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Roundtable: After 1 Year, OWS Gives Voice to Resistance of Crippling Debt and Widening Inequality

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The Occupy Wall Street movement is largely credited for reframing the national dialogue on economic inequality and popularizing the phrase, “We are the 99 percent.” We host a roundtable with Frances Fox Piven, an author and professor at City University of New York who has studied social movements for decades; Nathan Schneider, editor of the blog Waging Nonviolence, which has extensively covered the Occupy movement; and Suzanne Collado, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street since its inception and member of the group Strike Debt, an effort to organize a mass upsurge of debt resistance. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re back in New York on this first anniversary of the Occupy movement. Joining us in our studio, we have three guests.

Frances Fox Piven, professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, where for decades she’s studied social movements, she is the author most recently of Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?: The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate, as well as Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America.

Nathan Schneider is with us, editor of the website Waging Nonviolence, which has extensively covered the Occupy movement, also writes about Occupy for a number of publications, including Harper’s and The Nation.

And Suzanne Collado has been an organizer with Occupy Wall Street since its inception and helped launch the campaign against student debt, a member of Strike Debt, an effort to organize a mass upsurge of debt resistance. The group recently published The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual. And debt is a major focus of today’s actions.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Suzanne, you were among the first to be organizing a year ago. Where were you a year ago today, September 17th?

SUZANNE COLLADO: A year ago today, I was watching you talk about what was happening and thought, finally there’s something happening in my city that I can be a part of. And days later, I was down there joining in.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan Schneider, as you look at this movement, talk about what it was a year ago.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Well, a year ago today, people were in the Financial District, as they are today. There was a lot of uncertainty. It was just a few thousand people. But there was an incredible enthusiasm. And I remember the first time I went to a planning meeting in early August for what would become Occupy Wall Street. I knew there was something different. I hadn’t seen young people talking like this, feeling so confident that they could actually put their bodies in the way of power and begin to make a change.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Frances Fox Piven, a year ago, did you expect to see this?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Not right away, I didn’t. And when I first went down to Zuccotti Park, it looked kind of small, didn’t look like a great, explosive movement. But then again, most movements don’t start as great explosions. They start with people here and people there, beginning to name their issues, their grievances and their hopes. And within a couple of weeks, I was very excited, because it’s as though you could feel the vibrations in all the people you talked to. Especially I could, because I teach and I interact with young people all the time. And I began to feel that, finally, we had the beginnings of what could become a great movement that could change the United States, and we needed that movement so badly.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time, you were very much under attack, and in those months before, by Glenn Beck, who was saying that you wanted to lead a revolution in this country.

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, in a way, I did. I mean, so much was so wrong. And—but we don’t know how to make a revolution. What we know how to do is to come together, share our grievances and our hopes, and figure out the ways that we can exert power. That’s what we know how to do. And if that ends up revolutionizing American society, that could well be for the better.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan, talk about how you followed this trajectory in writing and what Waging Nonviolence is.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Waging Nonviolence is a site that covers movements and other kinds of struggles for peace and justice around the world every day. And something that we’ve learned is that, by paying attention to these things, by paying attention to how people are organizing, we can anticipate these shifts of power a little bit. We can start to see how people build power, how people create movements from the ground up. And that’s why we were watching the planning of Occupy Wall Street.

And I think the process that we’ve been watching over the past year is a growing community of people—sometimes a shrinking community of people, but then sometimes a growing community again—learning how to build that power, learning where they can focus their energy, how they can do this in the long term, how they can move from the kind of CNN vision of Tahrir Square that the revolution happens in three weeks—which of course now we know, you know, is mistaken—to a more realistic picture, where this is a long-term process, and it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of organizing.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened this past weekend, the kind of organizing that went into this.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Well, people have been meeting in affinity groups, mainly. That’s how a lot of the organizing is happening. Yesterday there was a really large affinity group spokescouncil, where different groups of people from around the country were meeting together—hundreds, actually—right under the headquarters of the NYPD, planning the actions out in open air for today. And it was a really orderly—it was a really remarkable meeting, even compared to a similar meeting just before May Day a few months ago, when there were far fewer people, it was in a basement, it was a very different mood. Yesterday was really striking.

