On Saturday night, a number of Yale students raided Occupy New Haven. I don’t need to explain how outrageous it is that these Yalies raided the Green. It’s disrespectful and childish and intensifies the protesters’ resentment toward our school. Sure, it’s college, and we sometimes do stupid things. But it’s frightening to me that we can have such disregard for a movement, so much disdain for the Occupiers, that we go out of our way to harass them.
By no means should our entire student population be blamed for the theft. But I think a sense of disregard, even contempt, for grassroots movements of change is pervasive in many parts of our student body today.
How many times have you heard someone say that Occupiers are stupid or that their movement consists of homeless people and pot smokers? How many times have you walked on the other side of College Street just to avoid passing by the protest site? Many of us, including me, have said or done these things. But if we inspect what we’re doing closely, we’ll come to realize that these attitudes are dangerous. They cause us to judge people instead of debate ideas worth discussing.
In general, we have a tendency to think that protest movements are extremist or naïve. We chuckle at Occupy’s “End the Fed” signs. They’re uneducated, we think to ourselves. We ridicule the fact that they’re camping outside in the cold to advocate for something that Congress would never pass. When someone mentions the Tea Party, we automatically prepare a quick, standard retort to what they are about to say: Is the Tea Party actually serious?
These protesters — as uneducated as some of them may be — at least have the audacity to go out and fight for what they believe in. We may not think their views are entirely correct, but they do have a worthy point to make. If we truly believe the Occupy protesters endure living in tents in freezing conditions simply to smoke pot — or Tea Partiers rallied in thousands simply to boost their own egos — then we are the ones who are naïve.
We can’t live in our bubble forever. Regrettably, many of us would rather get good grades and excel in extracurriculars than join protests we can’t put on a résumé. We just don’t feel obligated to speak out anymore. We then caricature protests as places where we, college students, don’t belong. This is the attitude many of us share — perhaps the same mindset of the students who raided Occupy.
This isn’t how it used to be. Forty years ago, Yalies were called to demonstrate against a foreign policy they disagreed with, rallying against the Vietnam War. They marched together and created change. Back then, colleges were centers of solidarity where people who believed in a cause could gather and demonstrate together freely.
Today, in many places around the world, college students still do so. They are the first to create new ideas for resistance. We have some of these people here at Yale, but we need more. I’m not saying you should feel obligated to join a protest group. But if you believe in something, act. If you feel strongly about AIDS prevention, join the ongoing protest to end the ban on federal needle exchange. If you disagree with Occupy, try talking to them.
When Occupy New Haven began last fall, a few suitemates, my freshman counselor and I visited the Green. The Occupiers were in the middle of a daily meeting. They were grouped in a large circle, chanting and yelling. We walked around the outside of the circle and discussed why the Fed was so important in our financial system.
Two teenage Occupiers overheard us and confronted us. They told us to go back to Yale and that our ideas were stupid. They came even closer and yelled in our faces that the Fed was a corrupt organization, that corporations and banks had been cheating them for years and that society was unfair. They told us to take our elitism elsewhere.
Then an older man appeared. He was almost bald, with a grey beard. He extended his arm between us and said softly, “Wait, stop. I want to hear. Why is the Fed important?”
We had to leave the Green because those two teenagers were starting to throw insults at us. But ever since that day, I’ve wished we had the time to explain to the man the role of the Fed in our financial system.
The students who raided the Occupy protests last weekend stole from that old man. But they didn’t just steal signs. They stole from us the ability to have a constructive, civil dialogue, to safely ask questions and to have our outlook on the world respected.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.