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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Occupy Colleges: Student Supporters of Occupy Wall Street Continue To Show Solidarity
NEW YORK — Thursday afternoon, in concert with the Occupy Wall Street movement, students from nearly 150 college campuses across the country will participate in their second protest in as many weeks.
As with the nationwide walkout held last Wednesday, the students will band together to make their voices heard — with many expressing frustration over increasing amounts of student loan debt and the rising cost of tuition, in addition to a paucity of jobs for recent graduates.
“We’re planning to do these walkouts and shows of solidarity every two weeks until these issues are resolved,” said Natalia Abrams, 31, who helps to organize Occupy Colleges, a student-led grassroots group based in Los Angeles that helped facilitate both nationwide protests. “If Occupy Wall Street is indefinite, we’re indefinite as well. We plan to keep the solidarity protest going for as long as it takes.”
In many ways, today’s protest marks a significant challenge for student backers of the Occupy Wall Street movement, not only in terms of coordination and organization, but also with respect to maintaining momentum.
“Participating in something that’s clearly ascendant is always something of a rush,” said Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University. While McAdam said it was inherently difficult to build on the momentum of a movement that’s neither centralized nor coordinated, he cautioned against making too much of its diffuse nature.
“We like to talk about big, historic movements as if they were these spectacularly well-coordinated affairs. They almost never are,” said McAdam, who teaches a course on political movements. “Very broad, diverse efforts are generally more effective because you can speak to different constituencies. It becomes quite difficult to suppress a movement that doesn’t have one distinct leader or head.”
Occupy Colleges, which started as a Facebook page and Twitter handle less than two weeks ago, has quickly blossomed into a burgeoning movement bolstered by a groundswell of student-led support. As of Thursday morning, student organizers at 136 college campuses – from Sarah Lawrence College to Boise State University to San Diego City College — have pledged to participate in Thursday’s show of solidarity.
“Around the country, more and more high school students are foregoing a college education because their families can no longer afford it. So many more are graduating with inconceivable amounts of debt and stepping into the worse job market in decades,” reads a statement on Occupy Colleges’ website. “They take unpaid internships that go nowhere and soon can’t pay college loans. We represent students who share these fears and support Occupy Wall Street.”
Shay Berman, a 20-year-old junior at Michigan State University, is organizing his campus’s show of support later today. Based on rough Twitter estimates, Berman is hopeful that about 50 of his classmates will join him at the Rock, which is a common area on the East Lansing campus dedicated to free speech and protest.
“We’re worried about our future and that the middle class won’t exist once we get out of school. Also, the rising cost of tuition is a big concern,” said Berman, who said his participation in the Occupy Wall Street protests marked his first significant political involvement. “We’re just frustrated with America and the whole way our society is run. “
According to Gonzalo Vizcardo, 21, a senior economics major at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., 45 students plan to attend a general assembly on campus later this afternoon. Meanwhile, about 40 students at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, are readying for a similar gathering.
Last night in San Marcos, a handful of students spent the evening making hand-painted signs in preparation. Later today, the same group plans to meet at the Stallion, a “free speech zone” at the center of campus. From there, the group will march to the nearby square in downtown San Marcos. Their aim: increased visibility and the dispelling of apathy.
“Student debt is a huge issue, with some students starting to question the wisdom of even having a degree anymore,” said Joshua Christopher Harvey, a 24-year-old junior who previously served in the U.S. Air Force prior to being discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Harvey organized both last week’s walkout and today’s march. “The main thing that’s come up at our meetings is that there’s only a six-month grace period to start paying our loans back — and we’re worried there won’t even be jobs available once we get out.”
Brayden King, an assistant professor of management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, sees college students as a natural constituency in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“If, say, you’re a middle-aged investment banker, you might look around your social group and think the economy isn’t doing all that bad,” said King. “But if you’re a college student or a recent graduate, you’re thinking the exact opposite when all of your friends are either unemployed or working in jobs that are much lower paying than what they expected to be doing after they graduated.”
Michael T. Heaney, an assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan, also sees the college protests as a natural part of the movement’s evolution.
“For young people in particular, it’s an opportunity for them to learn about activism and politics for the first time,” said Heaney. “While the 2000s were an intense period of protest, the current generation in college wasn’t really exposed to the earlier period of activism of the last decade. And for a lot of these students, this is their first movement.”
Heaney is currently studying how the first time an individual participates in an activist movement later reverberates throughout the course of their lives. “The point is that first experience with activism will have a long-lasting effect, affecting the way they think about activism, the tactics they think are important and even affecting their social networks,” said Heaney. “But it also has the opportunity to put them off.”
In terms of Occupy Wall Street’s ultimate impact, McAdam notes that while early participation in a movement can help shape young activists, equally important is the historical context of the movement itself.
McAdam studied participants in Freedom Summer – the 10 week-period in 1964 when civil rights activists, many of them college students, traveled to Mississippi to register black voters — who later became more politically engaged members of society as a result.
He found that it wasn’t simply their activism that mattered, but the fact that they participated in the movement during the beginning of sixties-era radicalism.
“In many ways, this particular moment looks a lot like a Freedom Summer moment,” said McAdam. “With our economic woes likely to continue, or perhaps even deepen, for some time and the election coming up next year, it is very likely that we are entering a period of escalating economic, political and social turmoil.
“For students, it won’t have a long-term impact simply because they went to an Occupy Wall Street demonstration a few times, but because it began a process that carried them in the way that Freedom Summer started a process for the Mississippi volunteers.”