Friday, October 7, 2011

Occupy Stony Brook!

After attending the huge student walk-out/labor march/show of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street Wednesday night, I got to wondering what all my students at Stony Brook might be thinking about this whole Wall Street occupation thing. Do they support it? Will they participate in it? Will this movement affect them and change their lives? Will it redirect their future paths? Or will it pass us by and then so quickly be forgotten?

When I was in college, I participated in numerous demonstrations. I was even arrested by the police. I have always boasted about that incident. I remain immensely proud of what I did and I have never regretted it. We were protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was 2003. Hundreds of students and members of our community gathered downtown and "occupied" a central bridge connecting two cities. Some students moved from the sidewalks into the roadway and occupied that space, snarling traffic, forcing bystanders to chew upon our message. Crudely painted onto cardboard placards, we proclaimed the inauguration of "No Business as Usual." We wanted to shake things up, because we thought that the military invasion of a sovereign country thousands of miles away was a big deal. We wanted to force every citizen to take a stand on the issue, and if any man or woman came to find that the invasion of Iraq was foolish or ill-conceived (which it was), then they could join us in song, and in step. We wanted them to contact their representatives in Congress and ask them to oppose the invasion.

I did not join my friends in the middle of the bridge's occupied roadway that evening, but I also did not leave the bridge's sidewalk. The combined police forces of two cities plus the state troopers tried to force us to "go back to campus," as they condescendingly told us, but I refused to move. So one officer kneed me in the back, pushed me to the ground, and tied my hands behind my back with plastic twist-tie "handcuffs." We, the arrested, were led into a police van and later escorted to the county jail. We spent only a few hours in jail. This was because our fellow protestors who returned to campus after the rally rushed into the college's dining hall and solicited bail money from our classmates who were eating dinner. They raised hundreds of dollars in mere moments. We were freed from jail before midnight. The whole experience, we found, had re-energized our movement to oppose the war by all means necessary. In the end, we did not hold off President Bush's "shock and awe" campaign, and we did not prevent the hundreds of thousands of deaths that have followed. The war has sucked up billions of dollars of our tax money - including those I ritually pay, even while I do not support the ends to which that money is going.

Yet one thing I do support paying higher taxes for is SUNY, the State University of New York. I believe that our society benefits immensely when all New Yorkers have access to low-cost public higher education.

College should not only be for the wealthy. Private college tuitions are now bulging well past $50,000 a year, and financial aid for low-income and minority students is drying up. Thankfully, for those families that cannot afford private college, the State of New York offers a public university system. We have 4 major research universities, plus 60 other SUNY campuses, including 4-year residential colleges and numerous two-year county community colleges. I won't lie. It's a system bloated with bureaucracy and marred by mismanagement. The SUNY (mis)management has tried to cast all the blame for this on the state. But they are wrong.

Here's the deal. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher likes bureaucracy. She works in a big "castle" in downtown Albany - the building actually used to be the headquarters for a regional railroad company. She is surrounded by a multitude of administrative staff. Indeed, even as the Stony Brook administration is forcing academic departments to consolidate into "shared service centers," with the ultimate goal, no doubt, of trimming down on personnel - (this will be a disaster for students) - Ms. Zimpher and her staff continue to rake in outrageous salaries for doing what they do back at the castle.

The SUNY "castle"
(source: Wikipedia)

What do they do exactly? One thing is clear. Chancellor Zimpher has spent much of the past few years grandstanding about the need to privatize SUNY. Stony Brook President Sam Stanley has stood beside her all along as she grandstanded, and he's done a bit of grandstanding himself, despite continuous (if not complete) student and faculty opposition to the plan. Despite all the protests, Stony Brook has already broken ground for the planned construction of a hotel on campus. Just the kind of revenue-making venture our students will profit from, he reasons. And heck, students might even get jobs there cleaning rooms after they graduate!

One of my favorite Stony Brook protests, from March 2010

This summer SUNY and the state came together to pass legislation raising tuition. Between selling-out SUNY to private development and now raising tuition on New York's working-class families, SUNY and the state believe we can improve the quality of our public(?) higher education system.

This brings me back to Wall Street. On Wednesday night I attended the rally/march at Liberty Plaza in downtown Manhattan. I visited the inspiring encampment of hundreds of people from all walks of life who are presently living there. These are people firmly committed to bringing about radical change in the way wealth is distributed in our society. The rally/march coincided with the National Student Walk-Out. On SUNY campuses across New York, students walked out of classes and held protests against newly-increased tuition and fees.

