A week ago, a band of NYU students marched in the Greenwich Village campus before descending downtown to the NYC Department of Education, where they merged with students from across the city for another Day of Action.
The diversity of agenda—so characteristic of the original OWS—could be sensed in the versatility of indignation voiced by this band of NYU students. Chick-fil-A, Chase Bank, Nursing home workers, union-busting and tuition hikes: not a single issue surrounding the NYU administration today was left out.
The march was organized and spearheaded by the members of NYU4OWS, GSOC-UAW, and Occupy Student Debt. Present were the familiar faces that attended and lead the series of mass student rallies last year. The overall tone however, was markedly vicious—a stark contrast to the fraternally ardent tone of last year’s rallies. “No Justice? No Peace…Student Debt—Abolish it! Board of Trustees—Demolish it!” they roared. One could almost whiff a sense of defiance against an impending defeat.
The symbolic stronghold of the original Occupy Wall Street movement at Zuccotti has largely dissipated. Piled-up metal cordons and an unmanned NYPD surveillance birdhouse still remain in the park, reminding the beholder of the pre-winter vigor and endurance of OWS.
Mayor Bloomberg’s war on OWS had scattered the movement’s symbolic center of gravity in an overnight crackdown that was desperately camera shy. Then winter set in. Then winter break came. And the media withdrew its curiosity. Admittedly OWS had taken a step out of the limelight.
The legacies of the original OWS movement can still be felt across the city and the nation. Indeed the physical remnants of counter-protest apparatuses seemed to betray NYPD’s guarded circumspection—that the children of the movement had the potential to re-storm its lost bastion at any given time. General Assemblies, protests, marches are still in action, largely on a student initiative.
The first tents drawn up at Zuccotti had undeniably reignited the agenda of activism on campus, which in turn reinforced the OWS movement at large. It was mutually understood that they were to feed off each other, and more importantly that they were dependent upon one another. Pundits of all stripes invariably remarked on how activism had not seen such vigor, strength and universality since the ‘60s. But such initial energy had unmistakably dwindled. With the original movement waning, campus activism also seemed to have taken a hit. Notably, pre-OWS campus activism in America, although existent, had been relatively feeble.
Back in 2010, as tuition hikes were being discussed in the House of Commons, London, some 50,000 students from across the UK stormed the Conservative party headquaters. The Scotland Yard was out in full force, clad in counter-rioting gear and anticipating the worst. The vast majority of students insisted upon a peaceful protest. But as the crowd were being kettled in, frustrations flared, and the more extreme-minded—perhaps those who were out there to willfully stir trouble—resorted to deplorable violence, confusing the law-enforcing functionaries of the state with the state itself. All pre-OWS.
Across the pond, college students in America looked on quietly, concerned about their assignments and their grades and their debt and their future. This has prompted some pundits to question why campus activism had not captured students in America. Memorably in one of the video clips of the UK student strike, an American female student brazenly barked at the stream of protesters, “Why don’t you pay for your education?” One of them sneeringly responded, “Oh, she’s American!” in the most scathing English tone conceivable.
Since 1985, tuition in America has always been on the rise, more startlingly than the costs of medical care, gasoline, and standard consumer products. Tuition fees are “559 percent of their cost in 1985. In other words they have nearly sextupled,” Catherine Rampell of NYT said.
How has this been allowed to happen without considerable confrontation? Why did it take the birth of OWS to bring such preexisting issues as tuition hikes, inequality and the malfeasant corporate culture onto the public scene—to the extent that students were collectively willing to vent their fury in such unprecedented numbers?
Courtney Martin in The American Prospect said, ““In no small part, it’s because privileged students at America’s colleges and universities generally don’t take the issue personally. Those who are politically active tend to set their sights on distant horizons—the poor in India, say, or the oppressed in Afghanistan.”
Simeon Talley in Campus Progress deconstructed the issue further. “What best explains the dormancy on many college campuses is rooted in a national condition. The social value placed on universally accessible higher education has declined. College used to be dramatically less expensive because it was heavily subsidized by the state. The past few decades have seen “massive disinvestment.” In the accompanying time, the burden of financing higher education has shifted to the individual… Colleges aren’t enabling greater democratic citizenship anymore, they’re producing wage earners. There is a trend towards privatization and commoditization that’s quite troubling.”
Peter Seybold, a sociology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University, has also described this phenomenon as the commodification of the American university. He explained to Steven Higgs in a Counter Punch article that a political and cultural attack launched by the American business in reaction to the radical leftist movements of the ‘60s. He referred to a private memorandum sent to the Department of Commerce called, “Attack of American Free Enterprise System,” in which Richmond, Va., attorney Lewis F. Powell expressed fears for the threat of socialism and communism on the liberal business culture in America. For Powell, the university was the primary hotbed of such movements that threatened to overhaul the capitalist enterprise.
“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians,”
This memorandum is routinely credited for initiating the establishment of hallmark conservative think tanks and institutions, and more importantly for being the shaping blueprint of the conservative intellectualism throughout the 70s and 80s. Mark Schmitt of the American Prospect remarks on the dearth of evidence that even remotely hints at the “blueprint” status of the memorandum, asserting that right wing funders were very unlikely to have read such a memo. Nevertheless he points out that corporate culture and the conservative landscape have followed a pattern stipulated by Powell. Ultimately, he concludes that no long term conservative “plan” had ever been conceived.
Most importantly, Peter Seybold said this sort of corporatization had resulted in an unopposed rise of tuition fees. This he argued lead to students struggling to pay their debts off, while having worked two jobs throughout their undergraduate. Subsequently, students would find it more practical to major in disciplines “directly connected to business” to generate a more secure income streams than other majors—say Art History or Comparative Literature—would promise. In this way, the size of student debt “shapes their career options.”
Tom Hayden, the co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, and the author of the infamous Port Huron Statement of 1962 told Simeon Telley:
“The challenges they (students) face on their campuses are far different than the past and perhaps more profound. Tuition costs at UM in 1960 were one hundred dollars, and I can’t remember if that was for a semester or an entire year. So I could obtain my degree, edit the paper, go south to the civil rights movement for two years, return and enter graduate school, and never feel I was falling behind in the competitive economic rat-race…A student today falls tens of thousands of dollars in debt, even after holding two part-time jobs, a burden which limits their career choices. Dropping out for social activism brings competitive disadvantage.”
One of the British student protestors wrote in The Guardian, “it was a protest against the increasingly utilitarian approach to human life that sees degrees as nothing but “investments” by individuals, and denies any link between education and the broader social good.” While British students appeared to be fighting against the rise of a mere garden fence, American student protestors were up against an ancient wall that promised to grow persistently.