AMY GOODMAN: And the plans for today around New York City?

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Mostly in the Financial District, people are planning to do distributed actions. That’s happening right now. They’re blocking entrances to Wall Street, trying to symbolically and physically get in the way of the business of the 1 percent. Then, later in the day, there will be a convergence around ecological issues down at Bowling Green at the charging bull, which is such a symbolic focal point for the movement. And then, afterward, that will be moving into an assembly, practicing the kind of direct democracy that has been such an important part of the culture and the structure of Occupy Wall Street.

AMY GOODMAN: Suzanne Collado, you’re part of the group Strike Debt, and debt is the theme of this next year. Talk about the manual you put out and what this movement is all about, coming out of Occupy.

SUZANNE COLLADO: Surely. Well, over the last year, we found that, more than anything else, people were coming into Occupy because they were affected by debt or outraged by the system of a debt-financed society. And that can be any kind of debt. I had originally worked with the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, who focused on student debt. And over the course of the year, we had been part of changing the conversation nationally around student debt. But at the beginning of the summer, we joined with Occupy Tidal—or Occupy Theory, rather, that puts out Tidal, and the Free University.

AMY GOODMAN: “Tidal” is T-I-D-A-L, the magazine.

SUZANNE COLLADO: That’s right, exactly, and the fourth edition is just out now—to become Strike Debt. And basically we’re looking at debt overall—so, student debt, medical debt, housing debt, commercial debt, municipal debt, our debt as far as how we wage war on a debt finance—and seeing that our grievances are related, and we are not a loan—L-O-A-N, as well as “alone.”

And so, as I think Kasper was saying earlier on the show, is that we’ve been holding these debt assemblies, that started as debt in education assemblies, to first of all just try and have people shed the shame of being in debt. It’s a very isolation—it’s a deep isolation to feel like you are in debt and that you did something wrong, that you are having to scrounge together money every month to pay the bank. We see it as a political tool to be able to keep people from their own power, because they’re focused more on coming up with money for the bank than what they’d like to do with their lives, and—whether that’s politically or on the day to day.

So there’s a lot of projects coming out of Strike Debt. One of them is The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual, and I have one for you to add to your library today. And it’s an exceptional book. First of all, it’s a collective work. No one person is the author. This is really a project of a—

AMY GOODMAN: The Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual.

SUZANNE COLLADO: That’s right. So this just came out in the last few days. It is free. You can find it on our website, strikedebt.org, publish it, print it, share it with everyone that you think would be interested in reading about it. And I think it’s exceptional because no other place that I’m aware of analyzes all these different kinds of debt in one place and then focuses on collective action towards the future, which is really the purpose of Strike Debt, as far as I see it, is to build a political movement around debt resistance and find creative ways to reinvent the strike.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for example, with student debt—


AMY GOODMAN: —what are—what is the collective talking about? What should students do?

SUZANNE COLLADO: Well, the first thing I think students do is—should do is realize that they are in debt. Students often, while they’re students, don’t really think about the debt that they’re accruing, because it’s in deferral. And so, one thing I would say is, become aware of the fact that, for example, places like New York University, who are building these huge developments that would really take over the Village as we know it, is completely debt-financed. You know, that project is contingent on students enrolling in NYU and taking loans that they will pay off, presumably for the rest of their lives. And so, people should become aware of their place in this debt cycle and their power in it, because if we were to come together and together make an action, there’s a lot more that can happen. I would say that, you know, another world is possible than just simply making sure that you make your payments under fear of the threats of the consequences if you don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a professor. You teach these students who are accruing debt. Put this in a historical context. You’ve covered movements from the '60s. You have written about movements, everything from electoral politics, why people don't vote. France Fox Piven?

