Most people had never heard of Frances Fox Piven before Glen Beck claimed that she was a dangerous radical, but Piven has been writing about organizing and citizen activism for many years. She was interviewed about the Wall Street Occupation by Chris Maisano of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Chris Maisano: What have you thought of the protests so far?
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!
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 students.
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 their mouths.
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 criticism.
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.