Brit Byrd chats with Columbia’s (independent) branch of the Occupy movement. Find this and more in the soon-to-arrive April issue of The Blue & White.
“Nothing will grind our gears like the words ‘head of the group,’” Elliott Grieco, CC ’12, corrected me. After spending only a short time at the occupation of Tuck-It-Away Storage at 125th Street and 12th Avenue, it became clear that I had assumed a top-down leadership structure that didn’t exist. Today’s occupation site—a West Harlem step bedecked with picket signs, plastered with fliers, cluttered with musical instruments, and cordoned off by NYPD barricades—reflected this plurality of aims, motivations, and interests.
Nothing regarding Occupy CU points to an overarching agenda. Instead, one feels an intense sense of hyper-locality. As Grieco understands it, this is the Occupy movement at its most effective: “While what happens downtown at Zuccotti has a global audience, [this] enables self-empowerment at a much more local level, oftentimes implicitly asking me, ‘What can you do with your power, your position of privilege?’”
Those involved with Occupy CU are intensely focused on the minutiae of the issues. Grieco says much of the energy devoted to the movement is about getting people to understand, if not appreciate, this intricacy. “It took me a long time to just sit down, take a second, and understand the situation and all the actors involved,” he said. Ideological understanding takes precedence over physical presence. When asked the common organizing question, “Do you need bodies?” Grieco maintains that while bodies do help command attention, he ultimately needs “people here who are interested or willing to learn about the issue—someone I can sit down and have a conversation with about eminent domain and local interests.”
Occupy CU remains independent from the seminal movement in Zucotti Park. While the notoriously ambiguous “spirit of Occupy” clearly manifests itself in Morningside Heights, all official networking is absent. Yet, while the Columbia-local group maintains its unique ideological integrity, its work simultaneously represents a microcosm of the larger movement. As Grieco points out, the University directly benefits from its heavy presence in global finance. This includes President Bollinger’s position as Chairman of the NY Federal Reserve’s Board of Directors, and President Spar’s role on the Goldman Sachs Board of Directors.
Still, supporting these specifically local projects is not mandatory for Occupy CU-ers. The Tuck-It-Away occupation— and the Manhattanville expansion in general—is not a position within a platform that members are expected to oblige. Indeed, the term “members” might be an overreach in vocabulary (at this point occupiers are beginning to border on Derridean in their treatment of language). The amity between “members” stems not necessarily from a common cause, but from, as the general declaration of the group states, the connection of all social grievances. The discussion extends to a public Google Groups page and a Tumblr, where posts vary from exhaustive and invective to short and conversational. These posts express solidarity with a nurses strike at St. Luke’s, a National Student Debtor Day of Action, chronicle NYPD violence directed at protesters, and share notes from past General Assemblies.
At Tuck-It-Away, the drums were not beating, but sitting idle upon the stoop. It must be said that the aesthetic of the group is undeniably of the crunchy liberal variety. Making any such observations out loud, however, would be ill-received by a group which so prides itself in openness.