Interview: Todd Gitlin looks at Occupy

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 11, 2012


Most aficionados of progressive politics probably knew that Todd Gitlin would write a book on Occupy even before he did. The chair of the Columbia journalism PhD program has essentially prepped for such a project throughout his career. In addition to mastering the art of insider movement journalism with such age-defining works as The Sixties, he also authored the 1980 media critique The Whole World Is Watching, the '60s-era title of which became a go-to chant in the Occupy playbook. With Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (It Books), Gitlin offers the most learned account yet of the spontaneous Stateside revolution that took place last fall. I asked him how he managed to write the new protest bible in a mere few months.

WHAT WERE YOUR INITIAL INTENTIONS UPON ARRIVING AT OCCUPY WALL STREET? I didn't have any grand intention when I first went down there. I just wanted to scope it out, because the reports I'd read didn't give me a feel for how substantial it was and what kind of patterns there were. The day I really learned something was the day of the first big march from Zuccotti Park to Foley Square. What was evident was the difference between the people who'd been camping out and the people who were coming along for the march. That was when I first saw a discrepancy between the demand-less people in the camp, and the demand-ful people who I'd come to call the outer movement.

WHEN DID YOU DECIDE THAT THIS WOULD BE A BOOK? Early on, in early October, I got contacted by the [New York]Times, who asked me to write an op-ed piece about how this was or wasn't like the Tea Party. . . . Several weeks after that, I happened to have lunch with my agent, and she asked me when I was going to write a book. I hadn't thought about it yet, but I'd written three or four pieces and had the feeling that I was in the groove. I didn't need to be taught the alphabet, but I knew enough to know that what I was looking at was a mammal and not a bird. At the same time, I didn't know enough to feel smug. I had a necessary balance of pre-knowledge about social movements and also a curiosity. I felt like the farmer who watched a volcano rise in his field. You can imagine his astonishment, even if he knows that the land was prone to volcanoes. I knew that something might materialize, but I had no idea how or when. The fact that it was surprising drove me to figure out what was distinctive about it.

HOW DIFFERENT WAS THE PROCESS OF WRITING THIS BOOK FROM THAT OF WRITING SOMETHING LIKE THE SIXTIES? I started writing the book in the middle of November, and I finished it in the middle of January. It was an exhilarating experience, and I have to say that I'd always wanted to do something like that. I wrote this in a fever — every day for two months. It was the single most thrilling writing experience that I've ever had. My deadline had been the end of January, but I beat it. In a way, this is book-writing as blogging. I have a different relationship with the Occupy movement than I had with the New Left, but I felt like I could get into the gestures, and the sort of smells and sounds. In this book, also, I change locations and voices. I'm trying to be fair to all of the parties, whether I agree or not, and I'm trying to plunge into all of the positions and then make my pontifical declarations of how I think things ought to be.

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