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, I think what the Occupy movement is beginning to do is to discover the forms of power that people have when they refuse, when they defy the traditions—you know, debtors should be ashamed—or when they defy the rules, which say that you have to pay the interest and a tiny bit of the principal, and you have to scrounge to do it. And so, instead, they’re stepping back, and they’re looking at the relationship between lenders, the big banks, these predatory capitalists, and the borrowers. And they’re saying, well, the lenders have power over the borrowers because the borrowers need the money, but the borrowers may have power over the lenders, because the wealth of the lenders is in all of those debts that are being honored. If we can shake things up and begin to scrutinize those debts and figure out ways to refuse—that’s why it’s Strike Debt, it’s a refusal—figure out ways to refuse to honor debts that were incurred through deceit, through need—if we can do that, we will have a new kind of movement, but it’s also of the same kind of movement, because like older movements, it’s a movement of refusal and of defiance. But it’s new in the sense that it targets what has become so important to contemporary capitalism: debt.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan Schneider, you have been covering faith groups and how they relate to Occupy.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Yeah, actually, this morning I was just down there with one of the blocs that was moving toward Wall Street, and it was led by a group of faith leaders, also veterans. They have often been teaming up and providing a kind of united front, bringing past movements and past experience into the present.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the people who was arrested today is Episcopal Bishop George Packard.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Yeah, absolutely, and he’s been arrested several times with the movement, in December and then also on May 1st. And his presence, I think, is really important. And again, it goes back to that issue of the long term. Just a couple of days ago, actually, there was a declaration issued by a group called the Council of Elders, which is a group of civil rights veterans, and they were urging on the young people who are leading Occupy Wall Street. And there’s the sense that, you know, young people have to lead this, in some—in some way, but these people from past movements are trying to offer their wisdom and their resources to help support them.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night there was Rosh Hashanah service at Zuccotti.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: Absolutely, absolutely, and that was very powerful. There were hundreds of people gathered in Zuccotti, as many as there have been for months. And the religious occasion provided a kind of safety and a kind of structure to that return.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think Occupy has accomplished in this last year? A lot of the corporate media is writing the obituaries for Occupy.

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: That’s a great question. One thing that I’ve found from calling organizers around the country that I’ve been working with over the past year is they keep saying, “I now know who I’m going to organize with for the rest of my life.” The bonds that people have created, both face to face in the occupations working together day and night, and then also over the internet, in networks that we know about, like Facebook and Twitter, but also networks that the movement has actually created. These are—the people who want to work for change in a serious way and in a radical way know each other now, and they’re doing it all around the country, sometimes under the banner of Occupy and sometimes not. This summer has seen, for instance, a real escalation in some of the environmental struggles around tar sands oil, around fracking and other forms of extraction, and a lot of the people leading these actions, among so many others around the country, are people who met each other through the Occupy movement.

AMY GOODMAN: This year we are in an election year, which is very significant. And Democracy Now! spoke to musician Tom Morello yesterday, asking about his thoughts on the power of social movements versus the power of electoral politics.

TOM MORELLO: …secretary for United States Senator Alan Cranston for two years, so I worked in the belly of the beast for one the most progressive senators to ever grace the Capitol, and he spent all his time asking rich guys for money. You know, so—and he was well to the left of President Obama, OK? So, like, I’ve always put my energies as an activist and musician into movements that are from the bottom up, not from the top down. It’s not—I’m not waiting for some trickle-down theory or some drizzle-down theory, for someone to wave a magic wand and to make the world right. When there has been progressive, radical or even revolutionary change, it has always—always—been generated from the bottom.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Tom Morello, who actually was a staffer for Senator Alan Cranston before he became a musician, and has very interesting parallels with Barack Obama—lived in Chicago, his mother a white woman from the United States, and his father from Kenya. Tom Morello, the former lead singer for Rage Against the Machine.

How does electoral politics now—Suzanne, do you see this as an opportunity, when politicians listen perhaps for the first time in four years or two years? When they’re up for re-election, there is this window of Occupy making demands of elected leaders, or becoming leaders themselves in the electoral process.

SUZANNE COLLADO: I think that there is an opportunity, because people’s ears are open, not just politicians running for office, but I think people around the world are paying attention and will more and more as the fall goes on. And I would say, rather than making demands of politicians, I encourage people to act in a way that threatens the ability of politicians to keep the status quo moving ahead. And when we do that, when we threaten the ability of our leaders to stay comfortable in their offices, they are more likely to act in ways that we might not think possible if we just sit home and wait for the election to come and go.

AMY GOODMAN: What about making those demands, and do you think that’s relevant? I mean, this is a key moment right now, Frances Fox Piven.

