Roughly 20 Occupy New Haven protesters left their posts on the Green Tuesday night to sit among students and hear four professors comment on the movement.
The professors spoke to about almost 100 students, professors and protesters in Linsly-Chittenden Hall about the growing Occupy Wall Street movement and its implications for American politics. Though panelists differed on how the movement should proceed, they said the protests could gain momentum and lead to change of the country’s economic structure, contrary to a popular belief that the protests are aimless.
“What we’re seeing in this movement is not [a] cry of bewilderment,” said English professor David Bromwich, who sat on the panel. “I would characterize what we’re seeing in this movement as a rational alarm in the face of unprecedented abuse of power and privilege that threatens democracy.”
History professor Jennifer Klein, who also sat on the panel, said the government is currently handicapped by a political framework that limits the public’s ability to influence policy, so protesters should aim to support or create institutions that help give people more direct control over the government’s decisions.
But John Roemer, a political science and economics professor who spoke at the event, said Klein’s approach was “too vague.” He proposed two reforms that the movement could pursue: a short-term goal of cutting the principal on underwater mortgages and a long-term goal of increasing taxes on the rich to “beef up the welfare state.”
“I think these mass reform movements … only succeed if they have very specific demands,” he said. “Vague discussions of reforming institutions to make our country more democratic aren’t going to get us anywhere.”
Jennifer Lopez, a member of the Occupy New Haven movement who joined in the discussion from the audience, said she is working to increase communication between different national Occupy protests, adding that she is confident that protesters can “come up with a consensus for this country.”
Despite criticism on how the movement has proceeded thus far, the panelists approved of the movement’s general complaints and were optimistic that it could influence positive change. Crystal Feimster, an African American Studies professor who participated in the talk, said people from all socioeconomic backgrounds should participate in the movement.
“You’ve got to be there,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re dirt-poor of if you’re in the [top] 2 percent.”
Yale College Democrats President Marina Keegan ’12, who organized the event along with Thomas Smyth ’12, said the media has unjustly characterized the protesters as “uneducated and uninformed and not having a message.”
Four audience members interviewed said the discussion was productive and informative. Keith Wawrzeniak, an Occupy New Haven protester, said academics’ involvement in discussion gave him hope that the movement could “turn into something meaningful.”
Ben Wexler ’12 said the professors were able to place the complaints of protesters within the context of past movements.
“I appreciate that the professors really rooted their responses in history, which I think is necessary in this movement,” he said.
The movement officially made its appearance in New Haven through Occupy New Haven on Saturday, Oct. 15.