'U' professors: Occupy Wall Street may not have big impact

By Andrew Schulman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 5, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement that originated in New York is spreading quickly across the nation and the state of Michigan, but according to University experts on political and economic reformation, the protests may not have much of an impact.

The protests, which began in Manhattan’s Financial District on Sept. 17, have spurred movements in the state of Michigan, such as the Occupy Michigan, Occupy Southeast Michigan and Occupy Ann Arbor. The momentum from the demonstrators has the potential to convince politicians to heed the protesters’ calls for economic equality, but the outcome may not be as favorable as supports of Occupy Wall Street and its counterparts hope.

Since the start of Occupy Wall Street, numerous people have been arrested, including 700 protesters who marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday. Yesterday, union members protested in Manhattan and hundreds of college students across New York participated in class walkouts.

As of 1:30 a.m. this morning, the Occupy Southeast Michigan Facebook page had 276 "likes," Occupy Ann Arbor had 817 "likes," and Occupy Michigan had 3,734 "likes." Occupy Ann Arbor, which aims to support the other Occupy groups across the nation, is planning to host a “general assembly” event tonight on the Diag to bring together resources of the local community, spread information about what people can do to support economic equality and show solidarity.

Law School Prof. Michael Barr, who helped write the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Consumer Protection Act, which was signed into law on July 21, 2010 to protect consumers and investors by providing financial reform, said the protests are a response to the economic hardships confronting many families and small business owners throughout the country.

“The financial crisis caused a deep recession in our economy, and there are many individuals who are struggling to make ends meet and to get a job and to live their lives given the economic difficulties,” Barr said. “I think there’s an understandable frustration with the difficult economic circumstances that many families are experiencing now and a desire for change.”

But Barr said it is too soon to tell what changes might come as a result of the protests.

Michael Heaney, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, called the protests “part of a long-standing social movement for greater economic equality” that began with the anti-World Trade Organization sentiments in the late 1990s. However, he said demonstrators’ use of Wall Street as a symbol for economic inequality is a more recent phenomenon.

Heaney added that when recent rallies erupted in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Washington D.C., the protests proved more successful than expected. However, he said the protests are not likely to have a long-lasting significant impact.

“The protesters are not going to … engage the political system,” Heaney said. “They’re not going to get involved in elections, they don’t engage in lobbying, they don’t make any campaign contributions — they don’t do the kinds of things that will allow them to have a major impact.”

But Heaney said the protesters might see some results by raising awareness about issues such as income inequalities, corporate accountability, the environment and rising student debt. He added that the demonstrations could alter some politicians’ agendas if the protesters spread their message successfully.

“What politicians may do is they may look at these protests and see them as an expression of the things that ordinary people care about,” Heaney said. “And if they see them that way, they may be more likely to take up some of these issues in their campaigns.”

The protests could also bolster the efforts of politicians as they hope to push legislation through Washington. President Barack Obama’s recent proposal to create a minimum tax rate for Americans earning more than $1 million per year could receive support from the protesters who are in favor of higher taxes for the wealthy, Heaney said.

Heaney said that though he predicts the protests won’t progress much further, he wouldn’t be surprised if he is proven wrong given the proliferation of groups nationwide mimicking Occupy Wall Street.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.