Professors praise Occupy, with slings and arrows for Rahm

The panelists included faculty in the political science and English departments here, as well as at Columbia University.

By Jon Catlin

In defense of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), a panel of historians and political scientists praised the movement’s fluid ideology and its mores of civility, while levelling volleys against the police forces and local governments that often clashed with it, at a talk Wednesday evening at the Franke Institute of Humanities.

“As it turned out, these supposedly ‘public’ spaces are not really public,” said Bernard Harcourt, chair of the political science department and a professor at the Law School, referring to places like Occupy Chicago’s oft-used base in Grant Park. “As shown by police and military over-reactions, they are always ‘pre-occupied’ by government forces. This tests the limits of our first-amendment rights.”

Harcourt singled out Mayor Rahm Emanuel for introducing legislation last month that would impose curfews and increase fines for resisting arrest in anticipation of the upcoming G8 summit in May.

“There was no need for this legislation—it included security measures that the city could have taken anyways,” Harcourt said. “All this did was show how threatening political dissent appears to government officials and how intensely it is repressed.

“Why all the resistance?”

Emanuel has since backtracked on a few of those provisions, which elicited mass demonstrations when they were announced.

Regarding OWS’s birthplace in New York City, Columbia University anthropology professor Michael Taussig suggested that the police presence in and around Zuccotti Park made it impossible for the space to be considered “free.”

“In Zuccotti Park, everyone knew there were undercover police, and that the space could never really be free. It was always filtered by police responses,” Taussig said.

The panelists seemed to agree, however, that police action did not diminish the movement’s most admirable—and some cases novel—qualities.

“What happened in the park was a rebirth of civil society, with new divisions of labor and an overarching mission,” said William Mitchell, a professor of English and art history here and a participant in the protests.

Harcourt posited that the OWS demonstrations marked a new stage in the development of organized political dissent.

“What made Occupy so unique, and ultimately so pervasive, is that it resisted the tendency of political groups to tabulate a set of demands or policy proposals, which society expects,” Harcourt said. “This was a fundamentally new kind of protest.”

The symbol of the tent, which became a common sight at Occupy protests around the country, perfectly encapsulated this new type of protest.

“[A tent] is nothing more than a temporary tool for occupation. People were merely ‘existing’ together in these public spaces without a set purpose. That’s what ultimately shocked the media and the public,” Mitchell said.

Still, Harcourt said, the value of civility in the movement deserves to be questioned—and certainly was. Referencing his favorite protest slogan of the movement, “Bite the hand that feeds you shit,” he remarked: “There’s something oppressive about the constant demand for protesters to be docile when they’re in the midst of injustice and economic oppression.”

OWS’s significance may even ripple outward into the halls of academia, Mitchell said. One picket sign that resonated with him, he said, bore the slogan: “Occupy Everything.”

“I’m not a political scientist, but that’s the great thing about Occupy: it’s boundless and interdisciplinary by nature,” he said. The ethos—or anti-ethos—of OWS might extend to a new approach toward scholarly work, he explained, one which could dissipate the boundaries of rigidly defined fields in favor of a more freely flowing discourse.

The discussion was based on a yet unnamed work co-authored by the three presenters on the spaces of occupation, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.