New York

Occupy Wall Street In American History: An Interview With NYU Professor Robert Cohen

The Occupy Wall Street protest has exceeded the expectations of most. Many in the media initially scoffed at the few hundred demonstrators that gathered in Zucotti Park on Sept. 17, but as the occupation enters its fourth week, and as the protest has spread to cities all across the country, the media is changing its tune and giving Occupy Wall Street its due credit.

It's been a while since a movement on the left has gained this much traction, so I talked to Robert Cohen, professor of social studies at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, author of "The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s" and co-editor of "When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America's First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941" about how the Occupy movement compares to American protest movements in the past, and to gain a sense of how movements like this effect change.

A major emphasis of protesters thus far is that they remain leaderless. Do you think leaders will eventually emerge? And do protests of this size need a strong set of leaders, or can the protests thrive without them?

The question is not whether this protest movement has leaders, but whether our elected political leaders begin to address the problems this movement is dramatizing. No you don't need great leaders to lead effective mass protest movements if they tap into enough spontaneous dissent. The sit-ins in 1960 had no great leader. They began in Greensboro in February 1960 and generated similar protests all across the South, as well as sympathy demos in the North, and they won the desegregation of lunch counters, re-energizing the entire civil rights movement.

Since the beginning, a major criticism of the Occupy Wall Street protest is that protesters are occupying Wall Street without an agreed upon, single demand. Adbusters, which called for the protest back in July, originally wrote:

"Once there, we shall incessantly repeat one simple demand in a plurality of voices. Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum – that Mubarak must go – over and over again until they won. Following this model, what is our equally uncomplicated demand?"

A single demand, however, has yet to manifest itself, but the protest is nonetheless gaining more and more momentum. Does this protest actually benefit from not having a single demand? At some point do you think one will have to emerge in order for the protests to retain some legitimacy?

I think far too much is being made about the lack of one specific demand. The historical significance of many demonstrations often transcends one specific demand because they articulate and symbolize dissent around a whole series of issues and conditions.

What is important is whether this protest grows and has influence first in the streets and then in the mainstream media and political system -- and it seems to be getting there. This movement is demonstrating that the failure of the two parties and the Tea Party to offer realistic solutions to the economic crisis, the rising inequality of our economic system, and the endless wars that divert our resources and cause pointless bloodshed, are generating mass dissent on the left.

How does Occupy Wall Street prevent itself from being the left's version of The Tea Party? In other words, how does it prevent itself from being co-opted by the Democrats or the mainstream media while remaining an organic movement?

I think this question's premises are backwards. If a movement is to have influence over mainstream institutions, it has to connect with them and lead politicians to begin addressing the concerns the movement has articulated about the need for greater regulation of Wall Street and the banks and more equity in our socio-economic system. Getting any of this to happen is a sign of at least partial victory -- real influence, not co-optation.

The left wanted the New Deal to do far more in the 1930s, for example, to aid needy students. It wanted all of them to get federal aid. The New Deal's NYA [National Youth Administration] could not help them all, but did help millions of these students through work-study scholarships. This New Deal aid represented only a partial victory, and the students movement pushed for more, but even this limited federal aid was far better than the zip that needy students had gotten before, under Hoover. So this was not co-optation, it was translating radical demands into more reformist programs. The political system is being tested as to whether it is responsive to its citizenry and if it is, that is a plus and not something to be written off as co-optation.

Occupy Wall Street didn't garner too much media attention until videos emerged of NYPD cops kettling and pepper-spraying a group of female protesters in Union Square. Historically, to what degree do videos and images of excessive police force help protesters' causes?

Sometimes such repression can attract sympathy for the protesters, as in Birmingham in '63 when racist cops used police dogs and fire hoses to attack non-violent protesters. But if the protesters themselves get violent, this can turn people against the movement. In this case I think the police issue is a side issue, not nearly as important as the economic equity issues being raised by these protests amidst this Great Recession. The cops and violence are not the motivating issues here.

The 60s protest movement in America was largely started on college campuses. Occupy Wall Street seems to have its origins mostly off-campus, and was organized primarily, if not exclusively, on the Internet. How do you believe the demographics of this protest differ from other large scale American protests throughout history, and what does that mean for Occupy Wall Street?

There are lots of students and recent college grads at the center of this movement, so I don't think you are correct about its roots being solely off campus. But it is clear that already this movement has united blue and white collar workers, students and unions, in ways that did not occur in the 60s. The demographics remind me more of the 1930s -- when very diverse segments of society, labor, students, the elderly, farmers, etc., were mobilizing for socially democratic solutions to the social and economic crisis of the Great Depression -- than the 60s. And that's because the economic crisis in both the 30s and today is so massive.

Occupy Wall Street is already spreading to a slew of other cities across the United States and there are demonstrations planned in a handful of European cities as well. What's your prediction for the future of the movement? Is this the beginning of something much bigger? A movement comparable to one seen in the 60s? Or just something we'll all forget about in a few months?

Too soon to tell. But this is already the largest left movement since the 1960s, and it shows that if both political parties continue to respond timidly and ineffectively to the economic crisis and the growth of plutocracy and to the exacerbating social inequality, there is a huge constituency out there that will hold them accountable.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length.