FeatureJanuary 26, 2012 at 5:53 am

Penn After Occupy

Street looks at the movement’s participants and their impact.

When it comes to Occupy Philly, there aren’t many statements that are truly safe to make. As a journalist, that’s not particularly comforting. Perhaps what troubled me was the countless students that rejected my interview requests, or the disgruntled comments that littered the DP’s website. Whatever the case, I was soon convinced that criticism would always accompany discussion of Occupy.

Reading article after article, I found that pinpointing the real source of the movement demanded more assumptions and guesswork than factual evidence, and this process perpetuates a cycle of flimsy conclusions and discontented readers. Superficial coverage left me feeling much more detached from the Occupy phenomenon, and the movement quickly faded into the obscurity of economic intricacies that I simply could not wrap my head around.

But let’s take a look at the big picture. To say that Occupy marked the end of a particularly painful decade for the American public is probably the single most uncontroversial statement that I can make about the movement. What started with 9/11 and two long and taxing wars ended in an economic recession that left even Jersey’s finest housewives fleeing from local malls. Occupy arose from (or gratuitously rolled around in, depending on how you look at it) the remains of a country in desperate need of change.

It’s embarrassing how little I knew about Occupy just a few weeks ago. I had only an inkling of the number of the media’s attempts to isolate its sources. In reality, I was just another victim of the college bubble, with most of my knowledge coming from the DP, Under the Button, strongly–worded status updates, and my Fox News–adoring parents.

So I decided I would talk to students around campus and hear from them about the movement. However, finding interviewees that were willing to comment on Occupy was no small task. From a Whartonite studying the economic crisis in class to a student of one of the 90–plus professors who publicly affirmed Occupy, rejection after rejection clogged my inbox. Though even those with relatively moderate opinions were difficult to coax into an interview, I eventually found that meeting with those “Get a Job!”–chanting, newsfeed–spamming and abrasively–opinionated kids was all but hopeless.

A printed article calls for a commitment far more implicating than a blurry YouTube video or a couple of Facebook comments; it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the most outspoken students are often the most unwilling to see their opinions published. My most valuable sources, the ones that are both knowledgeable and willing to share their opinions, seemed to be a silent minority.

For College junior Moshe Bitterman, an active member of Occupy Philly, carefully–worded emails coupled with the option of anonymity proved just persuasive enough for an interview. Though this pre–med and Urban Studies major strongly believes in the movement, his enthusiastic responses maintained a palpable cautiousness. He expressed his concerns about the consequences of a carelessly–worded statement, especially in light of the medical school admissions process.

With his hair tied back, Bitterman sipped his coffee, his eyes constantly flitting to the group sitting beside us. Before I knew it, he had walked over to the adjacent table. Noticing that the group had been there for a while, he asked them about what they were discussing. A couple minutes later he returned to tell me they were leading a Bible study. “I might check that out later,” he said.

The first thing to cross my mind was, “you are so not from the East Coast.” But I soon came to realize that this very attitude epitomized what Bitterman saw as a major factor in the movement. To him, Occupy calls for a greater engagement between the ranks of society. He explains that all individuals should ask themselves, “What is my role in society? Who am I affecting in our larger community?”

It is an idea that challenges the notion of the lazy and uneducated protestor, a character that many are quick to paint as the face of Occupy. To me, Bitterman seemed like an anomaly. He actively participated in Occupy protests, and still attends Occupy lectures and meetings. Yet, he sees himself pursuing medicine, a demanding career path that many associate with relative affluence and financial security. Meeting with Bitterman showed me the immediacy of Occupy, one that the abstract theories and economic intricacies of many articles simply failed to communicate.

As wary as Bitterman was of the journalistic realm, it seemed that it was even harder to get people that opposed the Occupy movement to agree to an interview. Perhaps being labeled as lazy, jobless and uninformed is nowhere near as threatening as the title of soulless, money–hungry Whartonite. Like it was for Bitterman, the option of anonymity was a convincing factor in eliciting a positive response. I met with an anonymous junior in both Wharton, where he’s majoring in Finance, and the College. We’ll call him Michael Manning.

