Occupy Wall Street

Credit to Michael Whitney via Flickr.com
Credit to Michael Whitney via Flickr.com

Sociologist Frances Fox Piven is one the most dangerous people in the world (at least, Glenn Beck thinks so). So why would Salon sit down with her? She’s also an expert in social movements. Reporter Josh Eidelson goes in depth with Fox Piven on the continued power of the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, and the power of youth.

One of Piven’s most interesting points regards the power of disruptive movements. She discusses the Occupy Wall Street Movement and its offshoots, asserting that two of its most successful strategies were flamboyance and the ability to disrupt business. These strategies have yielded success for Occupy, but also for a larger ambition for social change. Indeed, as Piven points out, Occupy influenced the rhetoric of American politics and helped show that the grassroots power of other decades is far from gone. She even believes working outside the system is now the most effective path to progress:

“Going to Washington is largely a waste of time. But causing trouble is not.”

Photo by Thomas Galvez via flickr

Tunisia. Egypt. Libya. Yemen. Spain.  United States.  Many authors have claimed that protests in these and other countries can be seen as a worldwide movement against inequality.  And, recent New York Times articles add another pin on the world map of protest movements by covering recent protests in Wukan, China, over land seizures.  According to one article, protests in China are becoming increasingly common,

…a reflection of the widening income gap and deepening unhappiness with official corruption and an unresponsive legal system. But the clashes in Wukan, which first erupted in September, are unusual for their longevity — and for the brazenness of the villagers as they call attention to their frustrations. Despite the government’s best efforts to control social media outlets, such frustrations have only grown as millions of Chinese gain access to unofficial sources of information and use new tools to organize protests.

Public scenes of dissatisfaction are comparatively rare in China. But last year, there were as many as 180,000 outbursts of what sociologists call “mass incidents,” including strikes, sit-ins, rallies, and violent clashes.  (For comparison, in the mid-1990s, there were fewer than 10,000.)

People don’t have sufficient faith in legal procedures or the media and feel they have no redress when bad things are done to them,” said Martin K. Whyte, a Harvard sociologist who studies Chinese social trends.

Some of the protests are a response to worsening pollution, while others are a response to police brutality.  Much of the unrest, including in Wukan, is in response to the seizure of land by private developers or government officials.

The discontent in Wukan has been simmering for more than a decade. Residents say land seizures began in the late 1990s, when officials began selling off farmland for industrial parks and apartment complexes. Villagers say more than 1,000 acres have been seized and resold to developers in the past decade or so.  The residents’ ire exploded in September, when thousands of people took to the streets to protest the sale of a village-owned pig farm for luxury housing that netted the government $156 million.

The rest of the article gives more detail on the specific incidents in Wakun.  But, multiple recent new stories on protests in China posit that these events are not isolated and are instead connected across China.  And, to some, these protests are connected to others across borders and oceans as well.

Illustration by Sadler0 via flickr.com

When photographs of Police Lieutenant John Pike pepper-spraying peaceful college students emerged, many people were outraged.  But, Atlantic Monthly writer Alexis Madrigral takes a sociological lens by reminding readers that people always act within the confines of structure.

Structures, in the sociological sense, constrain human agency. And for that reason, I see John Pike as a casualty of the system, too. Our police forces have enshrined a paradigm of protest policing that turns local cops into paramilitary forces. Let’s not pretend that Pike is an independent bad actor. Too many incidents around the country attest to the widespread deployment of these tactics. If we vilify Pike, we let the institutions off way too easy.

Many sociologists, such as Patrick Gillham, have documented these changes in our police forces.  Looking at the 1960s, Gillham notes that police used “escalated force,” which involved mass arrest and indiscriminate use of force.

But by the 1970s, that version of crowd control had given rise to all sorts of problems and various departments went in “search for an alternative approach.” What they landed on was a paradigm called “negotiated management.” Police forces, by and large, cooperated with protesters who were willing to give major concessions on when and where they’d march or demonstrate. “Police used as little force as necessary to protect people and property and used arrests only symbolically at the request of activists or as a last resort and only against those breaking the law,” Gillham writes.

Yet by the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, negotiated management was seen as a failure.

9/11 put the final nail in the coffin of the previous protest-control regime. By the time of the Free Trade of the Americas anti-globalization protests in Miami broke out eight years ago this week, an entirely new model of taking on protests had emerged. People called it the Miami model. It was heavily militarized and very forceful.

Looking at these changes, Brooklyn College Sociologist Alex Vitalle explains that the “broken windows” theory has also had a major impact on policing.  Broken windows policing doesn’t fight crime directly but rather fights the sense that a street is disorderly.

As Vitale would put it, the theory “created a kind of moral imperative for the police to restore middle class values to the city’s public spaces.” When applied to protesters, the strategy has meant that any break with the NYPD’s behavioral preferences could be grounds for swift arrest and/or physical violence. Vitale described how the theory has been applied to Occupy Wall Street:  Consider what has precipitated the vast majority of the disorderly conduct arrests in this movement: using a megaphone, writing on the sidewalk with chalk, marching in the street (and Brooklyn Bridge), standing in line at a bank to close an account (a financial boycott, in essence) and occupying a park after its closing. These are all peaceful forms of political expression. To the police, however, they are all disorderly conduct.

Combine these and other changes, and you have a completely different type of policing than was seen in previous eras.  Scholars are already studying it, but in the meantime, Alexis’s article is a reminder that while John Pike was the one spraying the pepper spray, a complex system put him in the position to do it.


The Occupy Wall Street protests are in full swing across the nation, and reporters are doing their best to navigate and explain the growing, and sometimes ambiguous, movement. Not surprisingly, sociologists are helping journalists make sense of the phenomenon for viewers and readers. To help shed light on the Occupy Boston protests, FOX 25 Boston turned to Tufts University sociology professor Sarah Sobieraj. In a relatively short TV interview, Sobieraj was asked to cover a lot of territory, including explaining reasons for the movement’s popularity, addressing the breadth of its message, and identifying connections to other famous American protests.

These are all topics Sobieraj should feel pretty comfortable speaking on—after all, she wrote the book on media and protest (Soundbitten: The Perils of Media-Centered Political Activism). However, she isn’t the only academic with something to say about the Occupy protests. For instance, CUNY professor Héctor Cordero-Guzmán was asked by OWS itself to analyze the characteristics of occupywallst.org visitors and saw his results picked up by The New Yorker’s Rational Irrationality blog, while Columbia’s Todd Gitlin wrote about the difference between Tea Party and OWS protests in the New York Times and discussed the movement with National Public Radio’s Marketplace. These scholars are working as ambassadors for the discipline and proving to the broader public that sociological research can be timely and relevant for parsing current events. Let us know if you spot any particularly edifying articles in your daily news review.