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Well, yeah, but it’s—yes, we make demands, and inevitably it’s going to be electoral politics that is going to sort of channel the response to those demands. But the point isn’t a dialogue between the movement and guys—mainly guys—running for election, because while they’re running for election, they’re going to promise the sky. There’s no question about that. They’ve done—they do that all the time. Look at all the broken promises in—that follow every election.

So, this doesn’t mean I don’t think electoral politics is important; I think it’s very important. I think the election is very important. I think that we need to re-elect Barack Obama, not because he’s going to respond just because we have a dialogue with him, but we need to re-elect him because he is vulnerable to the kind of momentum pressure leverage that a movement like Strike Debt can exert. He will have to respond, and he won’t be able to respond by calling out the National Guard. We don’t want to elect—we don’t want Romney, a Republican Senate, a Republican House, because they might well respond with repression. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you’re seeing in the immigrants’ movement, President—under President Obama, more immigrants have been deported than under any president in history, and the level of militarization of the police in this last four years has escalated.

FRANCES FOX PIVEN: Yes, but it would have escalated more if John McCain had won the presidency, and we would have been maybe a little bit better off if the Tea Party Republicans hadn’t taken control of the House of Representatives in 2010. I’m not saying that electoral politics works the way it’s supposed to work. It doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to work. That’s one of our problems. And it’s one of the reasons that the United States has become so unequal. It’s one of the reasons that we have the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. A lot of this has happened through public policy.

But nevertheless, in the complex dynamic that movements can create in political life, it is useful, it is helpful, to have an electoral—elected regime that has to worry about the people that are allied with the movement, that has to worry about those voter blocs, like the liberals in the civil rights movement, for example, who—that was who Lyndon Baines Johnson was worried about when he responded ultimately to the civil rights movement by echoing “We Shall Overcome” in one of his speeches. It wasn’t because of just a dialogue with the movement that occurred before the election. It was because the movement was so forceful and so disruptive, that civil rights movement, that it polarized the country, and Lyndon Baines Johnson could not take the chance of being on the side of what was becoming a minority white Southern bloc.

AMY GOODMAN: Occupy, the movement, do you see encampments, Nathan, happening again?

NATHAN SCHNEIDER: It doesn’t look like it, necessarily. I mean, actually, there have been small encampments ongoing. There has been one ongoing for weeks and months right along Wall Street and Broadway. It’s very small, but it’s still there. There have been others around the country. But I think more and more people are realizing that the tactic of occupation has some limits. And they’re going to have to think about that word “occupy” a bit more broadly and think about other tactics and other strategies that will carry this movement forward and start building the kind of power that we’re talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: I think it’s pretty clear, Suzanne, this movement has occupied the consciousness of this country.

SUZANNE COLLADO: I think that’s right. I think that people identify it that didn’t—identify with Occupy who didn’t think they would. I remember speaking with people who were locked out of Con Ed, their jobs at Con Ed this summer, who never thought of themselves as Occupiers until they were out in the street. And then, all of a sudden, the issues that we’ve been talking about for the last year became really quite crystal in their day-to-day experience.

I also wanted to just mention that one of the possible futures for us, if we were to take on debt in a serious political way, is being modeled right now in Iceland, where we hear very little about it in our media, and unfortunately, because it’s such an amazing potential, where people have peaceably really taken over their own country and written off their own debts, you know, thrown out politicians who were corrupt and involved in their own self-interest. And I think that it’s beautiful that it’s happened in Iceland, and it’s not special to only happen there. This is something that we can do in a way that is, you know, distinctly connected to our own communities and our style here in New York City and across the country and around the world, where people can simply say, “I don’t owe you anything, Wall Street. I owe you nothing, because you have made a career and filled your pockets by being predatory to myself and my family and my community, and I’ve had enough. And I’m willing to actually put myself on the line,” like so many of our friends and colleagues are out there doing today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Suzanne Collado participated in Occupy Wall Street from its inception. Nathan Schneider has been writing about it for the past year, editor of the website Waging Nonviolence, writes for a number of publications, including Harper’s and The Nation. And Frances Fox Piven, professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center, the City University of New York, author most recently of Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?: The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate, as well as Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll look at how Occupy affected one community in New York in Sunset Park, how it affected a rent strike. Stay with us.

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