Getting an Education at Occupy Boston

This was a round table discussion, held at the MLA conference in Boston. The session was open to the public.

Panelists: Doug Greene, Boston, MA; Julie Orlemanski, Boston Coll.; Joseph Ramsey, Univ. of Massachusetts, Lowell; Victor Wallis, Berklee Coll. of Music

Joe: (Reads the panel proposal submitted to the MLA.) What does it mean to get an education in times like these? What's the relationship between activism and intellectualism.

Julie: I'd like to speak about getting an aesthetic education at Occupy Boston. Here, I means "aesthetic" as in "aesthetes": how you feel about certain things, and how we can change our feelings about what we want (i.e., Schiller).

Occupy made me realize that we live under a set of prohibitions on how we use public spaces. The encampments served a purpose of interrupting daily life in the city. They provoked a ton of different reactions and alliances.

Occupy brought together low-tech and high-tech media. For example, there was social media and live streaming, coupled with hand-lettered signs on cardboard. What are the limits of this kind of protest? The encampments weren't successful in holding onto public spaces. How does the model of a labor strike relate to the occupy encampments?

In 2003, 400,00 people took part in an anti-war protest in NYC. They `lost', in the sense that they failed to prevent our involvement in the Iraq war. Sometimes mass demonstrations aren't enough.

Victor: The first wave of activism for me came out of the Cuban revolution, and led me into Latin American studies. I believe that Occupy is more of a phase to a movement, rather than a movement by itself. It's a wonderful reaction to the situation we're now in.

The Occupy movement emerged three years into our most profound economic crisis since the 1930s.

Showing malaise in a public setting was good, but the challenge is where to go from here. Occupy could be the result of a democracy movement here. And we do need a democracy movement here.

Political gerrymandering may be one of the reasons that anarchist ideas have been spreading in popularity.

Doug: I wasn't an activist before Occupy Boston, but I've considered myself a revolutionary for some time. My role as an educator was subjective. I tried to link certain social injustices to particular causes.

Many dichotomies are fake. There are usually more than two sides, or more than two outcomes.

Lots of "solutions" address single issues, but we should be calling for a critique of our entire system. Link specific structures towards a more general picture of the system.

A lot of radical intellectuals participated in the Howard Zinn memorial lecture series. We made video recordings of these sessions and put them on line. Many groups across the country were asking the same questions as we were, and we wanted to make the lectures available to everyone.

Every movement is unique in what it produces, and in the language it uses.

(We take a set of remarks from the audience)

Remark: The Howard Zinn lecture series was very effective, but the education really started with Free School University. They were holding classes two days into the encampment. People came to Occupy with single issues, and education allowed them to see how these issues were linked. I gave several lectures, and it was very satisfying to teach.

Remark: I teach at UCLA. We have to find ways to occupy institutions like unions, political parties, and universities. The tea party a tactic of forcing primary challenges, and it was very effective for them.

Remark: I couldn't get involved with Occupy because I was juggling three part-time jobs and couldn't manage it. I went to the National Gathering in Philadelphia and was very disappointed in what I saw. There was far less organization than earlier activists movements I've been involved in (e.g., during the 1970s). Technology caused too many distractions; for example, discussions about which twitter hashtag to use.

Remark: I'm interested in the delineation between teaching literature, and what we do out in the streets.

Julie: I want to be able to think in different spheres. Teaching people to read literature critically is different than thinking about social justice issues.

Joe: I bring copies of the Boston Occupier to class, and I encourage students to think of reading and writing as sources of power. I want to give people tools to change the world.

Victor: Regarding infiltration, there's been a whole processes towards the criminalization of dissent. The police lure people into situations where they can be implicated as terrorists. We've increased the number of people in prisons, and increased the number of people who can be labeled as criminals.

Doug: I'm glad that we never infiltrated the Democratic party; they're just another tool for domination by the ruling elite. This is a historic trend. You can look into the abyss, but the abyss will look right back into you.

Remark: You can teach critical thinking, but when you try to change people's minds, then you can find yourself getting into trouble.

Remark: Activism is important, but as teachers, you really do have the power to change the world. As tenured professors, you have some of the most secure jobs in the world.

Remark: I stayed involved with the Occupy movement, because I was constantly learning things. For example, I'd organize meetings where we'd get 10-20 people in a room to discuss really contentious issues. Things I thought were black and white had more gray areas than I realized. Participating in a radical movement can be an education all by itself.

Remark: I miss Occupy. It felt great to see people energized, and I was very upset by the police violence. I wonder why the movement never organized economic boycotts.

Remark: Oppression goes further back in history - slavery, and what we did to the Native Americans. We need more debate about this. When the police come and break your head open, that's not your opinion.

(missed a remark)

Joe: There's lots of room for critiques of the Occupy movement. I'd like the Boston Occupier to be a place for reflecting on social movements. We're always looking for contributions, and we'd love to have you involved.