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Hey CU students, I have a question for you: why so quiet?
A sign made by Occupy Cal protestors. Occupy Cal has been in the news recently because of incidents between police and protestors. (CU Independent/Sara Kassabian)
I never knew CU as a politically apathetic environment. Throughout my five years in Boulder, I loved being a part of an energetic, passionate and conscious student body. I loved the protests outside of the UMC. I loved being among students who cared enough to stand up for something they believed in.
Thus, I’m confused about what’s happening — or not happening — on the CU campus.
Maybe that’s because after my own college experience in Boulder, I moved on to law school at UC Berkeley, where the protest spirit is alive. While watching news of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland and police violence, participating in Occupy Cal and again hearing of police violence, I wondered whether the same was happening at my alma mater. It turns out that little is happening at CU. A fledgling Occupy CU took hold yesterday, but few people seem to be joining it or voicing support.
Now, my question is this: why not?
Here’s the thing about social movements in the early stages: they’re ripe for cogent thinking, for idealists, pragmatists, anarchists and capitalists to come together to influence that movement and shape it into something they feel represents them. If you count yourself among the 99 percent, what will you do to shape this movement into one you will join? Or, instead, will you just sit back and wait until the movement evolves to a place where it looks, sounds and acts just like you and it asks nothing in return?
Maybe you’re a critic of the Occupy movement. Most criticisms of Occupy center around two things: its effect and its message. Critics say the movement has no power and no point. But these critics are wrong.
Occupy is a new movement, but it has already caused one major structural change: a significant shift in the public dialogue, away from conservative concerns about the federal debt and toward the more progressive issues that Occupy is focused on, like income inequality.
Blogger David Dayen characterizes this shift as monumental, saying, “The Occupy Wall Street protesters have done more to change the political dynamic in the country in a month than national Democrats have done in 30 years.”
For example, take this summer’s debate about the debt ceiling. In July, as the petty squabbling, heel digging, and finger pointing wore on in Washington, my patience wore thin in California. These politicians, some of whom are my elected officials, weren’t representing me at all. They weren’t representing any of my interests. They weren’t making sure my voice was heard; they were stifling it.
Sure, the debt ceiling mattered, but not this much. Other things mattered, too. I wanted to hear discussion of some — or even one — of the other issues weighing on not just my own shoulders, but also those of my entire generation. I wanted to hear about issues like the skyrocketing cost of college and professional school tuition, or the six-figure student loan debt, non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. I was interested in the increasing role of big money in politics or the decreasing role of government in overseeing the financial sector, or my more-bleak-than-bright employment prospects.
News media didn’t agree. In July, the three major cable news networks mentioned the word “debt” 7,538 times, while tossing in a mention of “unemployment” only 427 times, and “unemployed” a paltry 76 times, according to Think Progress blogger Zaid Jilani.
Then, in September, something happened. A small group of anarchists in New York set up an encampment in the heart of the financial district and called it Occupy Wall Street. Other camps formed across the country, and something changed. Those same three cable networks mentioned “debt” only 398 times over a weeklong stretch in October – a huge decrease from July. Instead, “Occupy,” “Wall Street,” and “jobs” were the new topics of conversation, mentioned a combined 6,394 times.
Instead of focusing on the debt ceiling, news broadcasts focused on the Occupy protests, and the theme underlying the movement: frustration with and rejection of the status quo.
It’s an oft-lobbed criticism of the Occupy movement that its demands aren’t specific. The expression of moral outrage and frustration isn’t enough, and by expressing this moral outrage without also offering concrete policy proposals, the Occupy movement is doomed to fail.
This criticism overlooks a critical element. Before a movement can produce valid, well-reasoned proposals for change, it must first become a movement. If Occupy supporters were to cave in to those criticisms — elect a leader, codify its process, and operate with the formality that they currently are criticized for lacking — then Occupy’s intensity, base of support, and strength would be in jeopardy, because then, it displays the very power structure it critiques.
Instead, protestors should be patient, said Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and current Berkeley professor.
“With regard to every major social movement of the last half-century or more – it started with a sense of moral outrage. Things were wrong,” he said to a crowd of thousands of protesters on Berkeley’s campus Nov. 15. “The actual coalescence of that moral outrage into specific demands, or specific changes, came later. The moral outrage was the beginning. The days of apathy are over, folks! Once this has begun, it cannot be stopped, and will not be stopped.”
Just like Occupy Wall Street freckled out across the U.S. — becoming Occupy Baltimore, Occupy Atlanta, Occupy Portland, Occupy Denver and Occupy Oakland — I call for the same to happen at CU, and every university with a contingent of students fed up with the status quo. I call on all of us students to occupy the universities we pay for, fight for and live for — occupy, if not with bodies, then with words, ideals and insistence upon change.
Emily Tienken is a former managing editor of the CU-Independent (then Campus Press) and a 2008 graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is presently a third-year law student at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall).
Contact CU Independent Guest Contributor Emily Tienken at Etienken@gmail.com.
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