Donnelley Lecture Hall may not possess the day-to-day dynamism and activity of the Financial District, but yesterday’s teach-in on Occupy Wall Street electrified the space.  Five panelists, a combination of SLC faculty, students, and alumna each offered a different perspective on the movement, where it came from, why it matters, and where it may go.  Each spoke with energy and enthusiasm that radiated and engaged the audience.

Kim Christensen, Economics and Public Policy professor, spoke first on the economic and political context of OWS.  She began by stating that “Occupy Wall Street is one of the most important movements of our time.”  Christensen cites the current economic and financial crisis as key causes and motivators of the movement.  More specifically, the “deregulation mania” of the 1990s and 2000s fueled by a constant push away from a strong government threw the nation into economically precarious circumstances, culminating in the recent stock market crash.  The deregulation of banks led to the “too big to fail” phenomenon and is deeply embedded in the current mortgage debt, a situation which Christensen called “a house of cards.”  Christensen highlighted that “the crisis is not an equal opportunity impactor,” minorities are disproportionately affected across all sectors.  37.8% of young black men are unemployed, a figure Christensen (and the audience) found unfathomable.  Christensen closed with the declaration “We the people need to Occupy Wall Street.”

Jamee Moudud, professor of Economics, told a different piece of the story.  Moudud took on the comparisons between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement, particularly how the Tea Party casts OWS.  Moudud analyzed the Tea Party rhetoric which posits free markets and decreased taxes for the rich as among the solutions to the economic crisis.  Moudud focused on the contradictions of demands for a free market, given how heavily economies, governments, and businesses are intertwined through austerity programs.  Debates over taxation bring forth similar issues.  The opposition to taxing the rich portray the upper echelons of society as “Average Joe’s” who worked just like the rest of us.  In the eyes of the Right, increased taxes for the rich attack hardworking Americans who have earned their due (Moudud recalled the Joe the Plumber fiasco of the 2008 presidential elections as evidence to the faultiness of this claim).  On the contrary, Moudud argued that high taxes are “a social contract, not a socialist conspiracy.”  We don’t only need to reconsider taxation levels, but also the types of taxes.  But most of all, Moudud emphasized that the discursive territory of economies and how they function does not only belong to well-versed and well-educated politicians and businessmen.  We all can engage with these issues because each of us is implicated in how economies function, particularly when they fail.

Dominic Corva, professor of Latin American Politics, drew critical connections between the Latin American movements of the 1990s and OWS.  Both protest (or fight) against neoliberal globalization driven by Western powers, especially the United States.  Programs of institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank are the “wet dreams of Wall Street…[and] the nightmares of the poor of Latin America.”  The global order is structured to benefit a select elite and leave the rest of society floundering.  Corva emphasized that we cannot have wholehearted and exclusive faith in politicians to affect real change.  As case after case has demonstrated in Latin America, a shift in government, even a radical one, does not necessarily produce radical social, political, and economic transformation.  He argued that structural inequality is at the root of the crisis on our streets and in Latin America.  The Latin American realities show us that we have to “disgorge [global] financial capital” to fundamentally change the status quo.

After a break for cheese, crackers, and a few minutes to absorb and process the faculty’s invigorating words, we returned to watch a short film by Shay Roman, one of the organizers and moderators of the Teach-In (along with Rob Winslow and Ingrid Loveras) which brilliantly captured the sentiments and energy of the protestors.  Jillian Quinn Buckley, an alum of Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program spoke about her work with OWS.  She stressed the importance of going to Liberty Park and of participating in protests and marches to create our own understanding of the processes and activities.  She spoke of media misrepresentation and distortion of the movement, which creates false images that we have the tools to combat for ourselves.  Communication is essential, between protestor and passerby, between Oakland and New York.  OWS exists beyond Liberty Plaza and beyond the now-eradicated tent city.

The final panelist was current second-year Sarah Lawrence MFA student, Joey DeJesus who took on the movement from a different place entirely.  A poet, DeJesus examined the use of poetry and language in the movement and in discourse about the movement.  DeJesus criticized the movement’s re-appropriation of the discourse of war, as he put it.  He challenged the use of the word “Occupy” because of the historical context of colonial occupations, or more recent occupations (Iraq, Afghanistan).  The most pertinent message that DeJesus delivered was that “revolutions are not made of poems.”  Poetry is not utilitarian but rather a way of being.  It challenges how we conceive of narratives and “relies on a person’s capacity for empathy.”  His discussion illuminated how integral language is on every level, especially in the context of a movement as critical as Occupy Wall Street.

The Teach-In ended with an open discussion sparked by questions from the audience.  The audience as a whole seemed to be asking the same overarching question: What now?  A few responses stuck out.  The anti-war movement of the 1960s came up as an example of a prior success that worked outside the narrow scope of political action.  Multiple panelists noted that the masses hold enormous power to affect public policy — just look at the Tea Party.  Moudud, however, delved further, pointing out the links between the Tea Party and the Republican Party.  OWS, though, “has to maintain a distance from the Democratic Party, which they argue has essentially sold out.”  The challenge we all face is to strengthen, in numbers and ideas, across class and racial divides, an active and engaged true left.  We will present ourselves, make noise, and act towards a more equitable global order and a national government that serves its people, not its corporations.  #occupySLC


How to engage with Occupy SLC:
The blog
The livestream, incase you missed the teach-in
An upcoming Free Speech Art Party

And on OWS:
Central website
Information on the New York General Assembly

Image source: Google Images

Nina Sparling (Editor, “What’s Up”) is a bi-coastal aspiring bread baker frustrated with the current food system. Originally from Berkeley, she moved to New York, complaining most of the way, until she found the Met and figured out the subway (but still has serious envy for Bay Area vegetables). Currently a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence, Nina studies languages, political ecology, and geography and tries to figure out how they all relate.

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