Occupying a Midwestern College Town

Occupying a Midwestern College Town

Rafael Khachaturian: Occupying a Midwestern College Town

Occupy Wall Street has come a long way since September 17. Tens of thousands across America have taken the initiative and created local sites of protest against the inner dealings of high finance and the problems of current party politics, spreading the Occupy brand far beyond Wall Street – which was, of course, the intention all along.

One such site was set up here in Bloomington, Indiana, home to Indiana University and a vibrant college town of eighty thousand people. Not long after the wave of occupations began, I attended the initial rally of Occupy Bloomington in People?s Park, a small public space only blocks away from campus. A crowd of about 150 people gathered, prompted by online publicity and word of mouth. Most were milling around and talking quietly among themselves. Immediately noticeable was the diversity of the people in attendance, spanning across the divisions of age, class, and race. There were students, seniors, parents with strollers, counterculturalists, dog owners, and even a couple of Ron Paul supporters. It was an encouraging beginning. But nobody seemed quite sure about what came next.

Someone handed me a flier. “Welcome to the occupation of Bloomington, Indiana,” it read. “What happens from here on out is up to you and those around you. We are the catalyst for the change that could create a better world.” It continued: “This is a space for humanity, this is a space for passionate people who will no longer remain silent.”

A few activists involved in the occupations in New York, as well as in nearby Louisville and Lexington (Kentucky), briefed the crowd on some of the features that made this movement unique in the eyes of the mainstream media: the fluttering hand signals (“twinkles”) for indicating approval and disapproval, the people’s microphone, and the decentralized, anti-hierarchical, and open nature of the assembly. In principle – and this principle was taken very seriously by the participants – anyone could address the crowd so long as they followed the assembly’s procedure. After some initial hesitation, a few individuals took the opportunity.

They shared stories of the hardships that have befallen people across the country. What many Americans only experienced after the 2008 recession has been a part of life for Midwesterners for decades: student debt accrued over twenty years, a lack of health insurance, unpaid medical bills, foreclosed homes. In Bloomington the class-based divide between individuals associated with the university and those with no affiliation is quickly apparent to most observers. According to the New York Times, Bloomington has the third highest poverty rate among similarly sized cities. This was corroborated by the latest U.S. Census data, which showed it to be the most unequal city in the country (even if these results are skewed due to it being a college town.)

Even prior to the Occupy movement, People’s Park was a common place of gathering for the town’s homeless population – a fact made all the more ironic by the park’s location on the central avenue of downtown Bloomington, two blocks from the university’s iconic Sample Gates and across the street from stylish consumer traps like Urban Outfitters and the IU Varsity Store. The occupied space in the heart of downtown brought the city’s inequalities to the forefront.

As I write, there is a contingent of dedicated occupiers who have maintained the public space in People’s Park through worsening weather. General Assembly meetings are held daily, allowing anyone to join in and address the group, while specific working groups on topics like education, fundraising, and security have also been set up. The democratic nature of the assembly has expectedly led to debates on matters of tactics and organization, as well as broader theoretical questions about the meaning and goals of the occupation. How best to deal with local politicians and media, how to keep the occupation?s momentum going through winter, and how to more effectively integrate with the broader community have been topics of discussion. Much as in other cities, concerns have also been raised about the increased presence of disruptive individuals who don?t see themselves as part of the occupation but who reside in the park.

While the city administration has been mostly lenient with the occupiers and local small businesses have been supportive, even regularly donating food and supplies and allowing the occupiers to hold meetings in their spaces, the majority of the student body has reacted to Occupy Bloomington with apathy. A number of colleagues with whom I have spoken about the movement have stated their confusion about its message and goals, an issue facing occupations everywhere. Who makes up the 1 percent? Do we oppose only corporations or also well-to-do individuals and households? Can that mobilize individuals in a college town where, according to the Indiana Daily Student newspaper, “nearly 300 IU faculty members fall in the top 5 percent of earners in the United States, earning more than $154,643 annually”?

Yet even more concerning has been the hostility toward the occupation voiced by some on campus – especially when they have been able to vent anonymously. The comments left by readers on the IDS stories about Occupy Bloomington show a bitterness that belies Bloomington’s reputation as a liberal city. Some commenters repeat clich├ęs about the greatness of free enterprise and the laziness of those who expect “handouts.” During Homecoming Weekend in late October, I spent much of one afternoon at the park and witnessed a constant stream of passersby – almost all of them intoxicated white males – shouting mocking and mean-spirited remarks toward us. It was beneath the level even of most political punditry. There is no better contrast with the dialogic and open structure of the General Assembly than yelling slogans at one’s adversaries without considering their points of view.

These moments point to the larger problem of the lack of student involvement in Occupy Bloomington. While some universities have seen a notable degree of mobilization, this has not been the case at IU. One possible explanation is that the university is less dependent on state funding than other public research institutions, lowering the stakes on topics like cuts in public spending, which has spurred protest at CUNY and the University of California. Another explanation may be that the school has no strong tradition of student activism. However, a brief glance at the history of student protests at IU in the 1960s shows that the problem is not political culture. Activists in the Young Socialist Alliance protested here during the Cuban Missile Crisis and were unsuccessfully prosecuted under the Indiana Anti-Subersive Act of 1951 for supposedly advocating the overthrow of the state government. During the Vietnam War, protests by the student Left and counter-protests by the Right were a common occurrence. The most notable incident, which shows the complicated legacy of this period, occurred in 1968 when an African-American owned business located in People?s Park was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Whatever the case, there is no question that the lack of connection between Occupy Bloomington and the campus has been a major hindrance to the growth of this local movement. A sister group called Occupy IU, geared more toward students, faculty, and university employees, has been meeting over the course of the past month to remedy this detachment through an information campaign and campus events. The future success of Occupy Bloomington thus depends on how successfully it can link up with IU and expand its presence on campus.

Compared to its bigger siblings in Manhattan, Oakland, and elsewhere, Occupy Bloomington is a blip on the radar. Yet if there has been one driving message behind the Occupy movements, it’s that of people power and solidarity, which we have neglected for too long in our politics. And small expressions of solidarity, when grouped together, can help bring about transformations beyond anyone’s foresight.