Editorial: Preoccupied with occupations

Posted by the Editorial Board

It was hardly surprising that nothing much came of last Thursday's aborted effort to "Occupy Skidmore" The planned demonstration was a confused and muddled attempt at youthful rebellion.

None of the slogans on the picket signs or in SGA's complimentary email explained exactly why Skidmore is part of the (also undefined) big problem, why the college itself must be occupied, or why our Student Government was organizing a political rally from the top down.

There is, however, something worth salvaging from the demonstration: we as a college must look out from the Skidmore bubble and engage in the wider political arena.

Amidst an economic malaise, with a divided government that tussles over any and every new piece of crucial legislation, those of us fortunate enough to attend college cannot afford to waste our civic efficacy while Rome burns. Last Thursday happened to be an example of how not to organize politically, but perhaps we might start discussing the ways in which effective engagement in national politics is possible and achievable.

The first thing to emphasize is that we at Skidmore have the resources not only to organize politically but also to do so in an educated way. As it happens, what sounds good on a picket sign is not necessarily a well-informed, sound argument, as last week's attempted occupation showed. But what better place is there to achieve a firm grasp of social, economic or artistic questions than an institution of higher education?

Rather than simply shoo everyone over to the quad with a couple of banners and a vague sense of indignation, likeminded students can meet regularly to deliberate, debate and then finally articulate their stance on matters political in the form of an organized event. A tight grasp of the issues at hand is the difference between a disciplined picket line and Speakers' Corner.

One cannot rely, then, on nebulous consensus for legitimate organization. If indeed most students here sympathize with the wider ‘Occupation' movements cropping up around the nation – as SGA seemed to presume in their email advocating the protest – then the handful of demonstrators were clearly on friendly soil rather than enemy territory. Despite its contemporary misuse, the adage "preaching to the choir" connotes a pointless rather than a satisfying exercise.

Anti-war types don't demonstrate outside of Susan Sarandon's mansion; not many environmentalists choose to picket Ralph Nader's office; and so far this year the Tea Partiers have left the parking lots of Koch Industries alone. So what were the "occupiers" doing on the green? Even if our mad-as-hell peers could not make it to Wall Street, a trip downtown into conservative Saratoga Springs would have been enough.

For a positive example of Skidmore protesting where it matters, we need only look to this past February, when a group of students traveled to New York City to join the "Rally to Stand Up for Women's Health." From their own pockets in cooperation with Family Planning New York, the students organized the trip to protest the legislation threatening funding for "Title X."

Students read up on the nature of the conflict between the Planned Parenthood programs and the legislative agenda of Congress, initiated a grass roots movement on campus (think back to the filming and circulation of the "I Have Sex" video) and actually took themselves to a venue where their voices would be heard and perhaps challenged. Nothing could be further from the arbitrary noisemaking that SGA was trying to help "facilitate" last week.

Which brings us to what is arguably the most important aspect of real student organization: it is self-determined and spontaneous. SGA President Jonathan Zeidan said that the Student Government only intended to provide a space for anyone interested in the occupation movement. But when he told the Skidmore News, "I do not think it is the place of SGA to take sides on political issues," he tacitly admitted that this top down approach created obvious confusion about whether this was SGA fronting or supporting a specific political movement.

There is precedent for SGA having some involvement in political movements – both the Skidmore Democrats and the Skidmore Young Republican Assembly receive funding in the annual budget. Nonetheless, an SGA-organized protest is misguided. Encouraging community members to become involved in issues beyond the boundaries of our campus is a worthy goal, but such plans must be enacted judiciously. Protests ought to be held where they will be heard, not safely ensconced in a supportive college bubble.

"Occupy Skidmore," though well intentioned, was a conceptual failure. It presents, however, a valuable opportunity to reconsider how our community involves itself in external issues, both locally and nationally. There is a time and a place to protest, but as a college community we are uniquely privileged with the facilities to learn and to teach. These are our most potent tools in this tumultuous era. They should be used to their fullest extent, for the sake of our campus and the world at large.

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