Protest Nation: Screaming to the Wind


Sarah Palazzolo

Worn plastic tents and hand-painted banners on ripped slabs of cardboard dominate the scene. Enthusiastic protesters blend in with the homeless, who camp on benches in the square—not to fight the system but because they have nowhere else to go. A group of five or six long-haired, flanneled protesters perform yoga next to a crowd of people listening intently to a teach-in on the civil rights movement.

Tourists meander through the square conspicuously, politely asking protesters if they could join them to pose for a picture. People wander around to look at the signs, assess the food tent and gaze with a mix of incredulity and admiration at these freedom fighters, or, more accurately, the ragged, sleep-deprived faithful.

Some of the college students in McPherson Square sleep in the tents with the protesters on weekends, only to return to classes and daily lives at universities. A few admitted that they already had jobs lined up after graduation. Since the movement is often portrayed by the media as a conglomeration of personal reactions to a sluggish economy, it is puzzling that students who are largely unaffected by high unemployment and its consequences choose to participate.

“It’s about solidarity,” one responded. “Just because we have jobs and career prospects doesn’t mean we should forget the people who have been left behind by the system.”

“The system’s fucked up,” another added, noting that it clearly doesn’t take a layoff to see that.

Youth aren’t necessarily hitting the streets advocating self-interest. Protesters are grasping for control over the future of the economy to level the playing field for the next generation.

AU professor and social movement expert Cathy Schneider is excited by the prospect of a powerful youth movement in America. However, getting people out on the streets is only the first step. In terms of sustaining the movement and actually beginning to change the system, she explained, a movement needs to have both a visible and structural presence. In other words, activists must not only work to get their message out, they must also have a forum in which to spread it.

Occupy Wall Street has a visible presence in national media, but Dr. Schneider would advise the movement to create a structural presence by identifying candidates who are likely to support and implement the goals of their movement. Even if they choose not to become a political party, which would be ineffectual in our strictly bipartisan system, movements need to stay engaged in the political scene to enact change. She recommends studying the Tea Party’s example: with candidates who supported their platform, they were able to influence the national political discourse. “Let’s see if we can occupy the Democratic party,” Schneider says.

Campus activism follows some of these principles of social movements. Student Activities lists 194 student groups and organizations online. Most universities nationwide brand themselves similarly—if we don’t have a niche for you, you can create your own! Jump through these bureaucratic hoops and submit enough signatures, and you can join the ranks of the Student Activities database.

Student leaders who are trying to build a revolution—not just a résumé—should apply the same strategies that Dr. Schneider suggests. Movements at the university level also require visual and structural strategies. Many clubs on high school and college campuses are focused on awareness. Yet awareness is only half the battle.

“It’s important on a university for people to become aware,” Dr. Schneider explains. “But if you want to have an impact, you need to have a clear policy of what you want people to do.”

AU purports to cherish political activism. It is a part of AU’s institutional identity. On the other hand, we are not taking to the streets en masse. Most people see the occupiers, and silently agree that the system is “fucked up,” but we’d rather not join them. We’d prefer a warm shower and a comfortable bed to a thin tarp blowing in the wind as winter encroaches on Washington. Awareness groups populate the quad every day, shouting about donating a few pennies to victims of famine or a flood, but we’re just on our way to class.

Perhaps the first system that needs to be changed is the mindset of our local campus communities. The “A New AU” campaign, while not directly linked to the Occupy protests, addresses essentially the same issue of structural inequality. The campaign calls for increased decision-making powers for students to hold university administration more accountable to the needs of the student body.

“The basic thing is,” one movement leader explains. “We are students. We are the clientele, the customers of the university. We attend it, we are the ones that it should be catering to, and right now, that’s not happening.”

Here is where the A New AU campaign diverges from the Occupy Movement: victimization at the hands of corporate greed is not a choice. Enrolling and paying tuition at a private university is very much a choice. That is not to say that students should not mobilize against unjust practices because they have already signed a check to the institution, only that the institution is not designed to be a democracy. Ideally, students should have a voice in the policies that affect them and the ways their money is spent. Student activists have this power to make changes in university politics that benefit the entire community.

Student leaders on campus and student leaders who are occupying Wall Street may have admirable, well-directed ideals that are easy for the public to support, but they face a serious gap between support and commitment. Campus activism has been reduced to brainstorming sessions and events that demonstrate excellent leadership and initiative on an application, but fail to demonstrate enough passion in the real world to create real change.

Illustration by Max Gibbons