What role should students play in Occupy Chicago?

November 2, 2011

College students around Chicago are expected to walk out of their classes at 5 p.m. on Wednesday in a show of support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Participating schools include Columbia College, UIC, DePaul and Northwestern.

After meeting at the Occupy Chicago headquarters outside the Chicago Board of Trade, they'll march to City Hall, and then convene for a general assembly at Michigan and Congress.

The group of students say they've organized this walk out quickly, in solidarity with those at Occupy Oakland, who have called for a general strike today, in response to acts of police brutality. The Occupy movement at large is calling today an International Day of Action, specifically citing Oakland's Scott Olsen, an Iraq War veteran who suffered a head injury after a tear gas canister hit him last week.

Columbia College student Ryan Nanni said today's walk out started at Columbia and grew out of a discussion amongst activist students. The group organized a public forum last Thursday called "We Are the 99%: The Meaning & Future of Occupy Chicago", where they discussed  how they could bring the Occupy movement to college students, most specifically at Columbia.

Nanni said he considered the movement amongst Chicago-area college students "somewhat decentralized," and would consider the movement successful "if anyone shows up" tonight. He expects 30 to 40 people to come, out of the approximately 40,000 students that attend all four schools, which, let's face it, isn't much.

"The power in a walk out and in a strike says that we have power in numbers, in solidarity with one another," said Nanni.

But what does it mean to walk out of a college class, when you don't have to go in the first place? Does a walk out mean anything unless you're protesting towards your own school?

Protest movements have a history of being rooted among young people. We certainly saw that during the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement of the 1960's - and more recently during many of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. 

When I went down to report on Occupy Chicago several weeks ago, Taylor Massa of Roosevelt University told me she was there because she could be; she wanted to fill the place of those who actually did have jobs and couldn't take time off to protest. But young people have a lot to protest to begin with, like crippling student loans, debt starting at a young age and terrifying job prospects.

But an organized walk out like the kind being attempted this afternoon begs the question: how many people walking out of colleges could be considered a success? In the news business, we typically consider hundreds, if not thousands, of people at a protest news worthy. But a protest such as the one happening this evening appears, for all intents and purposes, to be limited to the Chicago activist community. As such, it doesn't include all Chicago-area colleges; University of Chicago is notably absent from the list (This isn't entirely surprising; as an alum of the college, I will say we've garnered criticism for our lack of an activist community). 

Though Nanni and his peers wonder how they can bring the Occupy movement to students, the bigger question is whether they can bring the Occupy movement to a group of students larger than the activist community of students. What would it take for the phoenix of Students for a Democratic Society to rise again?

Perhaps it doesn't matter. Those critical of the Occupy protests wonder if they'll ever get what they're asking for. Even more question what they're asking for in the first place. But those who protest today are sure to argue that any voice, large or small, should be heard.