Even Princeton

It so happens that the very night Occupy Princeton mic checked J.P. Morgan, I myself was talking about Princeton—or, more specifically, avoiding talking about Princeton.  A cohort-mate introduced me to one of her friends, and she asked me where I went to school before Berkeley.  As per usual, I mumbled something about Central New Jersey.and attempted to change the subject.  My friend wasn’t having it, though: “He went to Princeton”, she said.

My secret out, I offered my stock derision of my alma mater.  Did you know that there are eating clubs where you have to do ten interviews for admission, in a process that’s actually called “bicker”?  Have you heard about how Princeton got sued because so many of the students from its school for public policy went to work for hedge funds?  Or that upper-classmen put on double-popped collars, play croquet, and smoke cigars outside the site where newly admit pre-frosh congregate, just so incoming students start off with the right impression?  The implicit message, as always, was that if she thinks Princeton students are a bunch of over-privileged douchebags, she’s probably right.

The funny thing, though, is that I myself don’t even believe the stereotypes I’m conveying.  When I think of Princeton, I don’t think about eating clubs or polo shirts.  In my mind, “Princeton” is the professor who came into my first class freshman year and announced she had been kicked out of the prison system for teaching Marxism, the misfits who welcomed me into the marching band, and the young activists who strong-armed me into going vegan my sophomore year.  When I sing “In Praise of Old Nassau”, I mean it: it’s just that I’m thinking about the group of upperclassmen who took me to punk shows in Asbury Park when I was a lonely freshman, the old alumni who decided to give a scholarship to a kid who spent his hour long interview talking about anarchism, and the sociology professor who told me to follow my passions into a dumpster.

There are, of course, people at Princeton who are assholes from the second they set foot on campus.  But I truly believe, as Occupy Princeton said in their mic check, that most Princeton students don’t come to campus wanting to work for Goldman Sachs.  A significant minority, like me, arrive completely unaware of Princeton’s reputation as “the country club of the Ivy League.”  By the time we get to Princeton, though, most of us are hardwired to constantly look for the most exclusive eating club, the most selective major, and the most prestigious job.  The sad fact is, if you’re a Princeton freshman looking for role models, the most successful people you see are the ones going into finance.

And so Princeton’s reputation for elitism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The people who have no qualms about turning a half-million dollar education into a six-figure salary are also the people who are oblivious enough to wear Princeton on their sleeve.  The rest of us are afraid to associate ourselves with a name that others have made synonymous with greed and exclusivity, filled with guilt about the benefits we have accrued from a place we claim to hate.  The progressive alumni keep away from reunions, and by extension, each other: after all, it would be a bit incongruous if we expended much effort on a community that we are constantly bitching about.  The result is that a minority—and yes, it really is a minority—of Princeton students get to define what Princeton is to most of the world, and, in so doing, control the meaning of one of the most momentous four-year-periods of our lives.

Don’t get me wrong: Princeton has an awful history.  There is an important conversation to be had about whether Princeton should exist at all—if there really is a place in our society for such a lavish educational experience while public education is being cut to the bone.  But so long as Princeton does exist, those of us who have benefited from it ought to be able to have an open debate about how we can best use that privilege.  But before that can even happen, we need to challenge the basic narrative—that many of us alumni are ourselves perpetuating—that Princeton is an unredeemable, reactionary hell hole.

I’m glad that Occupy Princeton directed their message at the banks: their action had incredible power because, as so many media outlets seemed to say, even Princeton seems to be waking up.  But for me personally, the message they conveyed was one I’ve yet to find the courage to say:

Mic Check! /

We at Princeton /

Are not all assholes /

Some of us /

Are just twenty-somethings /

Who got lucky /

And are trying to figure out /

How to do some good

An Open Letter to the Princeton Community

After the tigers of Occupy Princeton mic-checked recruiting events for Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, a few concerned alumni collaboratively drafted an Open Letter to Princeton Community to send to the Princeton Alumni Weekly and the university administration.  If you are an alum and want to sign it, shoot me an e-mail (also, let me know if you want to be on our e-mail list, discussing further actions that could be taken along this vein).

Bringing concerns about income inequality and economic injustice into the heart of American privilege is itself a good thing; as a Princeton alum, I also think it’s important to seize on this moment to try to change a deeply problematic culture of entitlement on campus (exhibit A-Z).  No letter drafted by a group of people is ever going to express any individual’s views perfectly.  I hope, though, that people who agree with the spirit of Occupy Princeton’s action will consider adding their names in support.

For those who can’t open links, the text is below.

– – – – –

To the Princeton Community:

When we were at Princeton, we were often reminded that Princeton’s motto is ‘In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.’ Despite this ideal, we have discovered that to many outside the Orange Bubble, Princeton symbolizes something much less noble: greed, privilege, and elitism. We believe that part of this perception stems from Princeton’s strong institutional support for careers in the financial services sector, an industry that includes firms like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, which have taken billions of dollars in public money and used it to pay excessive bonuses and manipulate our political system to their own advantage.