Manning’s parents immigrated to the States when he was just five years old. Broke and jobless, his parents began waiting tables and saving up money for a number of years. Working their way up the ranks of the socioeconomic ladder, they now proudly pay for their son to attend the number–one business school in the nation. They embody the American Dream.

Manning’s rejection of the movement partly stems from this inspiring past. He believes that the struggles of his own family illustrate that the path to financial stability cannot be found in a list of grievances and calls for systemic change, but rather through hard work and determination. Much like Bitterman, he painted a concrete vision of reality — one that was more constructive than the misguided accusations of laziness that are often thrown around. To Manning, Occupy protests the “earn what you kill” theory, a concept that he returned to throughout the conversation. To earn what you kill is to produce your own success, and according to Manning, our current economic system facilitates that upward mobility. This is by no means a novel idea. But what sets Manning’s ideas apart is the tangibility of his own family’s success.

This Whartonite’s story elucidated a relatively widespread criticism of Occupy. But according to Bitterman, the most common source of rejection of Occupy Philly stems from the idea that the movement is too amorphous, lacking direction and purpose. It offers not a single solution wto any of the number of issues it raises.

Bitterman admitted, “We get a lot of scrutiny for not having a solution. But if you only attacked a problem every time you had a solution for it, where would we be as a society and a culture? Frankly, it’s not such a bad problem if you know the solution already. It wouldn’t be such a big issue.”

So what is Occupy truly asking for? Is it calling for change? Or is it merely a group of people releasing their frustration after a disastrous decade for our country? Even though they Occupied their way to the cancellation of Eric Cantor’s speech and held up signs reading “Obamanation,” it can’t easily be said that Occupy has done much to facilitate open discourse on our campus. It seems to contribute little more than what Jon Stewart refers to as the rants of your token liberal uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. Did Occupy bring light to the housing crisis, to bailouts, to the shrinking of the middle class? Honestly, I don’t really think so. For anyone that has been following politics, these issues were already being discussed months before Occupy was occupying.

But after witnessing the reluctance of Penn’s student body, I found that there is more to Occupy than excessive and implausible demands. I think it’s the very fear of the students I did and didn’t speak to that lies at the heart of the movement. It’s a fear of consequences — but in this case, the consequences of prolonged silence. It’s a fear of the misfortunes of the past 12 years repeating themselves. It’s a fear that if suffering is not voiced, it will indeed go unnoticed. But I guess the real lapse in media coverage isn’t where Occupy Philly comes from, but what it has accomplished in the Penn community.

From what I’ve seen, Occupy’s most immediate effects have been to demonize the Wharton School as the wealth–obsessed source of all of our problems. It has divided us into humanists and economists, privileged and hard–working as if these categories are mutually exclusive.

The most bizarre effect of all is the way a movement about discourse has managed to silence so many of us. As an institution that breeds both activists and investment bankers alike, we embody the inherent impossibility of concretely defining the movement. In effect, we reveal more truth than any theory can.

There are few safe statements to make about Occupy.  And it seems that most of us are afraid to make any statements at all. Why has the heated debate of November turned into overwhelming silence only one semester later? If a campus like ours can’t sustain this dialogue for more than a few months, what does this say about our nation at large? Will the message of Occupy continue to linger in the thoughts of the rest of the world? Or will we wait for the future in fearful silence?

One Person has left comments on this post

By Mike on January 26, 2012 at 5:53 am

Any person making an attempt at journalism should examine such a movement in the context of historical social movements. You can not try to analyze Occupy in a vacuum or as something that “happened”. Occupy is happenING. No movement can be characterized by its first few months. You should know that all movements slow down in the winter. Occupy is meeting, planning, meditating on their accomplishments and planning for an active spring and summer.

This article reflects the larger media’s inattention and tendency to focus on inconsequential aspects of Occupy. No one covered the fact that 2 weeks ago OWS won a suit against Brookfield Properties and NYC leading to them RE-occupying Zuccotti Park/Liberty Plaza as a homebase for their successful fights against foreclosures. You fail to cover (time and time again) Occupy Philly’s challenge of the segregationist curfew law that PENN perpetuates to protect it’s stolen white space.

Maybe in a decade you can try and write this article again. This is merely a short sighted and premature assessment with a survey sample of 2.

Occupy has created a dialogue you just haven’t been there for it.

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