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3Qs: Walking out for financial and social change

Jeffrey Juris, an associate professor of anthropology in Northeastern’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities, researches social movements and protests, often by embedding himself with protesters for an extended period of time. We asked him to talk to us about the new Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spread to cities across the United States – even prompting marches on Northeastern’s campus.

The economic conditions at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street and related protests have existed for several years, since at least 2008. Why is this movement emerging now?

There is a confluence of factors in play. People see that Wall Street is not being held accountable for its role in the financial collapse. The government is talking about cutting the budget rather than addressing the gross inequalities and the need to promote jobs. People are just more and more frustrated. The other factor, I think, is the influence of protests around the world. I think this absolutely has to be seen in the context of the Arab Spring, of the “Indignados” movement in Spain, even the movement of occupation in Israel.

These movements among young people are happening all over the world, and young people feel they are connected to them – through social media, through the Internet, even just through reading the paper and knowing what’s happening. I think that’s part of it. I don’t think it’s accidental that it’s being led by students, just like so many of these movements all around the world. There’s no job market for students who are going way into debt and they’re asking, “What’s going on here? What’s going to happen to me?” While a lot of these movements tend to be in solidarity with somebody else, this really hits people directly. With all the budget debate and discussion, people finally realize something is going to change.

Many observers are having trouble pinpointing exactly what the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York and in satellite protests around the country are supporting or opposing. What is the movement’s message?

I think there’s actually a very concrete focus. There are three things: First, Wall Street and the banks and their role in the financial crisis; they were bailed out and everyday working people in the middle classes weren’t. I think people are upset about growing inequality, and that’s clear with the 1 percent / 99 percent discussion. And they’re upset about the economic system over the past 20 or 30 years, which has been working for the people with resources and money and not for anybody else.

While they do have a focus, it needs to become more sharply articulated. And over the coming weeks and months, you’re going to see a sharper articulation of those themes, but probably not a single message, and that has to do with the nature of this sort of leaderless movement.

A few weeks into these protests, what has the movement achieved so far?

It’s already achieved a victory – if it’s done nothing else, it’s changed the conversation. One of the things the Tea Party did was, after the financial crisis of 2008, when everybody should have been talking about regulation and how to prevent another crisis from happening, help get people talking about the budget deficit. The Tea Party, by and large, changed the debate.

What’s happening now is this movement is changing the debate back to what it should have been in 2008. The movement has succeeded already in doing that. Even if it goes away after the next few months, I think it will achieve that and it is extremely important.

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