Students bring Occupy to campus

As the Occupy Wall Street movement turns two months old and, in some cities such as Oakland, California faces serious cases of violence and police brutality, Macalester students are growing restless with the minimal role the movement has played on campus. Some activists involved in OccupyMN and student orgs such as MPIRG, MacCares and MacDems have started a new movement that strives to get as many Macalester community members regularly involved in Occupy rallies and events as possible.

The new movement’s name: OccupyMac.

The Start of OccupyMac

“I was really happy with the turnout we got on Friday,” Melissa Marshall ’14, one of the leaders of OccupyMac wrote in an email, referring to OccupyMac’s first informational meeting held a week ago in the chapel. “We have had a hard time getting people to take a look at OccupyMac even though the Occupy protests are in the news all the time, mainly because people just don’t know what the movement’s all about and they don’t want to commit to marching downtown for something they’re not sure they even care about.”

Last Friday’s informational meeting kicked off the expansion of the movement on campus. With help from guest speakers representing the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 284 and OccupyMN, OccupyMac leaders Marshall, Brett Srader ’12, Josie Ahrens ’14, Sophia Hansen-Day ’15 and Leewana Thomas ’14 emphasized the role that young people are playing in Occupy, which is now a national phenomenon.

“Students should get involved if for no other reason because student loan debt recently replaced credit card debt as the largest debt in the US,” Marshall said. “We’re looking to make the movement a fixture on campus. The most important thing you can do is occupy a space.”

Also present to urge students into action was Joe Farley, a student at the University of Minnesota who has been involved with OccupyMN from the start.

“The youth is the staple of this movement; that’s where it’s going to thrive, is in the students,” Farley said. “We [young people] have the most to lose in our safety and security of the future.”

Farley said that one of his biggest concerns is how media outlets have reported on the Occupy movement. In his view, the coverage has been inaccurate.

“All people see in the news is disorganization. What the media should focus on is what’s happening to our parents’ savings,” he said. “Things happen. Maybe they’re inspired or maybe they’re grassroots, but then they’re categorized and filed away by the mainstream media. Because of this we have to be consistent, show we’re not leaving.”

Leif Grina, a member of SEIU Local 284, was also at the meeting to emphasize that young citizens are the heart and soul of the movement. A member of the baby boomer generation, Grina spoke for all of SEIU when he said that young people are the only hope for Occupy to achieve tangible results.

“We are about power. Power is the ability to affect change through the organization of people and resources,” he said. “[For young people], this is your moment, your opportunity. I encourage you to seize it with both hands and embrace it. Some parts of it will be scary … but you have a stake in this. I’m 59, this isn’t about me.”

OccupyMN

On Sept. 17, 1,000 people showed up to the first day of Occupy Wall Street in New York City to demonstrate their frustration with the economic disparities caused by corporate greed. Though the movement has been chastised for its disorganization and lack of a central goal, the leaders of OccupyMac feel that the diverse nature of the movement permits the lack of a singular definition.

“You can’t sum up what’s wrong with the economic system in one or two sentences,” Marshall said. “But we can’t go on like this.”

In recent weeks the rocky relationship between law enforcement and protestors has forced the movement to, in some cities, deviate from its initial non-violent roots. Most notably in Oakland, California, “police brutality has been a recurring event in the movement, which is a little disturbing,” Marshall said.

“There are currently major protests in 80 cities and minor ones in 2,000 cities, towns and suburbs across the country,” Marshall said.

Formally occupying Government Plaza in downtown Minneapolis since Oct. 7, OccupyMN currently has movements in seven areas of the Twin Cities region – Alexandria, St. Paul, Grand Rapids, Mankato, Marshall, Rochester and Minneapolis. OccupyMac has been most active in Minneapolis.

Though OccupyMac is in its initial stages, its members intend to support OccupyMN while still creating a Macalester-specific identity for the group.

“OccupyMac and OccupyMN are sort of connected, but quite loosely,” Marshall said. “Because OccupyMN is so open to anyone who happens to be there, OccupyMac has a really easy time getting a say when they’re planning student events.

“For example, the Friday rally was planned in a group that met right after another rally about two weeks ago. There’s also a Google group where all the student related groups keep in touch about what’s going on with the current event planned, which is a lot easier than busing down to Government Plaza every day.”

But the OccupyMN movement faces an uncertain future regarding its location at Government Plaza and its relationship with local law enforcement. Winter weather and recent conflicts with local police may keep OccupyMN protests from continuing.

Because of this,”getting OccupyMac established is really important so that the conversation will continue even if the protests do not,” Marshall said.

Ultimately, OccupyMac hopes to serve as an open door for all Macalester community members to either continue their involvement in the Occupy movement or begin their education on it.

“I’d encourage people who don’t know what to think of Occupy or have made a judgment call on it without having been down there or really learning a lot about it to come to one of our meetings,” Marshall said. “Even if they decide they don’t support it, being informed about the biggest protest movement in recent American history is better than brushing it off.”

The Future of Occupy

After Friday’s meeting a group of approximately 30 Macalester students went to the march focused on education costs and student debt in Government Plaza. Supported by roughly 150 other protesters, Macalester was more represented than any other college.

“What was great about Friday was that once we got people in there and informed they seemed a lot less apprehensive about coming downtown for the rally and helping out by joining the steering committee,” Marshall said. “It was really the first time that we’d been able to get across a lot of information to a fairly large group and it really helped our momentum.”

Other schools represented at the rally included the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and Carleton College. One of the eventual goals of OccupyMac is to work with other campus movements.

“We’re coming down to Occupy because we’re passionate about justice in general,” Ahrens said when asked about what brings the students in the Occupy movement together. “For students in particular, we’re all—or at least most of us, the 99 percent—burdened with debt and underemployment or unemployment.”

But the leaders of the group, who are planning to form a steering committee with any students interested in getting involved in the organizational process, are aware that student schedules barely have room for sleep, let alone attending downtown rallies on a daily basis. OccupyMac leaders have tried to acknowledge this reality and incorporate it into their mission.

“Because we really can’t be down there a lot with classes and other commitments, we’re mostly focusing on getting people interested in OccupyMac and growing the conversation about the movement on campus,” Marshall said.

“We may not physically be occupying here, but we are having a similar conversation as other Occupy movements,” Srader said.

Ahrens echoed this emphasis on growing the conversation. Discussion about the Occupy movement has previously occurred on campus among a number of groups, such as the International Socialist Organization and MPIRG’s Economic Justice Task Force.

But Ahrens thinks that OccupyMac would be a better space for ideas to be exchanged between the involved groups.

“There’s a more solidified forum for this discussion to happen.”