The Students Occupy Boston march last week was a bit small; so I thought I'd devote this week's Open Media Boston editorial to discussing it and making a couple of suggestions.
OK. So the weather was lousy. I know how it goes. But rain or no rain, the turnout was way low for a citywide action. Last fall, students in and around the Occupy Boston movement were turning out in their hundreds and thousands for actions of all kinds. Fast forward a few months, and a purpose-built student action calling for free public higher education for all couldn't even crack 100 attendees.
So what's changed? Clearly Occupy Boston and the entire Occupy movement has lost steam since last fall. This was predictable, and I am among those public commentators that predicted it. The winter - and the holidays that accompany it - is one reason social movements slow down in the US. Especially since college students go home for weeks at a time during this period, and have school responsibilities at the end of the fall semester. Cold weather in northern cities like Boston also always makes turnout tough during this season.
The fact that social movements like Occupy move in cycles - with up periods and down periods like everything else in the universe - is another reason. People just don't stay energized about anything indefinitely. There will be lulls ... even for successful movements.
There are other reasons I'll deal with in future writings, but there's one thing I want to make clear out of the gate - I find no fault with the militance of Students Occupy Boston. Its organizers include socialists and communists and anarchists (oh my!). Good. That's not what's concerning me. That's a strength.
Neither am I asking Students Occupy Boston to narrow their political demands to something acceptable to the political establishment. Existing higher education reform groups have done this, and gotten nowhere fast. And that is part of the general pattern of narrow politics and weak political programs that has ensured that the broad American left has suffered defeat after defeat for over 40 years.
I am not asking the organizers of the march to water their politics down in any way.
Instead, I'm asking them to consider something more instrumental.
I'd like Students Occupy Boston to work harder at building its ranks. Before calling another significant citywide action, I'd like student occupiers at colleges all over the city to think about how they are going to attract more students to become active on a regular basis. And I'd like them to operationalize a plan for doing this as soon as possible. There's not much time left this semester, and when summer comes most college students leave our fair city; so that will be it until the fall for larger student actions.
I recognize that student organizers are already thinking about this perennial problem. But thinking about it systematically - and acting on that thinking - is key.
And in this period, left-wing student organizers have an advantage my friends and I never had in the 1980s and 1990s - we've already seen that this generation of students is willing to mobilize behind left demands in a big big way. The Occupy movement proved that already.
So the numbers are there. Active student organizers just need to get students that have become inactive involved again, and encourage them to stay involved. This will require many many one-on-one conversations in cafeterias and coffee shops and bars. And public forums. And smaller college-by-college actions. And more citywide meetings of student occupiers.
If Students Occupy Boston puts in a solid month on getting their core numbers up, they'll be able to pull lots more people to future actions, and then when they make political demands they'll pack more punch.
Regarding those demands. Absolutely ignore anyone who tells you to narrow them down to "realistic" goals. As its stands, and I've said this ad nauseam, most of the current goals of the Occupy movement are either for things that we've had in the past in the US - like fair taxation on corporations and the rich - or for things that lots of other countries have had for a long time - like free public higher education for all.
All great and needed stuff. But the right-wing dominated discourse in this country has made it seem like such things are all far out kooky ultra left fantasies. They're not. They're merely the best of the ideas for democratic reforms under capitalism.
Fortunately, broader demands for replacing market capitalism with democracy and some kind of socialism have also been put on the table by the Occupy movement. And that's why it has been so popular.
Occupy has actually been calling for the transformation of the existing society into a new and better society. And people love that.
So narrowing the more specific Occupy goals for things like free public higher education for all down any further than the best of the reformist ideas will lead directly back to the politics of accommodation to the Democratic Party - and therefore to the politics of failure for erstwhile progressives. And example of such narrowing in this case would be saying that one's organization is fighting for "affordable" higher education. For reasons that should be obvious.
But if student organizers keep their core demands nicely broad. And build their ranks significantly by inspiring their fellows and really going for what they want. Then they could very well become large enough to do much bigger and much more militant actions. And they could score some real wins in the years to come.
Which is all to the good.
So that's my basic comment to Students Occupy Boston. Get bigger and you can do some stuff. Stay small and you can't. Keep your demands big, and you'll attract lots more students. Narrow your demands, and join much of the existing left in obscurity and irrelevance.
I know. Shockingly obvious advice, right? But I give it in earnest. I'm rooting for you all.