,
minorities, and the poor. Whether they'll turn out again
is a big question. But to the extent that the movement
seizes the imagination of these groups, the Democrats will
have to bargain harder for their votes. That's what
movements can do.
CM: Now that the movement has acquired a measure of
legitimacy and popular support, what are the next steps?
If you had to advise the activists who are driving this
thing, what would you tell them to do?
FFP: I would tell them that they've got to continue their
outreach work, and the outreach work has to include
helping the creation of new occupations. It's not the case
that the occupation at Wall Street has to continue through
the winter. That could be hard to pull off. But we'll have
other occupations, rolling occupations of public space.
They have to continue their work with students and with
the unions, and also look for the opportunity for new
kinds of occupations -- sit-ins, basically. The sit-in is,
as you know, a brilliant tactic. It's never been
surpassed. Where else can we make our mark on the physical
plant that they have constructed on the earth? Actually,
we did the construction.
Frances Fox Piven is an eminent scholar of American
politics and social movements at the City University of
New York Graduate Center and has long been an honorary
co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America. She is the
author of Poor People's Movements, Regulating the Poor,
and Challenging Authority, among numerous other books and
articles. The New Press will soon release a collection of
her key writings called Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?
The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves
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