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Walking out for financial and social change

Jef­frey Juris, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of anthro­pology in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, researches social move­ments and protests, often by embed­ding him­self with pro­testers for an extended period of time. We asked him to talk to us about the new Occupy Wall Street move­ment, which has spread to cities across the United States – even prompting marches on Northeastern’s campus.

The economic conditions at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street and related protests have existed for several years, since at least 2008. Why is this movement emerging now?

There is a con­flu­ence of fac­tors in play. People see that Wall Street is not being held account­able for its role in the finan­cial col­lapse. The gov­ern­ment is talking about cut­ting the budget rather than addressing the gross inequal­i­ties and the need to pro­mote jobs. People are just more and more frus­trated. The other factor, I think, is the influ­ence of protests around the world. I think this absolutely has to be seen in the con­text of the Arab Spring, of the “Indig­nados” move­ment in Spain, even the move­ment of occu­pa­tion in Israel.

These move­ments among young people are hap­pening all over the world, and young people feel they are con­nected to them – through social media, through the Internet, even just through reading the paper and knowing what’s hap­pening. I think that’s part of it. I don’t think it’s acci­dental that it’s being led by stu­dents, just like so many of these move­ments all around the world. There’s no job market for stu­dents who are going way into debt and they’re asking, “What’s going on here? What’s going to happen to me?” While a lot of these move­ments tend to be in sol­i­darity with some­body else, this really hits people directly. With all the budget debate and dis­cus­sion, people finally realize some­thing is going to change.

Many observers are having trouble pinpointing exactly what the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York and in satellite protests around the country are supporting or opposing. What is the movement’s message?

I think there’s actu­ally a very con­crete focus. There are three things: First, Wall Street and the banks and their role in the finan­cial crisis; they were bailed out and everyday working people in the middle classes weren’t. I think people are upset about growing inequality, and that’s clear with the 1 per­cent /​ 99 per­cent dis­cus­sion. And they’re upset about the eco­nomic system over the past 20 or 30 years, which has been working for the people with resources and money and not for any­body else.

While they do have a focus, it needs to become more sharply artic­u­lated. And over the coming weeks and months, you’re going to see a sharper artic­u­la­tion of those themes, but prob­ably not a single mes­sage, and that has to do with the nature of this sort of lead­er­less movement.

A few weeks into these protests, what has the movement achieved so far?

It’s already achieved a vic­tory – if it’s done nothing else, it’s changed the con­ver­sa­tion. One of the things the Tea Party did was, after the finan­cial crisis of 2008, when every­body should have been talking about reg­u­la­tion and how to pre­vent another crisis from hap­pening, help get people talking about the budget deficit. The Tea Party, by and large, changed the debate.

What’s hap­pening now is this move­ment is changing the debate back to what it should have been in 2008. The move­ment has suc­ceeded already in doing that. Even if it goes away after the next few months, I think it will achieve that and it is extremely important.

– by Matt Collette

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