TTU sociology professor: Occupy Wall Street protests not a fad

Posted by Lori Shull - Tuesday, October 11 2011
lshull@tntech.edu

The Occupy Wall Street protest – and similar protests cropping up nationwide – are not spontaneous, according to Thomas Ratliff, sociology professor at Tennessee Tech University.

What distinguishes the Occupy Wall Street campaign is its size and the number of separate groups – with a variety of goals - involved.

“In large-scale protests like these, you begin to see a social problem become solidified and turned into a legitimate issue,” Ratliff said. “People may disagree on the specifics of what should be done, but when we see such variety of political persuasions – including liberals, libertarians and anarchists – becoming somewhat unified for a campaign like this, we need to realize that there are larger societal problems at hand.”

“I think that’s what this campaign is bringing attention to – many people are tired of the way Wall Street has been operating, be it subprime mortgages or getting massive bonuses while being bailed out by taxpayers.”

The protest campaign has been going on in Manhattan since mid-September. Related protests have occurred nationwide, particularly in larger metropolitan areas. Several Cookeville residents are planning a protest in support of the Occupy Wall Street campaign from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at TTU in the early morning and then the town square.

Though Ratliff is hesitant to say whether he thinks the campaign for change will become more confrontational, the original protesters are reaching an important point that may determine what happens in coming weeks and months.

“They’re out there; they’re working on their list of demands,” he said. “When they present their demands, does anyone in power do anything? That’s where you may see some violence.”

“I can’t predict if it’s going to get violent. Although my research does indicate more confrontational tactics like building occupations and the presence of counter-protesters increases the chance of violence at protests events. It really depends on the choices that the protesters make and that the police make; different police departments across the U.S. and different activist organizations may interact very differently. Then you have the individual choices people make in the situation.”

Ratliff has made a career out of studying American protests. Earlier this year, he finished his doctoral dissertation, “On the Stage of Change: A Dramaturgical Approach to Violence, Social Protests and Policing Styles in the U.S.” The project examines American protests, as reported by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, from 2006 to 2009.

A grant from the National Science Foundation will fund Ratliff’s expansion of the study to go back to 1999.

Though violence may happen at social protests, Ratliff’s study found that it is relatively rare. Of the nearly 2,500 protest events he studied for his dissertation, in slightly more than 7 percent – or approximately 180 events – was some sort of physical force used by police or protesters, such as arrest, pushing or shoving. More importantly, fewer than 50 protests had instances of what he calls “extreme violence,” such as police using rubber bullets, tear gas or pepper spray, and protesters hitting, throwing bricks or damaging property. He also noted that there are instances where police use extreme violence and protesters do not, or vice versa.

“Protest and dissent is essential to democracy. Without it, democracy would cease to exist in the world,” Ratliff said. “When the political process isn’t working for people, they should be free to express themselves and express their grievances. What I’ve been trying to do is understand what conditions cause violence at protests so that we can reduce the chance that harm would befall American citizens, whether they are wearing a police uniform or marching in a picket line.”

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