DeKALB – Disparities between economic classes have become glaringly more apparent in recent years, as Jeff Reynolds pointed out Thursday.
During a teach-in held at Northern Illinois University exploring the Occupy Wall Street movement, he said in 2007, the top 1 percent of households held one-third of the nation’s wealth.
“There’s inequality, and yes, it’s growing,” said Reynolds, director of Operational Analysis and Reporting for the NIU Provost’s Office who previously taught economics courses.
He was one of four panelists who explored the Occupy Wall Street movement from economic, historical and global perspectives; another panelist gave the perspective of a local mother and activist. NIU Women’s Studies and the Center for Non-Governmental Organization Leadership and Development co-sponsored the event.
Occupy Wall Street began in fall 2011 and protests economic disparities and corruption in big banks and corporations. The group, referred to as the “99 percent” also protests the role of Wall Street in the collapse that caused the recession.
Amy Levin, director of NIU’s Women’s Studies, said she hoped Thursday’s teach-in would give people a better understanding of a complex issue and what’s behind it.
Panelist Camille Piazza, mother of three who organized the Occupy De- Kalb event last October, said the movement caught her eye after she started researching some things that she worries will affect her children in the future.
She brought up the more than 1.3 million homes in foreclosure in the United States, rising college tuition costs, a national unemployment rate of more than 8 percent and student loan debt topping $1 trillion.
“I thought about my children. It’s very concerning,” she said. “The more these issues came to my attention, the more I wanted to make a difference.”
Rosemary Feurer, associate history professor at NIU, said groups for centuries have taken on wealth inequality through protest, and said the Occupy Wall Street is in many ways reminiscent of the feminist and civil rights movements.
“The idea that you can take power in this country through political action was questioned,” she said. “Had there not been the optimism to change, nothing would have changed in this country.”
Mazen Nagi, an Egyptian-American who teaches Middle Eastern politics and international relations, compared the Occupy Wall Street movement with protests in Egypt. In both cases, the movements formed after hard economic times, focused on corruption of the financial elite and were relatively leaderless movements.
A lack of leadership in both cases, he said, resulted in both protests struggling to turn their voices into political action.
“It’s nice to have that independent voice,” he said. “On the other hand you have hard time translating voice.”
Feurer said despair and hopelessness were largely what drove protest movements throughout history, from the unemployed movement of the 1930s to the anti-nuclear arms movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Nonviolent strategies were also common threads among the protests.
Reynolds said from 2002 to 2007, the top 1 percent captured 66 percent of income gains. He said frustration mounted because people didn’t know who to blame for the recession, as protesters pointed to big banks, Wall Street, homeowners who accepted low interest rates and the Federal Reserve.
“This last recession was significant because you’re seeing structural shock in terms of the social movements you see today,” Reynolds said.
Nagi said he believed the Occupy Wall Street movement would be difficult to continue because of its lack of a unified voice. Right now, he said there’s no real motivation for the top 1 percent to make changes.
“I hate to be pessimistic,” he said. “It may survive long-term at a low level. ... Things can peter out without achieving results.”