Bob Jensen

Bird Caviel speaks before a meeting of the General Assembly for Occupy Austin outside City Hall on Wednesday evening. The General Assembly, a leaderless decision-making group, met on the eve of Occupy Austin to discuss logistics for the occupation.

Photo Credit: Trent Lesikar | Daily Texan Staff

The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in early September in New York City’s Zuccotti Park as a protest against political and economic corruption, has been steadily gaining momentum and has spread throughout the nation and all the way to Europe. The movement finally reached campus with yesterday’s student walkout. Austin’s own demonstration, Occupy Austin, will begin today at City Hall at 10 a.m.

Thousands have said they will attend the protest via the Occupy Austin Facebook page, a number that Lauren Welker, an Occupy Austin spokesperson, called unprecedented considering much of the planning didn’t begin until about two weeks ago. Welker said a core group of about 20 people, with an enormous amount of help from others, used Twitter, Facebook and Livestream — social media tools that have become a staple of protests and revolutions worldwide — to get things moving.

“The idea sparked,” Welker, a geological sciences graduate student, said. “It was like ‘why not?’ It’s not just New York that’s affected by Wall Street; it’s all over the nation. It’s here. Why don’t people go out to the streets and protest what’s going on? We can’t all afford to fly out to New York.”

Occupy Wall Street, now in its third week, has had a few run-ins with the New York Police Department, including a controversial mass arrest of approximately 700 when protesters took to the Brooklyn Bridge and disrupted traffic, according to a report by the Guardian. Welker said that they have been working with Austin police to make sure incidents like that don’t happen.

“We don’t want to break the law,” she said. “That’s not the purpose.”

The purpose of the protests, which have spread from New York City to Los Angeles to Austin and scores of cities in between, is a little harder to pin down, much to the annoyance of people who do not see the purpose. At the movement’s core, Welker said, is the discontent that many Americans share for political and economic corruption on national, state and local levels and the corporate influence that holds sway over many elections and policy decisions.

She said people are angry about how these issues are affecting society and particularly the lives and well-being of those that call themselves ‘the 99 percent’ — people who don’t, according to People for the American Way President Michael B. Keegan in an article for the Huffington Post, have access to 25 percent of the nation’s earned income and 40 percent of its wealth, which is held by 1 percent of the country. Accusations such as these have prompted counter-accusations of ‘anti-capitalism,’ ‘socialism’ and declarations of class warfare from some, especially on the far right, but Welker said that isn’t the case.

“We love America,” Welker said. “That’s one thing I think is really important that everyone should understand. This is a ‘stop screwing us’ movement.”

‘Stop screwing us,’ however broad or vague a charge, hasn’t failed to resonate with those who are taking to the streets. The protesters, Welker said, know that the current situation “needs to change.”

“I would describe [Occupy Wall Street] as an expression of frustration, of unhappiness with political and economic systems,” said journalism professor Bob Jensen. “It’s not simply a critique of an individual politician or an individual CEO. It’s a recognition that our economic and political systems are fundamentally broken.”

For its part, Occupy Austin tried to capture the frustration while being mindful of the diversity of opinions with the group’s mission statement that was presented and passed out at Tuesday evening’s general assembly at City Hall. About 100 Austinites, old and young alike, attended the meeting where protest logistics were worked out. It was the sixth general assembly since last Thursday’s kick-off gathering at Ruta Maya where about 500 people attended. The mission statement reads:

“We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who occupy Wall Street and occupy around the world. We are dedicated to non-violently reclaiming control of our governments from the financial interests that have corrupted them. We demand that our public servants recognize the people are the supreme authority.”

According to the Mission and Values group, one of 30 sub-groups that Occupy Austin is divided into for organization and efficiency’s sake, the aim of the statement was to balance inclusivity with specificity.

“We’re very much about involvement,” Welker said. “It’s important for all the ‘Occupied’ movements across the nation to stand in solidarity. In Austin, we hope to make it look as inviting and inclusive as possible.”

With such a large number of people involved, protesters have had difficulty in coming up with petitions and goals. This conundrum, despite the movement’s intentions, has led to ambiguity — for better or for worse.

On one side, people see the protesters’ amorphous agenda not as a sign of uncertainty but as reflective of a predicament too complicated for any one demand to address. Welker said the name ‘Occupy Wall Street’ says it all — no specifics necessary at this point.

“I think the idea behind the movement is pretty clear,” Welker said. “It didn’t start off as ‘Occupy Central Park’ or ‘Occupy Union Square.’ It’s Occupy Wall Street. In the broad scheme of things, it’s a movement based off of the financial corruption of our government and corporate greed. It’s to get the conversation started. That’s the point — right now, there’s not even a conversation.”

But for many, including some of the organizations and political entities that the protesters are confronting, the lack of specific demands has led to criticism and confusion. There are those who write the Occupy protests off as little more than, as Fox News recently opined, “another disorganized and liberal whinefest.” Others, while not dismissive, are treading cautiously.

Austin City Councilman Chris Riley said that he’s not sure what shape the group’s objectives will take or how events will unfold over the coming days. That’s not to say the city council isn’t paying attention, he clarified. Riley said that people taking part in the democratic process is a good thing.

“I’m interested to see what goals emerge from this process and how the individuals involved plan to achieve those goals,” he said.

Riley’s outlook rings true with many would-be protesters, too. Laurel Sullivan, a local biologist said that she’s interested to see what Occupy Austin’s goals are before she lends her support.

“Political discussions can go on for centuries,” Sullivan said. “And that’s healthy. But for me, to have a protest, it seems there should be goals. I don’t really have time to come march around because I’m pissed off.”

