What does the 99 percent look like? According to many comments posted online in response to last week’s article about the “Work on Wall Street” action — lazy, unrealistic kids destined to lead lives of poverty and misery. Or to let one of these voices speak for itself: “Be nice to the Occupy Cornell kids! You don’t want them spitting in your coffee next year at Starbucks!”
It is in response to this outpouring of offensive speculation about the nature of those involved in the action that I write this article in order to correct some of the outrageous caricatures made of Occupy Cornell.
I will begin by saying that I was personally involved in last Saturday’s action. I am the so-called 99 percent, and I am not what you think I am.
I do not profess to represent all of the people involved in the action — indeed the beauty of the Occupy movement is the diversity of its constitutive parts, but I will tell you a bit about my beliefs and myself. Let’s start with the basics. I am not a failure. Many of the comments suggested the action was a sort of veiled form of jealousy — that the “Occupiers” are a bunch good-for-nothings looking to vilify students who are going on to successful careers. This is false. I am a hardworking student and a functional member of our campus. I have good grades, an on campus job (two, in fact) and ambition. In relation to the other participants in the action, these facts hardly make me an exceptional case. While it is true my ambition may not fall within the “doctor-lawyer-consultant” trio that seems often to monopolize the very meaning of “success,” this is not to say that my ambition does not exist, or is in any way irrelevant.
Second clarification: I bear no hatred or disrespect for Econ/AEM majors. In fact, some of my closest friends fall into one of these categories. Unfortunately, it seems that many missed the part of the Nov. 14 article where the writer stated that we were there in solidarity with the conference attendees. One commenter on The Sun’s website pointed out that antagonizing people who want to work on Wall Street is not a good way to move forward. I would wholeheartedly agree. And so would the rest of the protesters. The statement we read in front of the Statler included these lines: “We do not fault our fellow students for attending this event nor from seeking employment on Wall Street; indeed, we are here today in solidarity with them as well.”
What I was protesting Nov. 12 was not the impetus to work on Wall Street, nor was I questioning the necessity of workers in the economic sector. Instead, I was hoping to debunk the myth that Wall Street is the only answer, the only calling. As Yale student Marina Keegan recently wrote in the Dealbook blog of the NYT, it is unsettling how effective Wall Street firms have been at recruiting newly-minted Ivy League graduates in to jobs. I’m of the same generations as my peers at the event, which means it is eventually going to be up to us to decide upon the sort of society in which we want to live. At the very least, it seems to me these events, small as they may appear, make a particular claim on that future.
If the attendees of last weekend’s forum still choose to work on Wall Street, and I assume many of them will, then the other part of my protest was to ask that they do so with care. The keynote speaker John Bove spoke a lot about “doing the right thing.” However, he didn’t really specify what that means. There is making “right” (read: profitable) decisions for clients, and making “right” (read: what is ethically “right”) decisions with regard to the rest of the country. As my peers accept Wall Street jobs I simply ask them to keep in mind this double sense of the word “right” and to remember that sometimes the two meanings are incompatible.
As another online comment from “Chris” insightfully noted, recent Cornell grads seem much less critical of the Occupy project than currently enrolled students. He speculated that this was likely because recent grads have just joined the “real” world and come to the startling conclusion that things are bad — really bad. Jobs are scarce, and not even an Ivy League degree is enough to shield us from hardship.
This current state of affairs is largely due to poor decisions made by a small number of people. In this sense, a fundamental aim of Occupy Cornell’s action was not to dissuade people from entering finance, but rather to remind attendees that the actions of the few on Wall Street affect us all — and, recently, have affected us negatively. In the future, Cornell grads should seek to encourage positive change, not to maintain the flawed status quo. In my eyes, this would involve measures like increasing federal regulation, increasing tax rates on the largest earners, on estates and on corporate profits and ending corporate personhood. It would mean shifting the values of this country away from corporate individualism and towards things like education reform and sustainability. In short, I hope that my peers do not leave the Cornell bubble only to enter the Wall Street one — where the interests of the one percent are prioritized at the expense of the other 99.
Our action was not meant to deepen the divide between Econ/AEM majors and “Arts and Humanities students,” to borrow the nasty words of one commenter. Instead, the action was about trying to create constructive dialogue. “We just want a conversation” was what we kept chanting. That this conversation did not happen was not our doing. Our attempts to have a dialogue were rebuffed by everyone at the conference except John Bove, who, much to his credit, encouraged us to ask questions.
Finally, it seems from the comments that many believe our movement to be a naïve one. Is it? Is Wall Street too formidable of an institution to change? I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think the momentum of Occupy Wall Street, to echo the excellent recent article by Jeffrey D. Sachs in The New York Times, is pushing us into a new chapter of American history — a rebirth of progressivism and widespread political engagement.
And hey, recognizing a historical turning point is one thing my wishy-washy “Arts and Humanities” degree in History might just qualify me for.
Hannah Stamler is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Sun Arts & Entertainment columnist. She may be reached at email@example.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.