Occupy Stanford: A Game of Numbers

It’s like I’m back in France. All throughout the country, pockets of protests are popping up and spreading. Like a slowly developing cold, city after city is falling to the Occupy America movement. And just like in Europe, the students are finally getting involved in a significant way.

Starting on Wall Street, these occupations have quickly made their way West and have taken root in the Bay Area. Not surprisingly, Stanford students have decided to throw their hat in the ring, recently launching the Occupy Stanford movement on campus. The initial e-mail – or rather, rally call – ended with the confrontational: “We are the 99 percent. Which side are you on?”

The 99 percent. The audacity of a group of students attending one of the most prestigious universities in the nation considering themselves part of the more unfortunate members of society is hard to comprehend. Perhaps it was meant as a show of solidarity for the ‘XX’ percent of Americans that never get to attend college. Perhaps it was a symbolic gesture to demonstrate to the ‘XX’ percent of Americans that live below the poverty line that they are invested in their struggle. Or perhaps they truly believe that they are part of the socially exploited layer of society and fully endorse the claims espoused by the Occupy Wall Street leaders. At the end of the day, they probably couldn’t tell you themselves.

The first meeting of the Occupy Stanford experiment – according to their own minutes – yielded quite a bit of confusion as to what the 99 percent actually represented and how they fit in as a part of it. While the group did successfully decide to “make signs” and managed to agree on the specific parts of campus to occupy, the overarching meaning of the movement remained elusive… as did a basic understanding of the fundamental issues afflicting our country.

In an attempt to help frame and define the protest, the Occupy Stanford group referred to a list of grievances published by the Occupy New York movement as a guiding document. A quick look at the Occupy Wall Street declarations sheds some light as to why this movement, both on campus and beyond, is doomed to intellectual insignificance.

In between the lines of the 23 accusations leveled at “the corporate forces of the world,” one can certainly feel a deep-seated frustration that has turned to anger. And while some of the criticisms about financial fraud and compensation inequality are legitimate, the Occupy movement continues to suffer from lack of focus that seems to stem from a lack of understanding.

Lumped into the complaints aimed at Wall Street are statements about discrimination in the workplace, the poisoned food supply, the perpetuation of colonialism at home and abroad, and the murder of supposedly innocent prisoners. What does Wall Street have to do with any of these issues? You’d be hard pressed to find a convincing answer to that question short of: “Very, very little.”

So long as the protestors continue to equate Wall Street with all that is wrong and broken about this country, this movement will yield little in the way of social progress. While the financial behemoths of this country are an easy scapegoat for the growing sense of frustration at the slow economic recovery, blindly blaming them for the current state of the economy in America is self-defeating insomuch that it is not true. Furthermore, conspiracy theories about corporate America’s iron grasp over our government are sure not to be productive in the corridors of Washington, which is where the change is going to have to come from ultimately.

Beyond needing to develop a better understanding of the causes of the current “mass injustice” (believe me, the ‘evil bloodsucking corporations’ that actually employ a vast majority of Americans are not the main source of America’s situation), the Occupy movement needs to redefine itself if it has the ambition to be somewhat useful. As was witnessed first-hand by the members of Occupy Stanford, the movement is trapped in its own definition – bridled by its self-imposed segregation.

While labeling and pitting 99 percent of Americans against the top one percent is a cheap PR stunt sure to garner widespread support, it is a woefully simplistic and counterproductive characterization of society. Income distribution needs to be thought of in more refined earning tiers and social and economic injustice need to be traced back to education and housing – not corporations. Similarly, Stanford students need to rethink the hypocrisy of claiming to be part of the 99 percent.

As students in our privileged position, we owe it to ourselves and to our peers to be more intelligent about how we approach this issue. We need to act meaningfully instead of symbolically. By standing passively in a defined location with a series of fortune-cookie-complaints slapped onto a sign, you get exactly what you bring to the table: a whole lot of nothing.

So until we can elevate our criticisms and intelligibly understand the roots of America’s social problems, it will continue to feel like I’m back in France, with people protesting for the sake of protesting, with students sheepishly reacting to broader national movements, and with the country coming to a standstill while we sit around reinforcing each other in our apathy.

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