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Understanding the Occupy Movement

Many people in the United States seem perplexed with the so-called “Occupy Movement” because of the fact that it appears to have no leaders and no followers.

But the movement – which began in New York City in September 2011 and has since spread across the country – is not really that unusual in U.S. history, says Eric Selbin, University Scholar and professor of political science at Southwestern.

Selbin says that the movement is similar to New England Town Hall meetings, which are often referred to as the “fount of democracy in the United States.”  In these meetings, leaders were often elected for just one meeting and at many anyone over 16 could speak what was on his mind.

“The written records of these meetings – which date back as early as the 1720s – suggest the sort of democracy that the Occupy organizers would recognize,” Selbin says.

Another persistent question about the Occupy Movement is its lack of demands. But Selbin says the two most common comparisons to the Occupy Movement − the Civil Rights Movement and the Tea Party Movement – are not helpful.

“These were movements that were consciously created to serve certain parts of the population,” Selbin says. “They had policy proposals and agendas. In contrast, the Occupy Movement has put forward few proposals and has a shifting configuration of supporters across the country.”

Selbin says he thinks the best comparison to the Occupy Movement is the women’s movement of the 1970s, which he says “befuddled both liberals and conservatives.”

“The foremost demand of this movement was for recognition that women were living in a different reality than men,” Selbin says. “With the Occupy Movement, they are saying ‘We want you to wake up and realize we have a system of economic regulations that has lost its way and is no longer serving a majority of the people.’”

Selbin traces the origins of the Occupy Movement to the “Arab Spring,” which began with protests in Tunisia in December 2010 and later spread to other Middle Eastern countries, as well as Europe and South America. However, he says it is a mistake to focus on the origins of the Occupy Movement.

“We like to tell our history like 19th century novels with a beginning, middle and end,” he says. “Rarely does history unfold so neatly and conveniently.”

Selbin says where the Occupy Movement will go is unclear. “Even if the movement disappears tomorrow it will leave its traces,” he says. “If it ends up serving as an educational moment it will have served a purpose.”

Professor Selbin may be reached at 512-863-1604 or eselbin@southwestern.edu.