We applaud the students of Occupy Princeton for challenging Princeton’s dominant culture of political disengagement. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your peers and speak uncomfortable truths. Princeton graduates are entitled to work in the industry of their choosing, but if they do choose to work in finance, they should know they are entering an industry with a condemning historical record of breaching public trust and engaging in practices that run directly counter to Princeton’s motto. We believe that the Occupy Princeton protests send an important message to these financial institutions about the University’s values and serve to educate students considering a career in finance.

The burden of showing that Princeton University is more than an elite playground should not fall on the shoulders of students alone. The administration should support—not discipline—those students who are attempting to bring Princeton into a much-needed national conversation about income inequality and economic justice.  Moreover, we urge the administration to stop providing institutional support for recruiting on campus by the worst offenders of the financial industry, such as J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, until they show that they meet basic standards of accountability and economic fair play.

Lastly, we call on fellow alumni to join us in making it clear to current undergraduates that there are better ways to use the immense privilege of a Princeton education. We say this not just to encourage students to look outside of finance, but also to suggest that they use the skills and connections they have developed at Princeton to achieve positive good from within financial careers.

It’s time to decide whether ‘the nation’s service’ refers to the entire nation, or just 1% of it.


The Zero Sum Movement

The first time I walked into the Occupy Oakland encampment, I felt like I had set foot in utopia.  I had been to Oscar Grant Plaza, in front of city hall, just a few days prior, but left the occupation’s first general assembly quickly after it devolved into an endless series of ideological pontifications: this isn’t going anywhere, I thought.  But it did.  When I returned, Occupy Oakland was a veritable city, except that most cities don’t provide their own power via bicycle generators, don’t provide free food and medical care for anyone who needs it, and aren’t bursting with beautiful artwork and transformative ideas in equal measure.

Over the next month, I returned to Oakland repeatedly—to march in the occupation’s first demonstration, to help them retake the plaza after the first time they were evicted, to aid in shutting down Oakland’s port as part of a general strike, and, once, to show it off to some visiting friends.  It’s funny, because media reports always emphasize how angry occupiers are, and in public, there’s some truth to that.  Yet behind that there was always a palpable sense of joy and possibility.  Every time I left Oakland, I felt rejuvenated and inspired.  If we can create an egalitarian, democratic enclave in the heart of Oakland, with all its racial conflict, violence, homelessness, and deprivation, then how could we possibly deny the possibility of organizing our entire society around these principles?

Somehow, over that same month, Occupy Oakland came to symbolize something very different to the rest of the nation.  Reports of a shooting outside the encampment (no rareity in the 5th most dangerous city in the U.S.) and images of protesters rioting in downtown (actually, they were trying to set up a library in an abandoned building until they were attacked by police, but whatever) came to define the occupation.  The city did its part by deliberately attempting to make the park an unsafe and unclean space.  Eventually, the encampment became not just physically but semiotically contaminated, the manifestation of all the concerns about violence and hedonism that even erstwhile sympathzers had about the occupy movement.  I knew it was bad when my mother told me, just don’t go to Occupy Oakland.

But when, three weeks ago, the call went out to support the encampment against a possible eviction, I felt that I needed to go: Occupy Oakland had given me so much that the least I could do was support their very existence.  We arrived at about 2 a.m., and parked a few blocks away from the plaza, where a line of ambulences were waiting.  I asked one of the paramedics if he had any advice for staying safe: he responded that I should go as far away as possible.  I asked him if he thought anyone was going to die tonight: he said he wasn’t sure.  “That encampment’s a shithole, man.  It’s got to go”, he explained.

I have to admit that when I reached the plaza, I could see what he meant.  Some combination of rain, negative publicity, and news of the impending eviction meant that the camp had fallen into disrepair.  Most of the tents were deserted, save a few strung-out looking individuals, and there was trash everywhere.  In contrast to a few weeks earlier, when thousands had thronged to the street to defend the encampment, this time only a scant few responded.  Those that weren’t frantically packing up their belongings were standing in a nearby intersection, half-heartedly participating in an all-night dance party that had been labeled, appropriately, the “Occupocalypse.”

Few in my generation will experience warfare in the way our grandparents did, even if the response to occupations around the country has turned our inner cities into veritable battlefields.  Tenuous though the military analogy is, I nonetheless bet that night was the closest I will ever come to experiencing what it is like to be in a city right before the arrival of an enemy army.  Anonymous Medics wearing all-black spandex suits and Guy Fawkes-masks came in with reports of police encircling us from all directions, but the information was never put to use.  Rumors swirled, and the mechanisms of decision-making that have defined our movement—the people’s mic and consensus—broke down.  A few black bloc anarchists donned vinegar-soaked bandanas, in preparation for a street fight.  Some local union members marched in a picket line, chanting lines of strength and empowerment that, for the moment, seemed to have lost their meaning.  Confusion, panic, and above all, despair permeated the crowd.

