Why ‘Occupy?’

On a sunny Monday afternoon, a few dozen students sprawled out on the grassy Bentley lawn, talking, reading, laughing, even knitting in the late-summer warmth. It was a scene straight from an Admissions brochure, except for the graffiti scrawled on the historic red-brick administrative building in the background that read, “Civility Only Works If You’re Willing To Listen.” They were fighting words, from a contingent of quiet revolutionaries flying the Occupy flag.

Full disclosure: I was, and am, one of those Occupiers. I had received an email a few days prior with the intriguing subject line, “Thought you might be interested,” announcing an event intended both to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement as well as to raise awareness about more immediately relevant student concerns on the Allegheny campus, and I found myself swept up in the current of excitement: I’m a student, I have concerns, and I want them to be heard. On a campus that claims to foster intellectual development and community engagement but struggles to overcome the overwhelming apathy of youth, I thought this might finally be the catch-all that roused the student body en masse: a choose-your-own-cause adventure that excited environmentalists, political activists, underrepresented minorities, and vegans who want more dinner options in Brooks, alike. I was wrong.

As students at one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country, we are all relatively young, educated, physically safe, financially secure, intellectually stimulated, supported, and empowered along our individual paths to become functional, self-actualized Real Adults. These are significant privileges, and we are fortunate to have them. To complain almost seems ungrateful, but it is a far worse thing to take for granted advantages that allow us to advocate for progress. With great privilege, as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben might tell him if he chose to matriculate to a four-year institution, comes great responsibility. Staking a claim on Bentley lawn is the first step.

Why Bentley? I like Joe DiChristina as much as anyone else, and a wave from President Mullen can absolutely make my afternoon, so why target their smiling faces for our campaign of discontent? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what shallow encouragement they offer: they are ultimately representatives of an administration that too often nods, smiles, and politely turns away from our earnest appeals for change – or worse, solicits our opinions, then proceeds to make a decision that willfully disregards them. If I am Allegheny, it certainly doesn’t feel like it.

As a unit, Occupiers are a motley crew of flag-bearers, advocating for administrative transparency, for representation in major institutional decisions, for better treatment at the health center, against the meager wages paid to dining and housekeeping employees, against the local tires-to-energy plant – the list goes on. One thing, however, unites the students who stood out on the grass together that day: we cared about something, and we cared enough to do something about it.

If you didn’t feel represented, that’s no one’s fault but your own. Maybe next time instead of looking straight ahead and away from your fellow students in discomfort as they peacefully enact an open-air sit-in that doesn’t actively disturb anyone but the bugs crawling through the grass at their feet, you could stop and listen. If you agree, offer someone your support. If you disagree, engage someone in discussion and explain why, instead of grumbling about it under your breath. If you couldn’t care less, then by all means, keep walking, but forfeit the opportunity to branch the divide between active participation and passive dissatisfaction.

If there’s a single legitimate complaint about Occupy that I can get behind, it’s that words aren’t enough.  The speeches made on Monday are gone already, the sounds of bitterness and frustration, and the ensuing sympathy and support, have faded irretrievably into the air, and this column may have minimal impact but that of ink on wood-pulp paper. What matters now is the action that ensues, the force whose momentum is derived from Monday’s initial push. Direct action is in our hands now, but it is in yours as well. Please take advantage of it.

Why Occupy? Because you’re still asking that question.