As Occupy Wall Street fans out into different parts of New York City (and, well, the world), Washington Square Park has quickly become the hub for student involvement in the protest. From the student walk-out earlier this month to the recent addition of a student general assembly by the fountain, university participation is picking up momentum.
This Saturday began the newest iteration of student organization: People’s University, a teach-in style lecture series of professors and academics, organized largely by graduate students and a few undergrads from NYU. They’re organized around the idea that education should be free and in public spaces, and “not a consumer good,” according to their Tumblr, so they’re bringing academia outdoors.
Teach-ins have been a staple of American protests since 1965, when 200 professors at the University of Michigan taught for 12 hours to protest the Vietnam war. Professors and other academics have been giving lectures to the protesters at Zuccotti for a few weeks now, including NYU professor Slavoj Zizek, journalist Naomi Klein and the Nation reporter Chris Hedges to name a few.
The group behind People’s U call themselves NYU4OWS, and work with New School and CUNY students to organize the student general assemblies that have began to be held in Washington Square Park too. The People’s U schedule of speakers is peopled thus far with such notables as Niel Smith, a famous geographer who teaches at CUNY, and Sujatha Fernandes, a sociology professor whose talk is listed as “Hip Hop for Social Change.” Based on this piece she wrote for HuffPo, it will be cool.
NYU politics professor Christine Harrington will speak in the park on Wednesday, and is so far the only NYU professor on the list.
The first session brought the Marxist economist and New School professor Richard Wolff to the park on Saturday afternoon. He gave his lecture through the “people’s mic” system; in short slices of sentences which are then chimed back by those listening, to circumvent the law against amplified sound.
It sounds laborious– a twenty-minute lecture repeated quarter-line by quarter-line — but the stamina of the audience of college kids was impressive, and after a few minutes of settling into unison, the system lent cadence and energy to the talk. What listeners agreed with they repeated louder. What Wolff wanted emphasized he left as a single word to be chimed back. At one point in the talk the people’s mic gave a standalone “bullshit!” dramatic flair.
Wolff drew parallels between the current economic situation and the other time “American capitalism collapsed,” during the 1930s, when the Great Depression sparked a massive push for union organizing and a time of protest which produced programs like Social Security and the first state unemployment benefits.
“When everyone from the government to the big businesses said there was no money, the unions, socialists and communists said ‘we know they have the money,’ and they demanded programs,” Wolff said.
The Great Depression began in 1929 but the people needed four years to “get over the shock” enough to begin organizing, Wolff said. Here we are in the fourth year of our own economic quagmire, and here is a Marxist economist speaking at a teach-in. Here is Occupy Wall Street and all its Occupy cousins. This could perhaps be the beginnings of a second such movement, he said.
But today’s Occupy movement needs to learn from a fatal flaw of the 1930s that lead us to today’s economic mess, according to Wolff: that movement never fundamentally changed the way corporations worked. They were left untouched, and they evolved into the problematic institutions we have today. The protest and whatever articulated rumblings that will last beyond it can’t just settle for jobs programs or bank reform, he said. “If we don’t restructure the corporations, we will see our good work undone.”
By “restructure,” he meant a transformation into a Marxist operation, where workers, consumers and surrounding community make all the decisions when it comes to production, and the rest of the corporate operation is eliminated entirely.
A corporation is a fundamentally undemocratic institution. We need to transform corporate enterprise to make corporations to be just as democratic as we want everything else to be. the people who most depend on the decisions of corporations are the people who work there and the people who consume what they produce. [...] We should all say a fond and sincere farewell to the shareholders and the boards of directors. ‘You badly messed up. We don’t hold it against you. Go home.’
That elicited a few cheers and elevated two-hand-waving, the motion of approval used at general assemblies.
When news media need one line to explain Occupy Wall Street–indeed the whole Occupy movement–it is that the protest is “against corporate greed.” The range of grievances is overwhelmingly diverse and the movement is without a list of demands, but there is no single point more fundamental than that. Wolff’s perspective represents one approach to fixing the corporate system that all protesters agree is broken. It is distinctly Marxist, shaped by the American socialist movement he described, and it is an opinion shared by many protesters; but it is by no means the only opinion. It is probably not even a majority, if any opinion can claim that much consensus at Zuccotti. The other People’s U speakers will bring other approaches to the table, the same way the people who speak at general assemblies constantly add to the multitude.
As Wolff ended his lecture, a group left to join a march at Union Square against police brutality.
“All of us take our hats off–and if there weren’t laws, other articles of clothing off–to show our appreciation,” Wolff said, “Because the alternative, to leave things as they are, is no longer tolerable.”