Former governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell, right, joins Todd Gitlin '63, Chair of Columbia's PhD Communications PhD department, and Vanessa Williamson, a PhD candidate in Government and Social Policy, for a panel discussion about the Occupy Wall Street movement at the JFK Jr. Forum yesterday. Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer at the Kennedy School, moderated the discussion.
Experts at an Institute of Politics panel convened Thursday to discuss the Occupy Wall Street movement expressed surprise at the speed with which the movement has coalesced but expressed uncertainty about its long-term implications.
Noting that the Occupy Wall Street protests only began about four weeks ago, Columbia University Professor Todd A. Gitlin ’63 voiced astonishment at how quickly the movement has gained traction.
“It is remarkable that we have come to this point where we are actually having a discussion about strategies, about impacts, and about politicians being put on the spot,” Gitlin said.
Vanessa S. Williamson, a Ph.D candidate in government and social policy, added that the protesters have established an impressive presence nationally.
“The level of organization is very surprising. The media setup is very impressive,” Williamson said.
Panelists seemed to agree that one of the central issues of the protests is anger regarding the current state of the economy, particularly the growing income disparity between the rich and the middle class.
“Consider that 10 years ago the median income was $53,000. Last year it was $48,000,” said former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat. “That’s not a huge difference, but what makes that frightening is that for the first time in our country’s history, the median income has gone down.”
Gitlin said that these frustrations have been brewing for a long time.
“For four decades, the plutocracy has been growing in clout and wealth. The question is, ‘What took so long?’” Gitlin said. “I don’t have a simple answer to that, but given the degree of avoidable hurt ... it is remarkable that it’s taken so long for this boiling of feeling and initiative.”
Despite widespread comparisons between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, panelists were cautious about identifying similarities between the two.
“The Tea Party was really concerned with stopping change,” Williamson said. “It’s much easier to stop change than to create it.”
She also added that there are different support systems in place for the Occupy movement.
“There certainly has been support for the Occupy Wall Street movement by the media, but not to the same extent as the Tea Party [by conservative media outlets], in part because the left-wing media does not have the same mechanisms for mobilization,” Williamson said.
The participants, however, were cautious about charting the movement’s future.
“Social scientists know almost nothing about how movements operate. For that matter, neither do people in movements,” Gitlin said. “There are no formulas. You can’t stir ingredients and make a movement occur.”
Occupy Wall Street is a movement that began in New York City in mid-September, with participants generally voicing discontent regarding the state of the economy, income inequality, and the prevalence of corporate interest in politics.
The occupation has inspired many similar protests nationally, including Occupy Boston, which is now in its second week and which has led to the arrest of at least five Harvard students and alumni.
Marshall L. Ganz ’64-’92, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, moderated the forum.
—Staff writer Jose A. DelReal can be reached at email@example.com.