Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is beginning to occupy minds worldwide, as a broad amalgam of people advocating social change have taken to the streets in hundreds of cities with a predominant rallying cry: “We are the 99 percent.”
A growing number of college students, including those at UR and other colleges in Rochester, are following the national trend and joining protests as they speak out against limited job prospects and daunting student loans.
Rochester citizens have been protesting downtown for the past several weeks, and a group of UR students is trying to organize an Occupy UR movement in solidarity with protests and occupations that have sprung up in more than 100 cities nationwide and 1,500 worldwide.
Approximately 40 UR students gathered at a “teach-in” facilitated by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on Tuesday, Oct. 18. The panel discussion of five students who protested in New York City with OWS was designed to raise awareness of the movement and spur student action.
OWS is a bohemian movement that has resisted categorization and concretely enumerated goals and leaders. It began in New York City’s financial district on Sept. 17 to take a collective stand against corporate greed and the “1 percent,” and has endured adverse police reactions and initially scant mainstream media attention.
Protesters have decried the role that banks, the mortgage industry and the insurance industry have played in the convergence of wealth in such a small percentage of the population.
According to the movement’s website, which, coupled with social media outlets, has played a vital role in organizing protesters, OWS is a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions” who constitute the 99 percent.
On average, about 40 people per day have been attending the rallies at the Liberty Pole in downtown Rochester, said protester Emily Good, who described Occupy Rochester (OR) as an “autonomously organized movement.”
The rallies occur Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m., with Wednesday being the “march” day during which protesters take their signs and take to the streets. Organizational and planning events take place on Sundays from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Flying Squirrel Community Space.
On Tuesday, Oct. 18 OR joined with community and labor organizations in a well-attended rally that attracted well over 50 protestors who called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to stop New York state’s planned $5 million tax break for the wealthiest people in New York state, which will go into effect if the supplemental tax rates expire on Dec. 31., 2011.
UR senior Melanie Prasad spoke at the rally along with several other union officials, who said the money involved in the tax breaks should be invested in job creation, schools, healthcare and human services.
“We can’t keep sacrificing the younger generation’s futures in order to consolidate more wealth in the top 1 percent of our society,” Prasad said to the crowd, adding that she thinks the issue of access to quality education and affordable student loans is of vital importance.
“I wonder what opportunities, if any, will be available to me once I graduate,” she said.
Prasad spent four days at protests in New York City and said she thinks issues like high property taxes and the hydrofracking debate in upstate New York are particularly pressing for the city of Rochester.
At the panel discussion on Tuesday, the five students — Take Five Scholars Mara Chinelli and Sam Miller, seniors Frank Colaruotolo, and Boian Boianov, and Monroe Community College student Jake Allen — discussed their experiences of OWS and their take on the movement’s importance and relevance to college students.
“It was important for me to go as a student at UR, take what I learned and bring it back,” said Miller, adding that she found the amount of teamwork and organization at OWS “truly astounding.”
She also said she was awed by the level of knowledge people in New York City have.
“People everywhere were so aware of what’s going on, and that’s what we wanted to bring back to UR,” she said. “Awareness is step one, and that’s what this meeting is about.”
Chinelli said she was impressed by the number of articulate students who were “taking the reins” and leading discussion groups at OWS.
“People are trying to find the language they need to express their grievances,” she said, adding that she thinks the “decentralization” of the movement right now is an asset because it is allowing people to experiment with alternate methods of living and enacting change.
Chinelli also said she sees a “major disconnect” between UR students and the Rochester community.
“We don’t live in a vacuum — we should be more actively engaged and supportive of the immediate world off campus,” she said. “Instead of campus awareness, I would like to see some kind of campus involvement.”
This involvement, she said, is up to the students — “whether they want to occupy Wall Street, Rochester or even our own campus.”
Colaruotolo agreed that the movement is benefiting by not having concrete demands, despite the mainstream media’s harsh critique of this. He described OWS as a “community that has come to run and sustain itself through cooperative ways.”
“OWS is redefining politics — it’s bringing it back to the people,” he said. “It’s acting, not reacting.”
Despite many of the positive opinions expressed by the panelists, Philosophy Professor Randall Curren said the situation might be worse than students see it.
“Things have gotten a lot worse in my lifetime — the average American work week has gotten a lot longer, free time has decreased, safety nets have withered, participation in civil organizations has decreased,” he said at the discussion. “It’s a lot harder to make democracy work when people are so, so different.”
He remains unsure what change OWS can concretely accomplish. “I think people are just trying to figure out what’s going on and how to help,” he said.
Mike Stone, who was holding a sign at Tuesday’s OR rally that read “We need school funding, not tax cuts for the rich,” described himself as a student “until New York helped me not be.”
“My whole reason for being here is that the New York state system chewed me and spit me out,” he said. “I’m homeless now and can’t find a job.”
Stone attended Monroe Community College for two semesters, but was not allowed to come back after receiving a parole violation and is struggling to pay his school loans.
Jonathan Valenti, a fifth year student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said he is organizing an Occupy RIT movement and hopes to join with other colleges in the Rochester area to build a student-wide network.
“We need to have student working groups as part of Occupy Rochester,” he said. “We need to organize all schools in the region and organize all student voices.”
SDS says they are working to make that student voice heard, but that engaged discussion is the first step. The group has a series of teach-ins planned and hopes to coordinate students to participate in OR rallies and create UR’s own branch — Occupy UR. An Occupy UR Facebook page was created on Tuesday, describing its mission simply: “In solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Protests Worldwide.”
Tuesday’s teach-in may have been UR’s catalyst for action.
“As of this moment, Occupy UR exists,” senior Sonya Bentovich said.
Buletti is a member of the class of 2013.