Occupy Wall Street teach-in inspires

The Miscellany News (Vassar College)
November 15, 2011
By Bobbie Lucas

Since it began two months ago today, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has grown from a small encampment in New York City to an international movement dedicated to financial reform. Although it has spread to dozens of major cities throughout the world, it didn’t officially come to Vassar until Sunday, Nov. 13 when the College hosted an Occupy Teach-in in Sanders Classroom to educate students, faculty and Poughkeepsie residents about the Occupy movement and how people can get involved in all kinds of social reform.

The teach-in at Vassar was co-sponsored by Democracy Matters, Rebuild the Dream Vassar, the Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics, Vassar Association of Class Activists and the Vassar Political Science, Sociology and International Studies Departments. The program began at noon with an introductory panel. The three panelists had worked with the Occupy Wall Street Movement for the past two months. They discussed the movement’s daily workings and explained their own involvement in Occupy Wall Street.

Ethan Buckner ’13, an Occupy Wall Street activist, described his experience helping the movement communicate on a national level, and his involvement in revising its organizational structure. “The decision making body, called the General Assembly, is the heart and soul of the movement,” he said. “It is the way for everyone to make decisions on a consensus basis. It is a continual practice of direct democracy.”

The beginning panel ended with an agreement that Occupy Wall Street should not have daily major events because things seem more important if they come less frequently. The audience then separated into the first breakout session. Participants had the option to go to a panel on “Specific Issues and Identities and Relationships to OWS,” where the panel discussed how the issues of class, race, sexuality, gender, etc. were tied to the issues that OWS is advocating for.

The other option was a panel on the “Local Issues, Occupy Colleges, and Student-Academic-Community Coalition Building” where four speakers discussed issues that affect the world and the Poughkeepsie community and then intersected those issues with how they relate to and affect Occupy Wall Street. New York University (NYU) Ph.D student Stuart Schrader ’00 discussed a walk out that occurred at NYU on Oct. 5 to advocate against recent budget cuts against public universities. He explained how thousands of people joined the hundreds of students and how “there were so many people, we took over the streets of Fifth Avenue,” he said. “The experience showed how much broad based support there was in New York City. We need to continue to organize on campus and connect with other universities. The politics of the United States have been irrevocably changed over the past two months. This movement is global.”

Joan Mandle ’66, national head of Democracy Matters, explained that the massive support for Occupy Wall Street stems from an “underground feeling that has been building up from people who have felt for a long time that they had no power and could not do anything,” adding that, to address this perceived problem, “[protesters] need to create some specific legislative goals to demand of the government.”

After a brief lunch where panelists, students, faculty and Poughkeepsie residents continued their previous discussions, the second breakout session began. “Direct Action, Direct Democracy and Democratic Theory” provided a deeper exploration of how the movement is an example of direct democracy. Mandle led the panel and explained, “social movements are most successful when they have legislative change that will change the system, in addition to taking the streets. The main way corporations influence our lives is by controlling the political systems. If we want to take back democracy, we must take back the political system.” 

“U.S. History, American Government, and Social Movements” examined historical trends of social movements and discussed various movements from the past that have influenced and informed Occupy Wall Street. Aidan Kahn ’14 described the panel’s discussion as “demanding reinvigoration of social safety net that includes federal works projects and employing the unemployed and underemployed to repair our broken infrastructure.”

Khan participated in the Oct. 15 march at Times Square where he ended up at the head of a large crowd of protesters. “I think of myself as a progressive, and at times a socialist, but I cannot help but think that this movement should work a little more within the system to evoke change, rather than creating the framework for a structure that cannot exist and cannot effect change until fundamental issues threatening American democracy are solved,” argued Kahn.

“The teach-ins should focus on the simple facts of wealth inequality, systematic ways to fix it and how to best rebuild economic systems, and then use the knowledge that is gleaned to effect the appropriate change. After that, when the movement has power and when some semblance of democracy restored, social progress will begin to flow naturally because socioeconomic inequality is the root of all current inequality. It has been, and remains, the primary tool of oppression.”

The teach-in ended with another panel which encouraged open dialogues between people, reflection about the insights that attendees gleaned and continued intellectual development. As the discussion ended, particpants were invited to join teach-in organizers and move to 72 Market Street, Hulme Park, the place where Occupy Poughkeepsie is being held.

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