Dartmouth, Preoccupied: The Scoop on Occupy Dartmouth
By Madeline Zeiss, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, November 4, 2011
Like many Dartmouth students, I had frequently walked by the Occupy Dartmouth protestors without so much as a glance in their direction. I wasn’t afraid of them or opposed to speaking with them — I was just unsure of what they stood for and didn’t know how to ask. I just knew they felt so strongly about something that they had continually remained camped outside Collis in the rain and snow for weeks.
So I had no idea what to expect as I sat down — somewhat nervous — to interview four protestors at their “base” on a sunny Friday afternoon. I knew that the group started their occupation on Oct. 13 in response to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement of the Occupy Wall Street’s impending eviction. I went into the interview pretty clueless about Occupy Dartmouth’s goals, as I’m sure at least a few readers are as well. I had mostly heard that the protests supported the 99 percent of Americans and protested the top 1 percent — or those who earn $380,354 or more annually, according to the Internal Revenue Service’s Summary of Federal Individual Income Tax Data.
Instead of protesting a specific law or policy change, Occupy Dartmouth has yet to issue a statement of belief, but members said they will do so in the “near future.” Currently, the group supports a “democratic, anti-hierarchal movement,” protestor Nathan Gusdorf ’12 said.
A “horizonally organized, non-hierarchical organization” without officer positions, Occupy Dartmouth has at least 20 protestors who “actually occupy” and 50 who are “loosely involved,” Gusdorf said. An email chain allows students to replace others as they leave the base, while daily “general assembly” meetings at 5 p.m. bring all members together.
Protestor Karenina Rojas ’13 explained that Occupy Dartmouth facilitates a space for open dialogue about the economy and the country’s current political system.
“[It] is an end of itself, being able to have and maintain this space and engage in dialogues, Rojas said. “That’s a goal that we’ve already accomplished.”
Though Occupy Dartmouth has certainly achieved this goal, I couldn’t help but wonder if their conversations, which sound more like existential debates than concrete planning sessions, could actually change the intensely bureaucratic institutions of Wall Street and the federal government.
History professor Russell Rickford described the media’s focus on the protesters’ lack of goals as a “stunningly conservative premise.”
“I think that the media’s coverage of the movement, and even the student newspaper’s coverage of the local movement, is really revealing,” Rickford said. “I think it shows the profound limitations of our concept of democracy and democratic participation.”
College Republicans President J.P. Harrington ’14 said that the protestors would accomplish “nothing” without tangible objectives.
“To accomplish something, you must have a goal,” Harrington said. “[Occupy Dartmouth’s] current goal is to spark political discussion and debate, although their definition of ‘political debate’ seems to be more along the lines of philosophical musing,” Harrington said.
Harrington added that he found it odd that Dartmouth students struggled to encounter places to engage in either political or philosophical debate.
“I’ve found it relatively easy to engage in either whether I’m smoking cigars at a fraternity, attending a College Republicans meeting or just spending time with my friends,” Harrington said.
The Occupy Dartmouth movement is in response to the economic ills of the moment, which they believe are not simply temporary but instead rooted in the structure of our financial system, Gusdorf said.
“When we talk about corporate power influencing politics, about the role of deregulation in empowering business, the increase of union busting, really the disempowerment of the people, we see that as the fundamental issue and the economic crisis is really a consequence of finance gone out of control.” Gusdorf said.
When asked about concrete examples of corporate control over government, protestor Stewart Towle ’12 responded, “We are seeing a lot of people coming out of the corporate sector and into really high-level appointed government positions in Washington, D.C.”
Towle was likely referring to people like former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson ’68, who worked under President George W. Bush after serving as chairman and chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs. Because Paulson oversaw the economy until late 2008, he is largely associated with the global financial crisis. Indeed, Paulson was named Time Magazine’s runner-up for its 2008 Person of the Year, with the explanation that “if there is a face to this financial debacle, it is now his.”
Rickford additionally cited the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in support of corporate personhood as “one of the most glaring examples” of corporate influence on government. In the January 2010 decision for Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the First Amendment right of corporations or unions to fund political broadcasts in candidate elections, thereby giving corporations the same rights as individuals to engage in “political speech.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision basically gives corporations the privileges and rights of individuals,” Rickford said. “An example of one of the most anti-democratic aspects of our system is the overt corporate influence on law makers and legislators, which in recent decades has dramatically expanded.”
Rickford added that in order to run for both state and federal offices, it is necessary to be a “multi-millionaire in collaboration with other multi-millionaires.”
Protestor Deanna Portero ’12 also criticized the average American’s inability to influence politics under the “current political system.”
“I don’t believe that justice is applied equally among classes, and I don’t believe there is a way to change that through the system,” Portero said.
While many criticize the Occupy movement’s decision to target Wall Street bankers rather than Washington, D.C., policy makers, all protestors interviewed contended that corporate influence cannot be separated from government decisions.
“That [criticism] has bothered me a lot, because it sets up this binary between the government … and corporations that does not exist anymore,” Rojas said. “I don’t have an issue with the government and I don’t have an issue with corporations — I have an issue with corporations controlling the government and influencing the government through money.”
Others, however, hold the completely opposite view that the government’s interference with business actually caused the global financial crisis. President Barack Obama’s policies, rather than unregulated corporations, are responsible for stunted economic growth and frightened job creators, Harrington said.
Harrington predicted that “we will see an upswing in anger” if Obama’s policies continue.
“Hopefully, rather than being concentrated on a nebulous enemy known as the 1 percent, bankers or corporations, [the protests] will be targeted at the true progenitors of this crisis — the over-bloated bureaucracies in Washington, D.C.”
