SVA is only a couple miles away from the ongoing occupation of Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan, and the Occupy Wall Street protests have been on the minds of a lot of people around here. I’ve heard many students and faculty members talking about OWS in the halls and offices, and the protests have come up in some of the classes I teach. Here in the Visual & Critical Studies program, several of our faculty, students, and alumni have also been involved more directly with OWS.
Last week, VCS instructor Amy Wilson was quoted in Art in America’s online News and Opinion column, in an article by Brian Boucher covering the art world’s engagement with the movement. (In addition to the Art in America piece, you can read some of Amy’s thoughts about OWS in this post on her blog from a couple weeks ago.)
Amy has been to the occupation several times, and has helped out some of the occupiers by providing them with food, rain ponchos, and offers to help distribute some of their literature. In addition, she has helped out with the much smaller Occupy Journal Square protest in Jersey City, creating outreach literature to help the JC protesters explain the movement to interested passersby. Finally, last week, she took her third-year VCS Art in Theory class to Zucotti Park, so that they could see the occupation first-hand and talk about what it means and where it came from.
Alumna Shellyne Rodriquez’s participation has been even more intense. Shellyne will be heading to graduate school at Hunter College here in New York in January; in the meantime, she has been working to earn some money for school, and spending a lot of her hours away from work at the occupation. In addition to making art for the movement, she was a member of the committee that drafted the initial Declaration of the Occupation of New York City that was adopted by OWS at the end of September, and she has continued participating in OWS working groups ever since.
Finally, several VCS students have taken part in the protest in various ways, including Natasha Jacobs, Gisel Endara, and Autumn Eggleton (and probably a few others I don’t know about).
When I asked Autumn for her comments on OWS, she sent me the response below. Originally, I had planned on using short excerpts from it for this post, but I was so moved by what she said that I decided to run it as-is. Her thoughts on the movement and the state of the U.S. economy right now echo many of the stories that people have been posting over at We are the 99 percent, and they also reflect many of the conversations that I’ve heard taking place on campus. Here’s what she had to say.
I decided to get involved in the protests because I feel that this is finally our one chance to change the way the United States works, and to regain control over our lives. I’m interested in the way that people from different backgrounds and communities are now awakening and helping one another, because everyone’s lives have taken such a negative turn.
For me, it’s also very personal. I’m 21. When we got involved in the Middle East, our society and economy began to change. That climate is what I’ve been experiencing for about half of my life. I grew up in a working class small town, and as our economy changed, the businesses began to close. I graduated high school and entered college in 2008—the pit of the recession. Banks and huge corporations got breaks and their CEOs got to earn even more, while most people in the U.S. got laid off and watched their taxes skyrocket. I’m smart, have work experience, and still everything is a struggle. I’m about to graduate college with the mindset that I will not find a career. I will not be able to afford a home. I will not be able to start a family. In our society, right now, my Bachelor’s degree will probably only allow me to keep my low paying job. $30K in debt, I won’t have a lot of options.
People I grew up with are homeless or jobless. I know people who are living on the streets. I know people who are living in the woods. My best friend graduated early with a great degree, and has experience in her field. She has no job, no car, and has to live at home, and attempt to pay back her loans by working in retail. My mom has a degree and experience and is unemployed. My father is a veteran. He built his company from the ground up. The recession forced him to run his company without other employees, and do everything himself. Until he needed major surgery. He is now bankrupt. The people in my hometown function primarily on bartering. If someone needs a repair, they’ll trade firewood as payment. We got our taxes done by helping our accountant design a logo for his farm. People are coming together on a larger and larger scale, because our government stopped caring about us.
One complaint I often hear from those opposed to the movement is that those who are struggling just “aren’t trying hard enough” or that “there are jobs, they just aren’t willing to settle.” I would like to take those people to where I grew up. A place that was once prosperous, now suffers. Everyone lives below the poverty line. Tell those people that they just aren’t working hard enough. Tell graduates with loans coming due that they need to just settle on a minimum wage job and wait for the economy to get better. Tell them that it’s okay to have to choose between paying your utilities or paying for food. Tell them that this is the way things are supposed to be.
My partner has a Master’s degree and two certifications and can’t get permanent work in his field, because there isn’t any. He works at a factory and can’t pay back his loans. Tell him that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
And those are just examples of people who HAD resources who are still struggling. What about those without any opportunity whatsoever? The ones who didn’t get to college? The ones with health issues who can’t work or get care? Or basically, just everyone else? It’s been a long time coming.
People are struggling. Every day is full of uncertainty. Opportunities that were once available are now lost.
This movement is a way for people to regain control. The occupations serve as a community that welcomes people with open arms when our system turned its back. Liberty plaza grants people a place to be heard, a place to sleep, a warm meal. Ideas are being shared, and a shift in thinking has begun. Banks want to rob us? Together we’ll move what little money we have. We can’t get the help we need? We will band together and help one another. We will keep altering the flow in the system until it’s disrupted and we can start anew. This movement is important because this is all we have left. This is our hope. This is our option. Our future lies with one another. This is change.
(Note: you can also see more by Autumn at her blog, which is included among the student web site links listed in the column on the right.)