Mar 30, 2012
By Katie Flaherty
As Occupy reaches classrooms, many say it's too early for reflection.
Since September 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread across the country representing the proclaimed "99 percent."
Inspired by the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the Occupy movement began in New York's Zuccotti Park with fewer than 1,000 people. The movement has since grown dramatically, spreading to more than 1,500 cities worldwide. Occupy participants have organized in major cities and on college campuses to protest the current economic disparity where they say the wealthiest 1 percent are profiting at the expense of the majority.
Largely debated for its effectiveness and unconventional structure, many say the movement has reached a crossroads and now faces dissipating numbers and necessary restructuring.
In midst of this stalemate, the once strictly grassroots movement is seeping into the institutional setting. Major universities including Brown University, New York University, and the University of California-San Diego are offering classes that integrate the Occupy movement into their larger umbrella courses on social movements. Other schools like Roosevelt University in Chicago, are devoting full courses to Occupy.
Many of these courses, including Roosevelt's "Occupy Everything," are being taught on a trial basis and do not yet have a permanent status in the universities' catalogs.
Throughout its existence in the media, Occupy has disputably been compared to the historical social movements of the 1960s. With only seven months under its belt, it is unclear whether Occupy is fit for the history books or how formalized discussion of its issues will affect the movement.
"For historians, a general rule of thumb is that one can only gain historical perspectives on an event about 30 years after the fact," said Ohio University Professor of History Katherine Jellison.
Jellison teaches "1960s in the United States," a course she created more than 20 years ago. She explains that although she believes there is not enough scholarly literature at this point to accommodate a stand-alone course on Occupy, the topic would be an appropriate addition to a broader course on social movements.
Associate Professor of Political Science and adviser to the College Democrats Lysa Burnier teaches a course on social movements. Although she said she believes Occupy is already waning as a movement and would not instruct a solo class on it, Burnier said the movement is unique in style.
Burnier said she believes Occupy may not be structured to last long term as a social movement but, "it made it kind of worthy of study because it didn't have a particular leader attached to it."
Ohio University's campus experienced its own "occupation" in mid-October. For a week, beginning on Oct. 16, more than 30 students, faculty and staff organized on the top of Morton Hill at the old site of The Oasis to localize the national movement.
The occupiers interpreted large-scale platforms to discuss change on an institutional level for the University. More people filtered in and out throughout the week, demonstrating, educating each other and living communally in the small green space, according to The Post.
The Ohio University movement was short-lived but peaceful, and most students were receptive or indifferent to the passive protesting.
Over the years, the Athens campus has been a site for several major protests, including the anti-war movement. In comparing Occupy to 1960s movements at the University, Editor-in-Chief of The New Political and senior Kate Irby said Occupy is a lot less violent.
"During the Vietnam protests, there were bricks being thrown through windows. Campus was actually shut down and finals were cancelled because protests were so bad. I haven't heard anything like that with Occupy and I think they're doing very well keeping it non-violent," said Irby.
Treasurer for the College Republicans and junior Wil Lloyd agreed, "(Occupy protestors) were noticeable, and they were there … you could talk to them if you wanted, but they weren't in your face causing disturbances or destroying anything."
Despite students' overall acceptance of the encampments and demonstrations, some of them agreed with professors on the prematurity of incorporating Occupy into class curriculum.
President of the College Republicans and junior Ryan Dilworth said teaching Occupy now would allow for too much bias.
"I feel like it's really hard to teach someone something when you aren't able to take a step back and look at the outside. Regardless of your beliefs right now, it's in the news, and you're on a stance one way or the other," he said.
Senior Kimmy Lessman, who road tripped to New York's Zuccotti Park to experience the movement first hand, said Occupy's lack of organization muddled its meaning.
"I went to find out the message, and no one could give me an answer … I couldn't tell you what we were all doing there except complaining; everyone was kind of looking to the person next to them," she said.
Disappointed by the lack of any real actions in their activism, Lessman said, "I don't think we know enough about it to educate each other yet."
Although the movement is receiving a lot of criticism for its execution or lack thereof, Jellison points out that the 1960s was viewed similarly more than 40 years ago.
"If you were to go back and look through issues of Time magazine – for instance in 1967 – you would have seen the same kind of critique of those protestors that you see today," said Jellison.
With the powers of historical hindsight in the 1960s' favor, do the movements have more in common than the current time reveals? The idea of first amendment rights and the way they are capitalized on in public locations that are not specifically intended for speaking and protest activities is a clear connection, according to Jellison.
As for what separates the movements to give the 1960s more success thus far, Jellison and Burnier point to the divergence and flow of information in today's media.
"In the 60s you had a certain number of newspapers, major news magazines and three TV networks, and I think ironically it probably was the limited number of media that was able to create a common set of principles, characters or events that the whole nation focused on," said Jellison.
As a youth-driven movement, Occupy organizers rely heavily on the powers of social media and purposefully remain leaderless in representation of their cause. This radical shift in technology has convoluted the focus of communication and complicated people's ability to rally around a cause.
The incorporation of this new media leaves out an entire generation that did not grow up with social networking and therefore are not as in tap with these communication systems.
"(Social media) really fragments it, so you're not getting this concentrated dose like you did with the war movement," said Burnier.
In the 1960s, organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) orchestrated protests and alerted the media of the latest demonstrations. Now with the added expansion of major news outlets, stations no longer share the same audience. As a result, Occupy faces more of a challenge garnering large-scale media attention that will reach a diverse population.
"Until the traditional media pick up on it, it's not recognized by society as a whole," said Jellison.
Although a product of the social networking generation, Lloyd also sees technology as a possible hindrance to Occupy's positive messages.
"One of their biggest issues is by not having that structure, you have most of the news capturing the extremists that are making it bad. So you see the people that are hitting the cops and all that stuff; then you ignore the people who are just there expressing their views," said Lloyd.
Jellison looks to the lessons of the 1960s to predict the success and persistence of the Occupy movement.
"I think given the realities of our political system, there has to be more of a solid connection to one of the major parties, which is ultimately what the 1960s movements did," said Jellison. "By 1976, the women's movement and civil rights were all mainstream ideas for both parties."
Though Occupy may never share the same revolutionary outcome, Jellison said she believes it brought much-needed recognition to its causes.
"Economic injustice and inequality in our society is something we are absolutely going to have to think about and deal with or become a society that just accepts those inequalities … and we are no longer recognizable as the American society you and I have always known," she said.