I support these students. And I support the occupation of Wall Street. And for me, there is little difference between the two. First of all, the occupants of Liberty Plaza say that "We are the 99%" (in contradistinction to the wealthy 1% of Americans who control an unequal share of political power). SUNY students, too, are the 99%. We are not the boys and girls of Harvard and Yale. SUNY students come from middle-class and working-class backgrounds. Some students simply cannot afford the burden of increased tuition and fees. Heck, some grad students, like myself, are frustrated with paying higher fees for services we do not even regularly use. The fees I pay each semester, I should note, come out of the money that the state gives me to teach SUNY students. After subtracting fees and health care, what I earn is well under the federal poverty line for a household of two (myself and my partner). I believe I am eligible, if it ever comes to such a point, to apply for food stamps and receive other social welfare services from the state and federal governments. After you subtract my fees, health care costs, and taxes, I make just enough to pay for rent and buy groceries. If you are a parent thinking of sending your child to SUNY, just remember that s/he may spend much of his/her academic career being taught by highly-educated, well-trained professionals like myself - really awesome grad students - who, by the way, make only about $10,000 a year. If I can't ever make it into class, assume it is because I am waiting in line at the Department of Social Services to sign up for food stamps.

What about student debt? Here is another point of convergence between students and the occupation of Wall Street. Student debt is astronomical. Students at Liberty Plaza in Manhattan hold cardboard placards calling on the government to forgive them of tens of thousands of dollars they owe in student debt. Who profits from saddling young, educated professionals with thousands of dollars of debt? Banks and crediting agencies do. Students and young professionals do not.

Third, the unemployment rate is really high. Around 10% of all Americans are unemployed. But it is more like 20% for youth ages 16-24. Stony Brook students don't have much to look forward to after they receive their degrees. Some unemployed youths are making their beds at Liberty Plaza, advertising to their world their desire for work. Stony Brook graduates are going to end up there too. Some pundits say these young folks would be better off applying for jobs than squatting in a park. But will Stony Brook graduates really be happy enough cleaning rooms at Hotel Stony Brook for minimum wage when they've got a bachelors degree stuffed into their back pocket, just collecting lint?

The situation for Stony Brook students is unacceptable. It is time to Occupy Stony Brook.

One of my best memories of college was joining hands with my friends and marching in the streets. One of my best memories was getting handcuffed, thrown into the paddy wagon, and later getting bailed out by my classmates. From these experiences I learned a lot more about how to speak and how to listen, how to pull myself back onto my feet after getting knocked down, than I ever learned in any college course. Granted, I had amazing professors. They marched with us. They supported us when we ditched class to protest. They even took time during office hours to talk about the movement, to offer advice, and to hear our jumbled thoughts and help us make sense of everything.

That was 2003. This is 2011. A new generation of students are raising their collective voice. I now sit on the other side of the desk, as an instructor. Now is my opportunity to be a mentor, as my professors were when I needed them the most.

Stony Brook students will have to make hard choices for themselves. They can put their tuition and fees to work by taking greatest advantage of the services that the university has to offer: by taking awesome classes with passionate professors, using all the research capabilities of our libraries, engaging in organized athletics, joining student clubs (or starting new ones), writing for the newspaper, heck, just having an awesome time because that's what college is all about.

But if any students choose to walk out of class, I will support them. If they camp out in front of (or inside of) the Administration Building, I will support them.

Stony Brook students are the 99%. I am the 99%, too. Who are the 1%? The 1% work in the administration building on campus, and inside the big "castle" in Albany. They spend all their time trying to come up with the most creative ways to raise revenue for SUNY. But an alternative solution has been sitting underneath their noses all along. They are just too cowardly to grasp it: Tax millionaires and corporations.

If either our state or our federal government (or both) would simply raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% of people and corporations (no, corporations are not people), we could raise billions of extra dollars every year. If New York State passed such a law, we could put some of the money into SUNY. In fact, if we as a community shared the conviction that public higher education should always be accessible to even the poorest of the poor, and that tuition and fees should be capped at a certain level, we could force the government to use extra tax revenue from millionaires and corporations to subsidize students' education.

And why not? Why should we make low-income New Yorkers live on the edge of the socio-economic precipice? Why should they have to worry about balancing tuition and rent, tuition and food, tuition and debt?

I can't tell you why the 1% refuses to pay higher taxes to support the education of the other 99%. That doesn't make sense to me. Everyone in this state should have equal access to an equally good education; it should not matter what our background is, what language we speak, what kind of apartment we live in, what gender we are, what color our skin is. Why can't we have a world where there is just a 100%, rather than a 1% and a 99%?

The time for dialogue with the administration is over. Now is the time for dialogue with students, faculty, staff, friends, family members, supporters, and those on the fence. Right now. Students might decide to occupy Stony Brook. They might not. But if they do, we all stand to learn so much from the experience. We will not get paid big bucks for teaching each other at the occupation. We will not receive academic credit for anything we learn there. We cannot put this on our transcripts, and it probably won't appear in our letters of recommendation. We won't be adding this kind of thing to our resumes and our cover letters. Look, we won't get immediate benefits out of this; no college degree or new job will just suddenly appear out of thin air because of this.

But we will teach. And we will learn. We will learn from one another; we will all become teachers and we will all be as students. We will make our voices heard. We have the opportunity to dream up a new vision for SUNY. We just need to say what we want, and keep saying it until we get it.

We are the 99%.