Occupy Texas State

Students at a campus far from the Wall Street crowds discuss the worries about loans, jobs and the future that motivate their protest.

October 14, 2011

The students at Texas State University at San Marcos who protested in Thursday’s second nationally coordinated campus event in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street dispute the oft-repeated charges that the movement’s participants are lazy, unfocused and un-American. And they have the ideas to prove it.

When the time comes to carry out their plans – which address such pervasive student issues as loan repayment and the poor job market – they plan to actually do most of the legwork themselves. They want to attend city council meetings and lobby for bills in the Legislature. They’re going to work with local businesses to establish more scholarships for students. And they plan to get more students registered to vote and active in local and state politics, so they can have a say in where the money goes.

That leaves them with one major obstacle to overcome in the meantime: getting everyone else to care. While protests in New York City and other major cities have attracted thousands, many of them students, the Texas State students are speaking out without a broad movement of local support.

Photo: Lori Alaniz

Students make signs Wednesday night in preparation for a Thursday protest, march and rally in San Marcos.

“In my mind at least, and I think in a lot of other people’s minds, at this point of the movement I think the main focus is raising awareness. We’re doing this and people are like, ‘Why are you protesting?’ And we explain it to them and half the people look at us like they don’t know what we’re talking about,” says Matt Barnes, a mass communications major who is documenting on video the activities of Occupy Texas State as well as Occupy San Marcos. Barnes will graduate from the university this year – $50,000 in debt. “The response that I hear is, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do’…. It’s apathy, but it’s apathy that has been created by a broken system.”

It’s a system, students say, that has resulted in rising tuition, the gutting of state grants meant for low-income students, and a general blocking out of young and disenfranchised voices.

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They raised their voices with others across the country Thursday at 4:30 p.m. EDT, though not without resistance. The 40 or so protesters encountered a few hecklers – students and professors alike – during their march from the Texas State campus quad to the city courthouse rally. Many yelled at the protesters to “get a job” – though most of them already have one. Not all the encounters ended with the protesters getting the middle finger, though; one courthouse heckler with a sign calling the protesters communists and idiots, after an educational conversation, put down his sign and joined them.

While word of other protests was harder to come across this week than last, students did assemble at a number of campuses that didn’t make the news last week, among them California State University at Bakersfield, Iowa State University at Campanile, New Mexico State and San Francisco State Universities, and others. And in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities, students are central to large, ongoing protests.

Last week’s nationwide walkouts on at least 75 campuses enjoyed varying levels of success but exploded on Facebook and Twitter (which is how most of them organized in just a few days) and in the news. While twice that many campuses told the national organizers they would participate on Thursday – meaning, at least one person submitted basic information online -- it appears that last week’s occupation gave many of these students the jumping-off point they needed to get things going locally.

Joshua Christopher Harvey is a Texas State junior majoring in international studies, who served in the Air Force as a Russian linguist but was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," the since-repealed federal policy banning openly gay people from serving in the military. Harvey organized the first Occupy Texas State event last week, which about 20 people attended after it was hastily planned in two days, and since then he and dozens of others have drafted a group declaration and begun forming a list of demands. The specificity of their plans makes them more organized than most small groups.

Texas State’s declaration is similar to that of Occupy Wall Street’s, with a few tweaks; it calls on students to peacefully assemble against, among other things, a 63-percent tuition increase over the past decade and a 40-percent decrease in state grants over the past year.

Photo: Lori Alaniz

Texas State students protest in the student quad as part of Occupy Colleges.

The demands are not final, and their burden is shared between the university, the city and state, and the students themselves. At this point, the demands include extending the six-month grace period during which students must begin paying back their loans; reducing costs on textbooks sold through the university, as well as the “influence of marketing firms” on institutional operations like dining and other areas such as website design where students could be filling jobs; raising and creating new scholarships for Texas State students active in civic life; getting more students registered to vote; and student monitoring of the university’s budget, redirecting funds toward grants when possible.

“We just want to be able to create solutions and not just a list of demands,” says Harvey, who hopes to continue the work as part of a formal group with weekly meetings. “To express our anger through these protests and then, once we get the attention from the media and from the community, to say, ‘Here are our problems, we do have some solutions, and are you willing to work with us to achieve those solutions?’ ”

In addition to helping with that, Jamila Bell, a freshman studying psychology at Texas State, is trying to figure out how she’s going to pay back $3,000 in loans by November. Since the state cut her grant, it’s been an endless cycle of repayment after repayment, each time with a fleeting relief followed by another notification that more money is due – even when she thought it was already taken care of.

“One day I have a grant and the next it’s gone. Every time a paying period comes up something new happens – literally. Is it even worth it?” Bell says. She’s not sure yet, but if things don’t become more stable, she might have to transfer to a community college or a less expensive university, even though her father – who, while supporting Bell, is paying off his own loans for the master’s degree he’s pursuing – is a Texas State alumnus and they both wanted her to go there.

So for Bell, Occupy Texas State is really about showing other students that this all affects them, too; every dollar that goes to a bank instead of a grant is a dollar that one of them will have to pay back.

“Paying off loans – that’s going to be my future. It won’t be having a house or a nice car or anything. I’m going to be paying off loans for the rest of my life,” Bell says. “This movement can open up people’s eyes, and since we do have a voice we can try to help people get grants … and show them we’re all struggling, no matter what class, we’re all college students.”

Photo: Lori Alaniz

Students march to the courthouse.

While also lobbying for more grants and scholarships from local businesses and state government, the protesters want to make and sell their own clothing, the profits from which will go into a fund for local kids to attend college. A common lament among the protesters is that despite growing up having been told anything was possible – and working hard to make sure it was – they now face nothing but barriers.

“You have an economy with no job market, you have a six-month grace period to pay back loans, you have to somehow find a job in six months after you graduate that pays you enough interest to not only take care of yourself and your basic needs, but to start paying back your loans plus interest,” Harvey says. “We just want a movement for change.”

Nicholas Cubides, a Texas State senior who is also running for San Marcos City Council, has registered more than 2,000 students to vote – and if they all turn out and back him in the election, he’ll win hands-down. But whether they do remains to be seen; many have said that, even if they register, they won’t vote.

“It’s really sad. It’s really sad,” Cubides says. “It’s sad to see that this is my generation of people … and the people we need to create massive sweeping changes with the occupy movement, but they have zero interest in doing that.”

So all they can do is try to educate. As Harvey puts it, “My goal is to change this from a moment to a movement.”

Like the one happening in New York.

“I think everything we do, we act in solidarity with other Occupy movements. It’s all one national movement starting at Occupy Wall Street,” says Matthew Molnar, a Texas State freshman studying political science. “I think that the sheer humanity that I’ve witnessed through this movement has been really, I guess, touching. The way that complete strangers can come together and become family through these common grievances, take something negative and turn it into something positive, it’s really amazing; it's inspiring. It gives me hope.”


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