Though the protesters noted the philanthropic efforts of some wealthy Americans like Warren Buffett, I was taken aback by their characterizations of many members of this 1 percent as “pro-inequality.” Their frustration was ebullient in characterizing American society as “definitely a plutocracy” and “borderline collective fascism, ” Towle said.
As I sat in a circle surrounded by the protestors, I silently wondered how protestors who claim to “love humanity” view millions of Americans as “greedy” and “pro-inequality” for being in the 1 percent.
Indeed, Occupy Dartmouth’s presence has sparked much controversy and debate on campus. A recent article (“Students protest corporate greed,” Oct. 17), garnered online comments from readers who argued that many Americans in the top percentile are extremely hardworking, intelligent and educated, and that “being wealthy is not a crime.” Additional comments remind us that the costs of attending Dartmouth are heavily subsidized by generous donations from wealthy alumni who largely made their fortunes through corporate endeavors.
The strong reactions that protestors face are undoubtedly connected to the relative wealth of many students and lack of much visible poverty in Hanover. As a result, Portero suggested that students should think beyond the Dartmouth bubble when considering economic disparity in America.
“Take a moment and step outside this sphere with no homelessness and very little visible poverty [and] a complete inundation with right-wing moderate fetishism,” Portero said.
Many Dartmouth students aspire to obtain the careers that the Occupy movement opposes, as reflected in the popularity of the economics major, the competitiveness of corporate recruiting and the strong presence of Dartmouth alumni in the fields of business.
“There are always accusations of hypocrisy,” Gusdorf said. “[We’re asked], ‘How can you say this when some of you come from privileged backgrounds?’” Gusdorf said. He lated added, “People seem to think we can’t demand justice for the poor unless we are poor.”
Protestors interviewed said they have endured students kicking down their signs and yelling profanities from the mildly offensive to the profane. Gusdorf’s “favorite,” for example, is the all too frequent cry of “Occupy my asshole!”
Gusdorf revealed that their most frustrating interactions were not with verbally or physically aggressive individuals — one of whom drunkenly choked a protestor, according to Towle — but with those who did not take the time to consider their beliefs.
“The worst are people are those come by and say, ‘So what do you want?’” Gusdorf said. “We explain to them why we’re here and they pretend they’re listening but they don’t really care. They think that in order to say something meaningful we have to be demanding a specific policy change.”
The protestors have also suffered personal attacks on their backgrounds and upbringings.
“Two Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center doctors told us we must be here just because we hate our parents and that we should leave because we are harassing the community with our presence,” Gusdorf said.
That said, the group has received unprecedented support from many students interested in business.
“A lot of Tuck students and undergraduates passing by on their way to corporate recruiting stop and say they actually support what we’re doing,” Gusdorf said.
Many more members of the community have also shown their support, Gusdorf said, adding that hundreds of students, faculty and Hanover residents have shown thanks and donated food and supplies to the group.
During the hour in which I spoke with the protestors, two friendly adults separately approached the base and asked to discuss protestors’ motivations and goals. Halfway through the interview, Rojas returned with a $20 donation that was placed in their shelter.
Though the Occupy Dartmouth base has remained outside Collis since Oct. 13, the protestors have had numerous encounters with administrators and Safety and Security officers, Gusdorf said.
“First, the College suggested that we needed to adhere with town regulations in order to be here, and we just discovered the permits we were filling out for the town last week were not even submitted,” Gusdorf said. “Officially, you’re not allowed to carry on protests for more than six hours [and] you’re not allowed to have structures.”
Gusdorf said that the law has even been interpreted to ban members from “hanging a tarp over your head while it’s raining.”
Dartmouth administrators are currently in the process of deciding if they will enforce their rules about structures and should decided by the middle of next week, Gusdorf said.
The administration has been “supportive” of the student’s desire to support the Occupy movement, the College’s Director of Media Relations Justin Anderson said in an email to The Dartmouth.
“Our working premise is to help those who want to express their views,” Anderson said. “As for the Occupy movement, Dartmouth’s Executive Vice President and CFO Steve Kadish delivered the students a cake. The administration supports the students’ right to protest, but like every other college or university we must balance that right against a number of other factors, including the safety of the protesters and the larger community.”
Administrators have been “flexible” to protestors by allowing the continuous use of a tent, according to Anderson. Their concerns about the protestors are “not about rigid enforcement of policies,” Anderson said.
“In fact, given our concern for the welfare of the students, particularly in light of the recent snow storm and cold temperatures, we have been done a number of things to increase the comfort of the students, some of which were expressly prohibited in the original conditions for the permit.”
He said that administrators’ consulted with protestors on how to ensure their safety and that Safety and Security officers check on the students regularly during late-night hours. Anderson said that administrators are “particularly worried” about Hanover’s frigid weather and such health risks as “frostbite and hypothermia.”
“We want to ensure that [the Occupy Dartmouth students] are taking all of the necessary precautions to remain warm and safe while not putting themselves or the community in danger,” Anderson said. “This means bundling up and staying warm without the use of space heaters, which present serious fire danger when used inside of a tent, particularly if there is no one awake and on alert.”
Protestors “actively encourage” other participants to take care of themselves and not sacrifice their academics and personal health to work with the movement, Towle said.
Since the protestors have no plans to end their movement, their presence will continue to force members of our community to examine their views on economic disparity and corporate influence on the government. Inevitably, conflict and disagreements will remain due to the plethora of different viewpoints on campus. “Who are you to tell me I’m not good enough because I’m in the 99 percent, and who are you to tell me that to be better, to be good, to be the best is to be the 1 percent?” Towle said. “In many ways, the opposite is actually true.”