Similarities between SIU strike and Occupy movement

By Gus Bode

james anderson

graduate student in mass communication and media arts

Police raided the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park Nov. 15, destroying a 5,000-volume library, blocking media coverage, busting demonstrators with batons, firing tear gas into the crowd and forcibly arresting around 70 people, with credentialed journalists included.

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This was only one day before Occupy Oakland in California was raided, resulting in the arrest of 30 protesters and the resignation of two city officials.  Occupy Oakland had previously been ransacked by authorities who fired flash grenades at demonstrators.

Following the egregious use of force by police, the people of Oakland organized a one-day general strike that shut down one of the country’s busiest ports.

Drastically different in undeniable ways, there are important parallels between recent events here at SIUC and the aforementioned Occupy movement.  They speak to some of the same broader societal issues and competing trajectories.

When reports came in that police had destroyed the library of books at the flagship Occupy Wall Street camp in New York, blocking and jailing journalists in the process, those in power managed a temporary triumvirate of the First Amendment with squelching seldom achieved, given the other obvious impingement on peaceable assembly.

At SIUC, some might recall the oddly timed decision to remove books with information on employees’ salaries from Morris Library during the period leading up to the Faculty Association strike.  Others might recall the university’s decision to begin selectively removing posts from the SIUC Facebook page — a move that incensed plenty of screenshot-savvy students prepared to repeatedly document the censorship of their censures.

In response to this and other questionable uses of mass communication by the administration, professors and students set up the online Free Speech Zone at occupysiuc.wordpress.com.  Alternative online media have become increasingly important for countering dominant narratives, locally and otherwise.

Regarding Occupy Wall Street, there was no dominant narrative to speak of early on, as mainstream corporate media were simply too busy during the limited 24 hours a day, seven days a week news cycle to cover it.  Since then, establishment media coverage has still generally reflected the interests and views of the establishment (go figure). Protesters have been portrayed in unfavorable or confounding light, and the major media just cannot understand what it is these people want.

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Yes, the slogan for Occupy Wall Street might be a rather straightforward, “We are the 99%,” and yes, the other 1 percent might take in almost a quarter of the income and control about 40 percent of the country’s wealth, as Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz pointed out in a Vanity Fair column last May.  Sure, that highly concentrated wealth might consistently translate into concentrated political power, perpetuating a vicious cycle with devastating effects, but let’s put that aside and try to figure out why people could possibly be protesting.

Whether the dominant position bespeaks a class-conscious corporate campaign or is more accurately described as a Marie Antoinette ideology of indifference and befuddlement among elites and an elite media incapable of comprehending the struggles faced by the greater public is hard to say.

In an Oct. 11 op-ed from The New York Times titled “The Milquetoast Radicals,” columnist David Brooks argued proposals “floating around the Occupy Wall Street movement” such as “forgiveness for student loan debt” are merely “marginal.”

During the strike at SIUC, the editorial page of the Southern Illinoisan echoed similar out-of-touch sentiments.  The first was a piece titled, “Voice of the Southern: Go to work, or get out!” The follow-up to that was “Voice of the Southern: We repeat: Get back to work!”

In the former, they lambasted striking professors for taking a principled stand against accepting pay raises tied to student tuition increases.  Because intolerably high unemployment rates are not a sufficient reminder, The Southern took pains to inform us “Jobs are not easily attained and quickly lost in a faltering economy.”  In the latter they reiterated that no matter what the terms imposed, the faculty must acquiesce to any and all demands because, “There are no other alternatives, readers.”  Margaret Thatcher, eat your heart out.

Further they instructed readers, “Forget about the presence of 700 students who rallied in support of the faculty … anyone with a bullhorn could mobilize a similar force for any reason on a warm autumn afternoon,” adding, “Throw in the word ‘pizza’ and you might attract a few thousand.”

First, forgiveness of student loan debt might be “marginal” for The New York Times editorialists, but probably not for the recent graduates among the 99% who cannot find a job in the “faltering economy” — an economy that happens to be “faltering” because the financial elite almost brought it crashing down.  Wall Street was bailed out, but the fiscal turmoil that resulted has provided an opportune pretext for further defunding of public services such as education, which in turn has spurred greater privatization of universities, not to mention persistent tuition and fee increases.

Saddling students with debt has functioned as a fantastic disciplinary mechanism in the past, effectively trapping students, keeping them narrowly focused on work (and feverishly looking for work) while in school and after graduation, ensuring a steady flow of workers into the corporate sector where wages have stagnated for decades now, with no small thanks to sustained attacks on unions.

During the strike at SIUC, we were told things were going along swimmingly; it was just “business as usual” in all of the classrooms without any professors to speak of or with professors who should not have been there.  The spurious “business as usual” trope was further belied by the massive student marches on campus.

But the idea of “business as usual” is problematic for other reasons.  For one, the university is not simply a business.  It is a site where meaningful dialogue and intelligent deliberation can take place. Thanks to the job security tenure affords professors — something else the faculty went on strike to protect — dissent can be not only tolerated but also encouraged.

Moreover, students are not mere consumers.  They are active participants in formative democratic culture, capable of critical thought, analysis and questioning of prevailing norms and values.

An honest rejoinder might be that students are consumers insofar as they pay so much for an education.  The point is a fair one and worth dissecting.

It is precisely why students everywhere have inveighed against austerity measures.  There were protracted student protests against massive fee hikes at the University of Puerto Rico throughout much of last year that brought brutal repression from local police who were later chastised by Amnesty International for excessive use of force.  In Chile, free public education is being seriously discussed because of the burgeoning student movement opposing the grossly unequal privatized system of education first put in place after Augusto Pinochet assumed dictatorial power following a U.S.-backed coup on Sept. 11, 1973, to overthrow the democratically elected government of then President Salvador Allende.

At SIUC, the strike has thankfully come to an end, but a seeming unintended consequence is that it brought together disparate parts of the university and local community who joined in solidarity to support faculty, students, the future of the school, higher education and democracy.  That solidarity and spirit of resistance need not end.

In the same vein, the broader Occupy movement has maintained a spirit of resistance and resilience.  Occupy Wall Street in New York is already regrouping.  Oakland has reorganized and peacefully resisted repression multiple times already.  In direct, participatory, radical-democratic fashion, the movement is getting back to work, except their work involves large scale re-envisioning of society in a way that thankfully cannot be described as “business as usual.” That need not and will not end either.

 

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