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New Round for College Occupiers

March 1, 2012

For the college Occupy movement, the past couple of months have been largely quiet – the attention-grabbing marches and rallies have fizzled, encampments have closed, and there has been no pepper-spraying or baton-swinging to speak of.

But students say quietness does not equal dormancy, and today they’ll be out to prove it in a national “Day of Action.”

“Students are still working, but just because they haven’t seen all of us out in the streets every day, they think that it’s over,” said Caitlin MacLaren, a New York University student and organizer at Occupy Education, a network of occupations and student and faculty groups that are coordinating the Day of Action. “People will see that it’s just kind of a winter lull, and people are just hibernating a little bit.”

During this down time, students on campuses spanning California to Florida have been discussing the “next phase” of the movement, which Occupy Education says will begin today. More than 100 campus occupations and education and labor groups have told Occupy Education they will take part, but, as previous events have shown, many who participate do so informally. Expected student turnout is in the hundreds for many colleges; on many campuses, rallies or teach-ins are planned.

While the winter season and break from school have allowed protesters time for reflection and perhaps revision to their approach, it has also – for the media and some students – brought dwindling focus and camp closures. As the student activism historian Angus Johnston notes on his blog, more than three dozen campus occupations have sprouted up in the last five months, but many have since been shut down or are on hiatus after being evicted. Others have survived via telecommunication or weekly meetings in new locations, which, while undoubtedly pleasing to campus officials, has made it more difficult to gather.

“The value of the encampments is having a bunch of people in the same place with their various struggles ... really coming and talking about the similarities,” said Ethan Jury, a Temple University senior who helped coordinate today’s events in Philadelphia. Jury also noted that the occupations that have been most active throughout the winter are in warmer climates (read: California). “It’s one thing to send e-mails, it’s one thing to have conference calls. But it’s another to be meeting each other.”

In Philadelphia today, students from Temple and the University of Pennsylvania will stage a walk-out and rally before converging at the governor’s office to hear speakers from education and immigrants’ rights groups.

The joint effort in Pennsylvania and across the country highlights a tactic that we may see more of come spring: collaboration between occupations. Many have realized they can accomplish more as a united front, in spirit if not location. (Occupy Colleges, which organized the last big day of action in October, itself emerged as a show of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.)

When you sit down and talk with people about the issues college occupations are primarily focused on – skyrocketing tuition, privatization of higher education, corporate ties to universities, poor transparency of budgets, and, overall, education as a right and not a commodity – “You realize that these certain issues that you’re struggling from are part of this larger system, and your interests are tied to the interests of parents and workers and other community members,” Jury said. “When you participate in something like what we hope March 1 will be, where you’re not only on the streets with students but you’re on the street with other individuals ... you engage yourself in a larger dialogue.”

“It magnifies all of the individual struggles. It’s really important to point out what’s happening here in the [City University of New York] system or the [University of California] system is very related, and what’s happening with private schools is also connected,” MacLaren said. “It’s an across-the-board attack on public education and on the right to education.”

In California, numerous chapters of the state faculty association have thrown their support behind Occupy. So has the American Association of University Professors. Students on campuses outside the Golden State, meanwhile, have said faculty members are supportive privately, but afraid to speak out on these issues for fear of professional repercussions.

Faculty and students both have something to gain from working together on these issues, said Maureen Loughran, a California Faculty Association field representative at California State University at San Marcos.

“Students are really taking it on themselves, but there’s a solidarity with faculty and students that I see as being very powerful. It’s almost like it’s becoming an organic two-way street,” she said. “The students inspire the faculty and faculty inspire students.”

In California, today’s events will be a precursor to March 5, when CSU students and faculty will join others throughout the state and bus to the Capitol in Sacramento, where thousands are expected to rally for better funding for education, jobs and services. (The March 1 Day of Action was actually Occupy Education California’s brainchild; New York joined in when it got wind of the plan and other campuses signed on from there.)

“I think [the movement] has been there all along; I don’t think it ever died down. They’ve just been in planning mode rather than action mode,” Loughran said. “It may seem like the movement was quiet, but they’re certainly planning for an action that I think will be very loud. It may not be that they have continuous action going on, which is probably good. They’re thinking, they’re assessing.”

For some, today could be start of a movement rather than the reprising of one.

Washington, D.C. is one place where college Occupy has been conspicuously absent. American University student Ben Johnson speculates this is for two reasons. One, the regularity of protests in the District means it can be tough to make an impact with yours, and two, the dominance of private colleges in the region.

“I don’t think it’s really fair to say [the movement] fizzled out, because it’s never really gotten its feet,” Johnson said. “I think it’s been harder to motivate a lot of the schools here because a lot of the occupations I’ve seen happening out West have been done with public schools, so they’re working with a different demographic. That’s not to say people in private schools aren’t affected by the same issues; however, I think that in a private school, I think you’re more likely to say, ‘Yeah, I’m perfectly OK with my school, because I chose it.’ ”

But today, students from colleges around the region – public and private – will march from McPherson Square near the White House downtown past a Sallie Mae office, and across the National Mall to the Education Department, where they will rally outside as employees are leaving for the day. While Johnson believes today is important to get things rolling, what comes after will be more so, he said.

“I would not actually call it crucial,” he said. “This is more the beginning of a very long campaign against these issues.”

The timing of the Day of Action is less than coincidental, notes Angus Johnston, who is also an adjunct assistant history professor at CUNY’s Hostos Community College. “For the last three years, the first week of March has seen a national day of coordinated student action in support of accessible, democratic higher education,” Johnston wrote. “The 2010 day of action came as the nation’s most active year of student protest in decades was in full swing. Building on the California protests and occupations of fall 2009, March 4 saw more than 120 actions in 33 states, and drew a level of media attention that was, for its time, astonishing. A year and a half before Occupy Wall Street was launched, 11 months before the Wisconsin statehouse occupation began, March 4 was for many the first sign that something big and new was bubbling up from the campuses.”

 

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