Occupy Everything Right Now
So said one of the signs at the student occupation of the New School’s building at 65 Fifth Avenue, which was met with a phalanx of NYC cops, pepper spray and mass arrests at the request of New School prez Bob Kerrey’s administration. On the surface, the students seem a scruffy, wild-eyed lot–tats and unruly beards, raised fists and bold slogans. It’s easy for the press to dismiss them as merely "angry" and impetuous. Indeed, comments on the NYT city blog positively seethe with contempt.
"These immature adults are nothing more than terrorists..I would Taser them," writes one poster. "I hope the New School will treat these self-absorbed brats the same way NYU did…paying tuition does NOT mean you get a voice in how the university is run," says another. "A protest that appears to lack direction and realistic demands," quibbles a third.
The harshest of these comments come from the right, but there’s an echo of such animosity from the world-weary left as well–a tendency to roll eyes and scoff at the student’s naivete. Earlier this year, when NYU students occupied the student center, some left-leaning faculty privately complained that they couldn’t totally support the students because of their naive strategy and incoherent, sprawling demands. (One of the students’ demands, for example, was to set aside a number of scholarships for students from the Occupied Territories.) Many faculty eventually signed a letter protesting the NYU administration’s treatment of the demonstrators, but few prominent figures or outside movements came to the student’s defense, and the whole incident fizzled in public consciousness as just another rash, incidental campus uprising.
And then there’s the state of general malaise that seems to preoccupy the left now. If there’s so much roiling populist anger, where are the mass street protests in the US that would rival those in Greece, Latvia and France (see Sudhir Venkatesh’s op-ed and Stephen Greenhouse’s analysis of American labor’s relative docility)? If only 53 percent of Americans believe capitalism is better than socialism, as a recent Rasmussen poll reports, why aren’t the people storming the palace?
There’s some sort of strategic disconnect going on here between the lack of widespread support for the protests and radical tactics that actually exist and the hyperventilating about the left’s (or populism’s) allegedly moribund spirit. If mass mobilization is what you really want, you have to start somewhere, and the students, however goofy or shambolic, are one of the few organized forces willing to risk something.
And for the record, at the crux of both occupations lies a demand for greater accountability and transparency, for socially responsible investing, for greater democracy and more reasonable tuition rates. Writ large, these are values that go to the heart of the current economic crisis–the division of society into the haves and have nots and the impunity with which the elite (including the academic elite) run their institutions. If the student protests spread, there’s no telling what other righteous fires they might start. The left, for example, might do well to look at the French protests of 2006, which began with students at a handful of campuses but eventually spread to 68 of 89 universities, incorporated trade unions, brought millions to the street, France to a standstill and eventually derailed a bill that would have made it easier to fire young workers.
We can wait for the perfect moment, or for the perfect, tidy platform, or for the perfect campaign that can’t fail. And then, we will wait forever. In a time of such great suffering for so many, Occupy Everything Right Now seems just as good a banner around which to rally as any.