The Occupy movement has been in the news a lot the last few days. The latest developments include the evictions of protesters around the country, even in New York and Oakland where it was strongest.
My own exposure to the protests came when my lady and I were in downtown Athens, Ga., a few days ago. We had a tasty Southern breakfast at the Mayflower, a nice little restaurant just off the campus of the University of Georgia.
Afterwards, we took a stroll. Before long, we came up on the Occupy Athens encampment along the sidewalk near the famous University of Georgia arches. Like a lot of people I have been following the Occupy movement through various media. I have some friends who are actively involved in it around the country, and I know quite a few folks who are derisive of the entire movement.
There were a few people near a table with flyers and signs, and we struck up a 20-minute conversation with them. They seemed articulate and intelligent. One gentleman was a recent UGA graduate, and I asked him how much involvement there had been from students and other young people. He told me they had not seen the level of involvement they were expecting when they started. He seemed disappointed, and lamented that young people were missing an opportunity to get involved in direct democracy.
I have questions about the Occupy movement, but I do not dismiss their actions out of hand. It is easy to understand that many people think the system is broken, and that they want to do something about it.
Around the country unemployment, foreclosures and poverty are growing. In Georgia nearly 19 percent of the population is on food stamp assistance. I do not pretend to understand the economic situation, nor do I fully understand what the Occupy movement is advocating for. But it is clear that many of them want to simply do something.
I find it curious that teenagers, and college students specifically, aren’t more involved. Students probably tend towards more liberal views than the general population, and young people are often idealistic as well.
News reports of Generation Y protesters often focus on sex, alcohol and drugs. Where are the young idealists? I am sure they are there, but their voice is not being heard, at least not by me. I compare Occupy to the vast counter–cultural movement of the 60s, and I wonder why it isn’t drawing more student activism. Friends tell me there has been a much larger contingent of students at Woodruff Park in Atlanta, mostly from Georgia State University. Why is there more activity there?
This is not to say that UGA has ever been a bastion of liberal ideology. It hasn’t, but it has had its share of protests, liberal and conservative. UGA is probably better known by most people for the protests against integration in the early 60s. Like a lot of old universities in the South, it has more often served as an outpost of support for the status quo.
There were anti-war protests there, but never on the scale of more progressive schools in other parts of the country. Lately there have been protests on campus against the execution of Troy Davis, and some faculty have come to the defense of the Occupy protesters in Athens.
One law professor, Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., lambasted the University president and police for applying different standards to the Occupy protesters than to other recent protests. Overall though, it seems that the University is continuing in the reactionary tradition of most big schools in the South.
My friend Tod, who lives in Illinois, has a different story. He is involved in Occupy Carbondale, which sprang out of a student movement at Southern Illinois University. He says that in his town students are at the heart of the hard-core participants. He too is involved, as a supporter and a facilitator of community meetings. He was surprised when I related my experiences at UGA. In his world the students are the leaders of the movement, and there youthful energy and idealism keeps it alive.
When we spoke by phone he reminded me of something that Dominic Barter, the creator of Restorative Circles, speaks about. Dominic presents the idea of prefigurative politics. This is the politics of people doing what they think needs to be done, outside of the existing power structure. This means that instead of coming out against a system one simply begins creating and living in the system that one wants to see. This can be seen in Occupy’s commitment to consensus decision making, and their advocacy for including marginalized members of society in dialogue. They are following Gandhi’s famous encouragement to “be the change” that one wants to see.
The Athens protester I spoke with saw this as a great opportunity for kids to learn democracy and see it in action. Whether or not students supported the objectives of the protesters isn’t really relevant. I would be glad to see counter protests, or participation in the assemblies that challenges the grounds and decisions of the Occupy supporters. The assemblies are open to anyone. What I find disturbing is the seeming apathy of most students, at least in the slice of the world where I live. Have they given up on participation in society?
Learning to speak and listen clearly seem like great skills to have, and it seems that people are free to speak their minds, and even to block proposals that don’t meet their ideas about what the group should do. Seeing and even participating in a few of these meetings might be a wonderful experience for kids. After all, they are the ones who are going to inherit this world.