Occupying Ambiguity

Penn Occupy. Occupy Penn. Penn Occupy Philly. All of these names have been used to designate a collectivity at the University of Pennsylvania that has formed in the wake of the Occupy movement. We can see the proliferation of names as an effect of our ambiguous relation to the Occupy movement. This ambiguity increases as we approach Occupy Penn from a number of different scales: institutional, local, and national.

Unlike Occupy UC-Davis or Occupy CUNY, we cannot easily organize on the basis of student debt or tuition costs. Like many of its peer institutions, Penn maintains a need-blind admissions policy. Penn can do so because it is well invested, with an endowment that increased a billion dollars over the past fiscal year. Whether we like it or not, we at Penn benefit from the finance capital that provided Occupy Wall Street with its initial target of critique.

Financial concerns not only separate us from student populations across the country; they also divide us from our neighbors in Philadelphia. Penn’s non-profit status means that it does not pay taxes on its endowment or on its real estate holdings—this in a city that has faced severe austerity measures coupled with the displacement of costs formerly absorbed by the city and state to “consumers” of state goods. Philadelphia’s Temple University, for instance, has negotiated permanent budget cuts by raising tuition fees. Unsurprisingly, Temple students have had a far greater presence at Occupy Philly than Penn students.

Penn has also reorganized the social space of Philadelphia, exacerbating the economic and symbolic separation of the campus from the community. Alongside an aggressive acquisition of real estate in West Philadelphia, Penn has pursued a policy of financing mortgages for Penn employees who purchase homes in the University City District. Real estate prices have shot up, and former owners and renters have been displaced. The university’s environs have become “Penntrified.” An increased security and police presence followed the influx of students and faculty into West Philadelphia, protecting members of the Penn community from people out there, beyond the pale—that is, in Philadelphia.

The social cartographic division between Penn and Philadelphia has assumed an explicitly racial logic. Over the summer of 2011, in response to “flash mobs” composed of black minors, Mayor Michael Nutter instituted a curfew in Center City and University City. Minors in public after posted hours were subject to detention and excessive fines. The emergency measure has since become a city-wide ordinance. It remains differentially enforced. On one hand, the foci of enforcement remain zones of white privilege, Center City and University City. On the other hand, Penn students have been ensured that police would “use their best judgment” when it came to enforcing the ordinance around Penn.

While these institutional and economic factors force us to be self-conscious about defining our relationship to Philadelphia, and thus Occupy Philly, we are equally self-conscious about our relationship to Occupy Wall Street as a national and international movement. After all, Penn’s Wharton School has educated—and continues to educate—the financial elites of the world. There is a direct line from Walnut Street to Wall Street. That Penn itself could serve as a target of Occupy’s ire became clear on October 21, when hundreds of Occupiers stormed Wharton’s Huntsman Hall to protest a speech to be given there by Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The symbolic and spatial presence of Occupy on campus elicited allergic reactions, such as when Wharton students chanted “Get a job!” to protestors gathered in Huntsman Hall. Subsequent editorials and comments in the student-run Daily Pennsylvanian were critical of the action. People who had no business being on campus, much less inside Wharton, had closed off an “open dialogue” with Cantor. These reactions were symptoms of surprise, I think. Somehow, seemingly distant social antagonisms could break through the cordons of class, status, and social geography.

Yet, if students at Penn were surprised when campus served as a site of demonstration, Philly Occupiers were no less surprised when Penn Occupiers appeared at City Hall as a collectivity in response to a mayoral order that Occupy vacate by 5pm on November 27. Dozens of members of the Penn community were present, and someone quickly made a sign that read, “Penn Supports Occupy Philly.” Noticing the sign, a reporter for occupyphillymedia.org asked to interview us. What, he asked, were Penn students doing at Occupy Philly? What was our relation to it? We awkwardly looked at one another. This question, implicitly and explicitly, had motivated many of our own conversations, but we were far more comfortable with self-critique than with another’s demand that we give an account of ourselves. We had published solidarity statements, established a Penn General Assembly, facilitated teach-ins, and, as individuals, spent countless hours at City Hall. But why, as Occupy defied the eviction order, as everyone anticipated a police crackdown, did we come as members of the Penn community to support Occupy with our bodies?

Despite our initial awkwardness, the circumstances in which the question was posed made it simple to answer. Faced with the threat of eviction, we couldn’t let self-critical questions cripple us. The decisive sense that we were concerned with, and a part of, the Occupy movement overrode the economic, social, and institutional forces that seemed to divide us from it. Moreover, the conversations that we had begun at Penn—regarding its exploitative relation to West Philadelphia, unethical investment practices, the curfew law, and so on—were indebted to the precipitating force of Occupy Philly. While progressive students on campus had attempted to redress these problems for some time, Occupy served both as a catalyst and as an umbrella term, enabling us to articulate our isolated activities and to bring more people into the fold. The reforms we seek at Penn have become imaginable through the energies unleashed by Occupy; at the same time, the reforms that Occupy imagines require that we seek to reform institutions like Penn.

When the eviction finally came, six of us from Penn were arrested. (I was not.) At Penn’s General Assembly the next day, following a talk from David Harvey, Occupy Penn released a statement of principles. We had settled on a name.

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  1. Meghna says:

    Great piece Chris! It gets at the tension between the “Penn 1%ers” and us, the Penn Occupiers.
    I would add, however, that just because we are part of this school does not mean that we are exempt from the problems of the 99%ers. Though Penn does have a need-blind financial aid policy, many of our families are facing the same pauperization of the middle class that affects people everywhere. My father has not had work for quite some time, and my mother does the work of three people, because many of her co-workers were laid off. The financial aid helps, but it is not enough to enable us to pay our mortgage.
    The racist curfew laws also digs its claws into the minority community at Penn. I have heard black students talk about their troubles with the Penn police, and how they are advised to wear Penn gear in order to not be mistaken for someone who “doesn’t look like they belong here”. The controversy over the racist slurs during last Spring Fling was a manifestation of the very same racialization of the space.
    Even our job prospects as “Ivy League Graduates” feel pretty dim. I’m not sure about the exact statistics, but clearly, the good ol’ days where most of us could walk out sure of a decent job are gone.
    The problems that fuel this movement touch many of us in a very personal way. I hope this movement can tap into that latent anger and channel it towards making this university a more just place for everyone, including workers and those Penn exploits through its investments.

  2. Max Cavitch says:

    Thanks, Chris, for these remarks on the specific obligations of reflexivity-in-action faced by those of us who work and study at the richest universities and who also seek to be part of that “complex unity” of the 99% called for by Angela Davis here in Philadelphia several weeks ago–that spark-generating “fund of necessary polarities,” as she elaborated, citing Audre Lorde, in NYC recently as well. I’ll toss in old Emerson, who–almost two centuries ago, in the midst of an earlier epoch of U.S. disaster-capitalism–also refused to be crippled by the awkwardness of his privileged position–noting that character is higher than intellect, because there is always–always–going to be someone to tell you you are wrong. And, finally, here are some much more recent reflections (published yesterday, in fact) from our Penn colleague Charles Bernstein on the consequentiality of yet another mode of privileged, skeptical peripherality: https://jacket2.org/commentary/you-can%E2%80%99t-evict-idea-poetics-occupy-wall-street.

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