Were March 1st Demonstrators Occupy’s Comeback Kids?

It’s been a long, cold winter and people are wondering, “Is Occupy still going?” It is. But how and where are far from clear. Last week, we heard whispered teases of an answer, carried by a gust of the gathering wind.

One set of whispers came on Thursday March 1st, as students around the world marched in defense of public education. A few hundred of these marched in New York, from their schools and campuses to the Department of Education, over the Brooklyn Bridge, to Fort Greene Park and Brooklyn Tech, where Bloomberg appointees meet every few weeks to close public schools.

The day’s local actions were staged by a broad coalition of organizers seeking an overarching education agenda best articulated by a chant heard late Thursday afternoon: “From pre-k, to PhD, education should be free!”

Could the call for free education restore to Occupy some of last year’s magic? Maybe. The talk is of potent stuff. It’s estimated that paying the tuition of every two- and four-year public college degree in the United States would cost about $70 billion—or the amount the Pentagon wastes each year.

Meanwhile, the Occupy Student Debt Campaign is building a pledge of student debt refusal. Student debt in this country now verges on $1 trillion, more than the total credit card debt but impossible to default on—a bookish albatross hanging from so many necks at a time of unprecedented joblessness and, when luck does strike, casualized labor.

So there’s no shortage of radical ideas with potentially big appeal.

And yet—OWS wasn’t built on grandiose policy proposals. Rather, the brilliant framing slogan “we are the 99%” and the tactical innovation of occupation encampments were effective in, at once, expanding the circle of politicized activists and concentrating their energy in a single, flowing project, albeit one with many currents. Then again, the encampments are mostly gone and the movement is changing. So maybe we should ask, more precisely: How much energy is still circulating, and through how many people?

On Thursday, the energy was there but the numbers were small.

My day began at NYU at noon, when students gathered for a campus “Cut the Bull” march, a kind of whistle-stop injustice tour, including micro-demos outside a dining hall Chik-Fil-A (the company has given money to anti-gay hate groups), a Chase ATM (students are joining a larger anti-Chase campaign by demanding that NYU move its holdings from the bank unless it freezes foreclosures in the city, where it owns more underwater homes than any other bank), and Bobst Library (where the NYU administration is headquartered and where demands that it recognize the grad employees’ union are always made).

The plight of public schools was also featured. Grad student Christy Thornton denounced New York’s Citizens’ Budget Commission (which, true to its Orwellian name, is studded with NYU trustees and other 1% types) for routinely calling on the state to cut funding to SUNY and CUNY schools and redirect it to NYU and other private universities instead—what Thornton called “upward redistribution of wealth.” Numbers fluctuated in the high dozens and I saw quite a few new faces for an NYU protest.

Those of us who had seen cops attack CUNY students outside Baruch College couldn’t help but notice that the NYPD was playing considerably nicer with the private school students a few blocks down. As we marched through the streets, a tiny flashing blue detail trailed behind, reminding us of their presence—and, by their reticence, of our (largely white) privilege.

Once students from around the city—with people of color in far greater numbers—gathered at the Department of Education’s steep steps on Chamber Street, the officers’ indulgence diminished and the familiar tension returned. Still, it was a peaceful day.

A gigantic burlap bankster appeared, a huge puppet with a bank on its head, which held in its five enormous hands New York City’s education kingpins, from Mayor Bloomberg and DOE chair Dennis Walcott to charter school entrepreneur Eva Moskowitz.

Beneath the burlap was a sharp tongue. “As an aspiring scholar, I can cite chapter and verse of various critiques of capitalism,” Stuart Schrader grunted, “but while wearing a burlap sack painted to resemble a banker’s suit, I can communicate a specific interpretation of the interconnected problems facing all levels of the educational system in the US.”

There was one more bit of textured theatre, this time in Brooklyn, once we’d crossed the bridge in pretty high spirits. In the shadows of Metro Tech and a JP Morgan Chase tower, after an impromptu dance party to the beat of several drums and activists chanting “Ah, anti-, anti-capitalista, ah, anti-, anti-capitalista…,” Reverend Billy led an exorcism of student debt. Fourteen students had lined up wearing t-shirts over their coats, reading $-1-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0. As the Reverend, looking like a composite of four Jim Carrey characters and sounding like a composite of four Southern preachers, summoned the forces of liberation, the students—some awkwardly, some with relish—stripped their shirts from their backs and formed an undulating congo-line, only a little stiffened by the grey sky and near-freezing temperature.

If on May 1st OWS is to make an explosive comeback in New York City, it will have to bring out students in numbers an order of magnitude higher than the several hundred who turned out on March 1st—and this with lots of planning. Problem is, it’s still unclear whether organizers have figured out what would motivate them to do so.

They seem to have nailed the themes and the theatre, but they still haven’t built the crowds to partake in them. (Of course, stories of school principals locking-down schools and suspending those who organize walk-outs remind us not to exaggerate apathy at the cost of unearthing intense repression.)

What hasn’t been on campuses since the fall is a flurry of left intellectual activity—there have been lots of teach-ins, but they haven’t been consistently big. Mass cultural events linked to the movement are basically non-existent. The leaflets and literature have been striking, but in content are more logistical than anything else—listing times and dates of an endless stream of small actions, exhorting participation, and rehearsing radical phrases, sometimes offering points of information, but with few slogans or arguments laying out, in that intangibly relevant and connected way, the case for plugging in, using the humor and irony that have to moisten and season the dried-out mush of political righteousness. And the student movement remains not just smaller, but whiter than the student body as a whole.

These aren’t attacks on the brilliant hard work done by organizers, most of whom sleep far too little and are sacrificing schoolwork and fun. And of course, it goes without saying that the student movement’s success will take more than a hectic season. But it’s worthwhile to puzzle over this season’s distinctive dynamics.

From pre-k to PhD in New York City, education means an unforgivably savage hit to the pocketbook. And this matters. But students also get excited through their hearts and their heads—and strangely enough, it’s these that still seem to have been neglected in student organizing, if not in student action.

This spring, as we know from the old days, the student movement doesn’t need a weatherman, but it may need weather-makers to summon and steer the wind. And they may still need to figure out how to connect to the emotions, calculations, and cultural instincts of the hundreds of thousands of students who know they’re getting ripped off, but who don’t know why they should chase a burlap suit over the Brooklyn Bridge.

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