Occupiers sympathize with views like Sullivan’s. After all, they also realize that eventually, they’ll have to answer the “demand for demands,” said Kate Houston, a philosophy senior. Houston, who plans on protesting downtown, said that for now, actually going out and doing something rather than just talking is good enough for her. But without concrete goals, she acknowledged, the movement risks fizzling out, or worse, getting co-opted by someone who could use Occupy Wall Street’s energy for its own gain.

“I’m just worried that the same thing is going to happen that happened with the Tea Party,” Houston said. “Like a mainstream media outlet or political pundits taking over rather than it staying a grassroots movement. I really hope it doesn’t. I guess time will just have to tell.”

Jensen agreed that energy without direction has an expiration date, but that doesn’t mean those who are on the fence about helping should sit back and wait to see what happens.

“If it doesn’t go beyond where it is, yes, it has a limited shelf life,” Jensen said. “But there’s no reason that the people involved in it can’t make decisions about where they want to take it. And that’s not something to predict, that’s something to be part of. It’s better to lend one’s energy.” 

Printed on October 6, 2011 as: Austinites rally, 'occupy' City Hall

Larry Flynt, publisher of the pornographic magazine Hustler, signs copies of his new book 'One Nation Under

Photo Credit: Allen Otto | Daily Texan Staff

Pornography industry leader Larry Flynt met fans and protesters Tuesday night at an event to promote his new book.

Flynt, publisher of the pornographic magazine Hustler, spoke about his new book at BookPeople. Flynt worked with Columbia University history professor David Eisenbach on “One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History.”

Flynt is famous for his advocacy for freedom of speech portrayed in the film “The People vs. Larry Flynt”.

The recently formed group Sexual Violence-Free Austin and a local branch of Radical Action for Gender Equality planned the protest. The groups stand “in opposition to rape culture and the commoditization of women’s bodies,” according to the Facebook event page. Their signs made statements such as “sexism isn’t sexy” and “porn teaches sexual violence.”

Journalism professor Bob Jensen participated in the protest and said his political roots are in the feminist anti-pornography movement.

“It’s sex presented in a sense of male domination,” Jensen said. “I usually refer to porn as one of the exploitation industries.”

He said an example of Flynt’s negative impact on women is Barely Legal, a pornographic genre that features young girls done up to look even younger. Jensen said that although this is not child pornography, it normalizes pornography with adults who look like children.

“To put it in one word, Larry Flynt is a pimp,” Jensen said. “A pimp buys and sells women. He does this through film and photography.”

Jenn Usmani is an aspiring pin-up model who attended the BookPeople event.

“To me, it’s an empowerment,” Usmani said. “It’s a woman’s choice if she wants to pose nude.”

She said she is a fan of Flynt’s because of his work for freedom of speech.

“He’s going to support it regardless if he wants to see it or hear it because it’s our given right,” Usmani said.

Usmani said she’s looking forward to reading “One Nation Under Sex” to see how the sex lives of political figures shaped our lives.

In the question-and-answer period, Flynt said he does not understand why feminists get upset about his work.

“I adore women,” Flynt said. “I exploit women like Sports Illustrated exploits sports.”

Flynt spoke about the politics of his book openly, noting that President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves.

“People are viewing our Founding Fathers as if they are made of marble and stone,” Flynt said. “But they have the same frailties as well. We shouldn’t hold history in such awe.”

Flynt also said 9/11 could have been avoided if the media’s response to the Monica Lewinsky scandal had not overshadowed the intelligence President Bill Clinton received about Osama bin Laden.

“We’ve got to learn to sort of let go because people will always fool around,” Flynt said. “So I think we should focus on how they do the job rather than who they’re doing it to.”

In India, a farmer takes his own life every 33 minutes because of the rise of corporations and the systemic problems in the country’s agriculture, said journalist P. Sainath during a talk Tuesday.

Sainath, a rural journalist for an English-language newspaper called The Hindu in India, told a group of around 50 people about the failure of mass media to report and analyze economic inequality in India during a lecture at the Flawn Academic Center.

The Association for India’s Development Austin and Austin-based online magazine Nazar sponsored the event and opened the lecture with a presentation about their current agenda to spread adequate news across Texas. They also emphasized their support of a variety of social-development projects and campaigns that empower the lives of poor and underprivileged people in India.

UT journalism professor Bob Jensen introduced P. Sainath, gave background on his award-winning career and shed light on his work of reporting the epidemic of farmers dying by suicide in India as a result of the collapse of the rural economy.

“Sainath has done groundbreaking work on the effect of the global economy on the lives of ordinary people rural India, and is one of the best journalists not only in India, but around the world,” Jensen said.

During his lecture, Sainath discussed the strong links that media and corporations have, using an example of General Electric’s failure to pay taxes last year and NBC’s failure to report on it.

“Mainstream media is a small part of much larger conglomerates of corporations, and the media has a structural compulsion to lie on particular issues,” Sainath said. “They are too heavily invested in the market to ever tell the truth about it.”

He said in the U.S., family farms go bankrupt each week.

“Corporate farming, while it is huge, employs hardly anyone,” Sainath said. “There are 700,000 people employed in corporate agriculture. Even prisons hold three times as many people.”

Sainath said the Indian media need to rethink their priorities and raise issues that matter the most.

“Corporations run the world, they run the government and they run your life,” Sainath said.

Cell and molecular biology graduate student Sucheta Arora, a member of the development association, said Sainath’s lecture provided perspective she doesn’t hear in the mainstream media.

“Media needs to focus on things that actually matter and be free from corporate control,” Arora said.