Kentucky voices

Teachable moment: Educators can't ignore Occupy Wall Street

educators cannot ignore protests' anger, angst

October 19, 2011 

A recent Occupy Wall Street discussion generated more classroom heat than I expected. Some students identified with protester outrage and applauded the movement against economic injustice. Others suggested that these anarchists and slackers should get jobs and stop begrudging the "one percent" their hard-earned wealth.

The Occupy Wall Street debate is not for the faint of heart, but educators must not shrink from it. Contemporary strands of the most important economic, political, social and cultural challenges of the last 200 years are converging and erupting in as many as 1,500 cities around the world.

What animates Occupy Wall Street is an acute sense of marginalization stemming from growing economic inequality. Click on economic injustice and you get a pull-down menu that includes pay-for-play politics, racial and gender inequality, austerity measures targeting education and public services, environmental disaster, unemployment, perpetual war, hunger and poverty, eroding union rights, and underwater mortgages.

I have visited the encampment at Zuccotti Park near Wall Street and twice marched with tens of thousands of teachers, students, workers, airline pilots and citizens of all ages who identify as the "99 percent." The energy and diversity at Saturday's massive rally at Times Square should put the fear of God, if not the fear of Tahrir Square, in conservatives and progressives who are quick to criticize.

In that cathedral of capitalism, amid skyscraper-sized advertisements and words the size of cars crawling across gigantic TV screens, protesters articulated a compelling counter-narrative. Slogans scribbled on pizza boxes and cardboard scraps ("Trickle Treat," "Paul Krugman's Blog for President" and "The People are Too Big to Fail" are among my favorites) articulate visceral anger and alienation.

Drum circles, rap songs, chants and the "people's microphone" — an innovative call-and-response necessitated by a ban on bullhorns — produce a lively and original sound track in multiple languages. Social media bring the movement into the 21st century, as seen last week when several thousand answered a wee-hours call for reinforcements to defend Zuccotti Park against city cleaners.

Educators cannot count on the corporate media to understand, much less communicate, the Occupy Wall Street message. Glenn Beck dismissed protesters as Marxists who would "drag you into the streets and kill you." Lexington conservative voice Leland Conway argued that protesters "hate" free markets, and he expressed a utopian longing for "real" capitalism, as if it once existed marvelously untethered from power structures.

At Zuccotti Park, university graduates wear retro Chuck Taylor sneakers, tap on MacBook Pros, listen to iPods and talk on ubiquitous cell phones. Critics scream consumerist hypocrisy. However, these are not anarchists who seek the overthrow of the system (they leave that to the Tea Party movement). These are not hippies who want to drop off the grid. On the contrary, these protesters want to see the grid as wired and participatory and full of as many innovative products and creative market forces as possible.

Like conservatives, progressive skeptics cannot understand why Occupy Wall Street does not rush into electoral politics with conventional political demands. Protesters, however, see what they do not: Republicans and Democrats are so beholden to corrupt monied interests that both parties are structurally incapable of speaking to their grievances.

Even the party in the White House has not ended too-big-to-fail or prosecuted those whose recklessness helped cause the 2008 financial collapse. "Obamacare" began life with big giveaways to Big Pharma and Big Insurance. The president will not cobble together the $1 billion he plans to spend on re-election on $25 donations alone. At least Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney admits his party serves corporations, which "are people, my friend."

Our students are graduating into debt peonage (the average debt is $22,900, according to the Wall Street Journal) and joblessness as far as the eye can see. The next bubble to burst could be the nearly $1 trillion in student loans. Forgive protesters for connecting the dots: Wall Street crashed the economy, which wrecked state budgets, which meant higher tuition and fewer grants and scholarships, which led to more private loans. The home-equity decline means fewer families can pay for a liberal-arts education on second mortgages alone.

As educators, we must help students untangle the maddening economic collapse and understand Occupy Wall Street's creative response. The protests are nothing less than dynamic, open-air classrooms. However, occupywallst.org, Facebook, Livestream, Twitter and other alternative media sites allow everyone to follow the movement in real time.

This educational opportunity knows no age limit. A colleague recently accompanied her 6-year-old son's school to Zuccotti Park, where he and classmates sang songs, displayed their own signs and balloons with slogans on fairness and equality, and imitated the people's microphone.

Hearing parents and others echo their words surely provided the sense of empowerment that we, as educators, must cultivate

Willie Hiatt, a Kentucky native and former Herald-Leader employee, is an assistant professor of Latin American history at Long Island University. Reach him at willie.hiatt@liu.edu.

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