Inside Higher Ed: Occupied, dissatisfied

By Allie Grasgreen, for Inside Higher Ed

October 10, 2011

They may have had varying levels of success, but they got their point across.

A largely thrown-together national network of campus walk-outs and rallies, meant to show student solidarity with the anti-wealth-divide message of the weeks-old Occupy Wall Street movement, generated major media buzz last Wednesday. The excitement from students in all corners of the country was clear all day long on Twitter and Facebook, where much of the recruiting and rallying took place.

But when the time finally came on each of the 75 campuses that declared they would participate, and the many others that acted at the last minute, the number of students who left their classes varied from none to hundreds.

Yet participants and organisers say that it doesn’t really matter.

Students on campuses across New York had been planning walk-outs and rallies for more than a month, which is how they wound up with 4,000 people marching down the streets of lower Manhattan on Wednesday. It also doesn’t hurt that Wall Street is actually in New York, so the students could join the larger protest. (The national event, “Occupy Colleges”, was set for Wednesday to coordinate with those throughout New York campuses.)

St Lawrence University’s protest was organised on the spur of the moment at 10 o’clock the night before, and 150 people – on a 2,300-student campus – still showed up.

One student said on Facebook that he alone walked out of class at Santa Monica College, and was proud to do it.

And at San Francisco State University, there was no evidence that anyone at all participated.

“I think it’s easy to overestimate how plugged in to news students are,” said Justin Beck, a journalism lecturer at San Francisco State who tweeted on Wednesday morning that, given the grim budget picture for California universities, he’d support students who walked out. “There’s this unfortunate assumption that they’re totally wired and have their finger on the pulse through electronic communication. I don’t find that to be the case, really.”

But the level of turnout wasn’t the point anyway, said Angus Johnston, the adjunct assistant history professor at City University of New York’s Hostos Community College who also covered Occupy Colleges on his student activism blog. Despite the Facebook “flakeout rate” – that is, those who say they’ll do something but don’t show up – the event was a success simply because of the excitement it created.

“[Some students] heard about this, they wanted to get involved but they didn’t have time to organise with other people, so they just did it on their own. That really suggests to me that this is a broad-based thing – it’s not just, ‘I’m protesting because my friends are protesting.’ There is an eagerness to get involved, an eagerness to be engaged, an eagerness to be participating,” Johnston said. “They are part of something bigger, which is not just everybody protesting at the same time, but the sense that they are part of a national movement.”

The most successful protests were in the New York area, and those on the East Coast tended to fare better than others. While they varied in size, most protests were on the smaller end of the scale, in the double digits or low hundreds. And not all were actually occupations – while some held sit-ins on student quads or in administrative buildings, others rallied or marched.

In true Occupy Wall Street fashion, the campus protesters didn’t have any specific demands. Instead, they spoke out against the general issues that have long plagued students: high debt, rising tuition fees, the privatisation of public education and the uneven distribution of wealth.

At the State University of New York at Albany walkout, about half of the 300 or so protesters managed to secure an hour to express their concerns to President George Philip in an open forum in the administration building. He reportedly agreed with some of their qualms, but upset many when he told them, “I’m not giving you back my pension.” The president of the New School, David E. Van Zandt, meanwhile, issued a supportive statement that encouraged students “to devise peaceful, practical solutions to longstanding problems of inequality”.

Several high-profile professors also have been backing the protest movement.

“I think that if you speak to the protesters, they have solutions to the problems that they’re addressing,” said Roberto LoBianco, a junior at the State University of New York at New Paltz who participated in the 80-person occupation there. For example, redistricting reform could get more politicians into the state legislature who actually represent communities fairly, addressing a major issue in New York and putting student voices out there. (Students at the University of California at Berkeley feel that way, too – they’re trying to create a student-majority district.)

“What’s actually happening is, there are structural problems, which means we need to restructure to solve those problems," LoBianco said. "They’re not very tangible for the average person, but if you go into what’s causing these economic woes, there are solutions.”

For SUNY Albany student Jessica Stapf, the protests are a matter of damage control. Just over a year ago, she received an email saying that her major, French, would be eliminated come spring 2012. This semester she’s taking four French classes – 21 credits total – so she doesn’t fall behind and waste all the money she has paid.

“I don’t want to see my favorite professors of the French department forced to leave and find other ways of making a living. I don’t want other students to have to do what I do to finish their degrees before the programs completely disappear,” Stapf said via email. “[Occupy Colleges] will probably last all year and become bigger and bigger movements.”

Even on the campuses with lower turnouts, students were talking after the protests of continuing their activism with meetings, rallies or clubs. And it wasn’t just late notice contributing to low participation, Johnston said: coordinated national student events have historically taken place in March, when the year is winding down – not in the middle of the autumn term when students are just settling back into school.

“I think it’s safe to say that this is the beginning – I don’t know how big it’s going to be – of a new wave of coordinated protests,” Johnston said. “This feels like a kickoff event rather than a culmination.”

Natalia, who is among the coordinators of the national Occupy Colleges movement who don’t want to identify themselves fully so as to not detract attention from the participating campuses, didn’t expect the campaign to go perfectly.

“Not all movements start out as fully bloomed trees,” she said – they often take a little while to grow.

Lettie Stratton, a St Lawrence senior, said that regardless of who turned out to protest, many could relate to the movement.

“Our overall goal was really just to create a dialogue and get people talking about what matters to them,” Stratton said. “As students, we’re part of the 99 per cent," she said, referring to the Occupy Wall Street slogan describing the vast majority of the American population who aren’t super-rich. "Crippled with student loans, we’re already behind before we even have a chance to set foot in the real world.

“I think a big part of this is speaking out against ignorance and realising that 99 per cent can make a change. We also want to make sure that it doesn’t stop today – we want people to keep talking about it. It’s not just, ‘Oh, the protest is over, so let’s go back to doing nothing.’”

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