Sunday, April 15, 2012

An Evening With "Occupy Princeton"

Last fall a rash of protests across America, especially New York City, called "Occupy Wall Street" exploded on the political scene. Every liberal and left wing sympathizer felt their cockles warmed and day dreamed about the Marxian moment, "revolt by the working class in capitalist countries". I met with a group of protesters for 2 hours at the famous location, Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street. It was very entertaining and I need to blog about that separately. Once townships, that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars amidst budget crises in each city lost their patience, especially after the protesters started acting like ruffians committing acts of public indecency, called it enough most locations were closed down. The onset of winter too added to the dampening. Now it is spring and they are back.

Almost every weekend I go to Princeton to take a stroll and spend time in what is probably the only remaining 'true' book store in all of NJ. I simply love "Labrynth bookstore" which, though not owned by Princeton University, caters primarily to the University students. The selection of books is amazing and it is possibly one of the very few mainstream book stores in USA to stock an entire shelf of Marxist writings including authors like Rosa Luxemborg, Emma Goldman, Antonio Gramsci and of course Marx himself. This being Princeton there is no dearth of left wing enthusiasm. On a warm Sunday in April a group calling itself "Occupy Princeton" decided to hold a meeting in the open space in front of a public library (made possible by the astronomical taxes collected from well heeled Princetonians). Given the curious cat that I am I paid a visit. Life is charming only when we step out of our comfort zones and try to actively engage with ideological opposites.

The meeting started with 5 people, including a couple of Princeton University students. Apparently the group is trying to organize a march in NYC on May 1st to observe May Day (which actually originated in USA, just like the 8 hour work day and profit sharing for employees at assembly line). For 20 minutes the group lazily conversed about the march just repeating a few sentences, no active agenda, no focus, not even active rambling. The organizer, of sorts, mentioned about a picnic at Princeton on the might before May Day, "we are having a picnic, just come over". A woman asked "do we have to bring anything", the organizer replied "no, just food for yourself and one other person, just come over and do whatever you want". Yeah, the agenda was "do whatever".

A lead guy then narrated how Princeton University was trying to move the Princeton 'dinky station' (a small train station that connects Princeton to another main train junction 5 minutes away). That guy, warmly seconded by Princeton University students, spoke about how Princeton University is trying to muscle its idea through the township against the wishes of the people. I was wondering what connection does a very local issue have to the Occupy crowd that is going to congregate in NYC to protest against what they claim as inequities in America, particularly against the financial industry.

Another guy helpfully passed around leaflets that asked "is Princeton supporting sex trafficking", "is Princeton supporting apartheid" etc. His contention was that the Princeton Endowment fund is invested in Wall Street firms, particularly Goldman Sachs, which, in his opinion, aided all those unspeakable horrors of life. The speaker then freely added "we really do not know where Princeton University invests but we think they invest with those firms and Goldman Sachs". I used to have respect for Ivy League students and the American method of education that lays stress on critical thinking etc. I am not sure how this guy aced SAT's. His rationale for those flyers is a complete mockery of anything called "logic". He does not know for sure where Princeton University invests, he makes an assumption and then shamefully accuses the firms of indulging in activities that are basically illegal.

He had one fair question though. He wanted Princeton University to be transparent about how its endowment is invested. As a student who pays tuition he could be told. The only point I interceded was to tell the crowd (10 people) that one of USA's largest union, AFSCME, is an institutional investor in GS. WSJ in an article had said that AFSCME is moving a stock holder vote to force Goldman to separate its CEO and Chairman roles, both currently held by Lloyd Blankfein. It's a responsible request by the union. I asked the crowd that would they hold a leaflet asking for AFSCME, active supporter and mobilizer for these protests, to disinvest from Goldman Sachs. Its a sweet irony that the Union members, wearing union garb, march decrying the institution while entrusting the same institution to handle its pension funds, the most sacrosanct of all monies a Union can have.

A woman who until then was speaking about the dinky station and May day rally chimed in "is it true? I think you should start an online petition" and glibly passed on. The rest who were all emphatically designing posters accusing Princeton University of abetting illegal activities by investing in Goldman Sachs (while conceding that they did not know if the University invested) acted as if they did not hear anything and moved on.

Then another guy, an Afro-American, got up and said "we are also organizing marchers as 'occupy the hood', and we are getting some tea-partiers too". 'Occupy the hood' is a reference to a killing in Florida of a Afro-American teenager Trayvon Martin, by a Hispanic neighborhood watch guy who suspected Martin of acting "suspiciously". Martin,  wearing a hoodie, had a sachet of skittles and a soda in his hands, he was unarmed. The killing has enraged the nation re-opening racial wounds. The more surprising mention was saying that tea-partiers would join. Tea Party, another rag tag amorphous group, arose in the days Obama's healthcare was debated. This self-styled group assumed a name that rang a familiar echo of another group that challenged an overseas government. Tea Partiers used to organize marches and meetings that simmered with rage against Obama and sometimes overtly racist cartoons of Obama were carried. Tea Party (not a registered party) was accused of racism. It was puzzling for the group to be involved with the Occupy group which is all for regulations and bigger government roles but what is stunning is an Afro-American inviting them.

Tea party and Occupy groups are tied at the hip only by their complete distrust of government. Tea party believes government can do nothing right. Occupy group believes that the government has been bought out by the 1% rich. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who has sustained severe beating in that struggle, was spat upon, allegedly, by a tea partier as Lewis was entering the congress to vote for Obama's health reform bill. Tea Party had assailed the bill socialism. Later when the Occupy protests sprouted John Lewis went to the protesters at Atlanta to show solidarity. In a stunning rebuke the Occupy protesters declined permission for John Lewis to speak saying that "as part of the Government he too is part of the problem".

Having spent 30 minutes I left amused. Here is a group that is protesting against a train station change, accusing an University (a liberal icon at that) of abetting illegal acts, inviting a group with who they have nothing in common except mistrust of government, blind to acts of their own supporters, adding an agenda covering a shootout that has racial overtones. POT POURRI anyone.

PS: Is it a sweet coincidence that May Day is also used to connote a 'sinking ship' or a 'flight in danger'.

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