(Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)
For most of her life, Frances Fox Piven has worked as a professor of social sciences and activist far away from public notoriety. Though fairly well-known in academic and progressive circles, having played a key role in major social movements like the National Welfare Rights Organization …
having helped lead the fight in the 1980s and 1990s to expand the vote to marginalized populations that eventually led to the “motor voter” law in 1993 and receiving numerous awards and accolades throughout her career, Piven was well into her seventies before she began to attract significant public attention.
That changed, of course, when Glenn Beck began obsessively attacking Dr. Piven in early 2011, charging her and her late husband Richard Cloward with everything from treason to causing the financial crisis themselves in an attempt to “intentionally collapse our economic system.” The attacks quickly led to threats on Piven’s life.
Rather than flee from the public spotlight, however, Piven seized it.
“I thought that [my response to Glenn Beck] was really honorable,” she says.
She repeatedly appeared on news shows to discuss the threats; she led a national teach-in with Princeton professor and activist Cornel West on pushing back against austerity; she continued writing for a variety of publications about the need for a movement to fight against massive inequality. In October, she visited Zuccotti Park, where she made no attempts to hide her near-giddiness at the scene before her as she praised Occupy Wall Street (OWS). When asked about the attention she has received after the death threats, she laughs.
“I love it,” she says.
Many of the young activists who make up OWS were likely introduced to Piven through either her visits to Zuccotti or Beck’s vitriol – which is unfortunate, because her body of work for nearly half a century has dealt with questions of how people’s movements can wrest power and resources out of the vice grip of elites. Her book “Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed and How They Fail,” co-authored with Cloward in 1978, remains a must-read study for both students and members of social movements in the US. In it, Piven and Cloward argue that when coupled with political shifts in society, movements’ willingness to disrupt business as usual is what leads to tangible gains. She recently released the edited collection “Who’s Afraid of Frances Fox Piven? The Essential Writings of the Professor Glenn Beck Loves to Hate.”
In a noisy classroom at the University of Chicago, where she had just given a lecture on the future of the labor movement, Piven sat down to discuss the future of Occupy, the use of disruptive tactics in today’s movements and the effect of right-wing attacks on progressive activists like her.