When the police came, the hopelessness of the situation was immediately evident.  There were hundreds of them, coming from all sides, armed with batons, rubber bullets, and assault rifles.  We didn’t come to an open decision, but everyone at this point realized we were there to bear witness, not to resist.  My best-case scenario rapidly shifted: just let no one get hurt.  I left when I could see that it would not be a massacre, and that most of those who were arrested would be given the chance to do so peacefully.  There’s no such thing as “non-violence” when hundreds of police are involved, but I was grateful not to see a repeat of the bloody mess they caused a few weeks prior.

I’m uncomfortable with some of the comparisons between police repression in the U.S. and the Middle East; although the linkages in police tactics and weaponry are important to note, we should not forget our fortune that Americans are not actually being killed yet.  But as I saw that night, you don’t need to harm our bodies to kill our sense of hope and possibility.  Occupy Oakland has not disappeared—indeed, tomorrow they will most likely manage to shut down the port of Oakland, once again, in solidarity with ILWU workers struggling for their right to be unionized.  They will find ways to keep fighting, as will the evicted occupiers in LA, Boston, New York, and Portland.

But without our encampments—our sites of radical, almost playful experimentation in utopia—I fear our movement has lost its innocence.  We spent two months pretending to live in the world we sought to create; now we have no choice but to confront the ugly reality of the world we live in.  They did not let us make our own power: now we must take it.  They refused to let us occupy public space: so we will seize their private buildings.  There can be no denying that this struggle is now zero sum.  But they were the ones who made it that way.

Apathetic Apologetic

A few Mondays ago, I saw my future.  No, not a vision of being arrested and thrown in jail—this was a more long-term vision.  It was a premonition of my future as a college professor: standing in the front of a lecture hall filled with bored-looking undergraduates, their tired faces half hidden by laptops (open to facebook, I’m sure—it wasn’t that long ago that I was an undergrad, after all).

It seems fitting that my first experience teaching undergraduates was a lesson in activism, not sociology.  As part of our mobilization for Wednesday’s peaceful civil disobedience violent police riots, the union organized classroom presentations to educate the campus body about the extent of the impending cuts to public education.  When an e-mail went over our listserve asking for someone to present to a 250 person Introduction to Sociology lecture, another graduate student and I stepped forward, thinking that with ten minutes crammed full of ghastly statistics and compelling arguments, we could turn out a veritable horde for our upcoming rally.

The professor warned us that his students were “greener than green”, nearly all of them freshmen and almost none of them well-informed about the intricacies of neo-liberal retrenchment of government services.  This in mind, though, I thought we had a pretty good schtick: I roped them in by quizzing them about what tuition was five years ago (no one came even close to guessing that it was less than half its current amount) and comparing it to what it would be in five years under the regent’s proposal (double the current figure).  My friend then wove these numbers into a broader narrative of how they, as students, were being asked to pay for a crisis caused by the misdeeds of others.  I closed with a rousing description of the effectiveness of public protest, ranging from Tahrir Square to Berkeley’s own demonstrations in the 1960s.  “Who’s with us?” my friend asked.

You could practically hear crickets chirping at the end.

As a general rule, apathy makes me angry.  I’m hardwired to think that injustice demands a response, so I struggle to empathize with those who will not stand up for others (or even themselves).  Yes, I know enough sociology to understand that most people face deep, structural barriers to political action.  But over the past week, riding through Berkeley on my way to events in Oakland, I cannot help to think that at least some of these people going about their business have the time and resources to stand up for what is right.  After all, as scores of us were being beaten on November 9th, hundreds of our peers were walking by on their way to the library or Wednesday night frat parties.  I don’t expect them to pull the cops off of us, but it is almost impossible for me to forgive a mentality that leads someone to just walk by without even stopping to inquire about what is going on.  There is only so much indifference that sociology can excuse

Yet, even given the events of the last few weeks, I still couldn’t be angry at these kids.  I wonder how I would have responded had, ten weeks into Princeton, someone come to my class and told me that, despite having worked for years just to get to college, I would now have to fight tooth-and-nail to get any education at all.  Added on to the stresses of adjusting to college and coping with my academic work, would I really have heeded the call?  I’ve heard so many times from people who don’t want to protest, “I’m just here to get an education.”  As if I’m not.  The last few days, I’ve thought over and over again how I’d really rather just read Marx and Durkheim, just be a student, have time for reflection and cooking and drinking and soaking up the bliss of my mid-twenties.  I get it.

But this is not the world we live in.  We are at a historical juncture in which we must take sides.  Eventually, those wide-eyed undergraduates will learn that.  They’ll find out that, in America’s second gilded age, they will have to fight for everything—for public education, for a decent job, for health care and a pension, for access to the criminal justice system.  Or perhaps they can ignore it, buy into the American dream, and get screwed anyway.  But it seems cruel to tell them now.  Jesus, they’re just kids, and the world is a scary place.