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Is Occupy Wall Street Reviving Political Engagement?

In a college town where around a third of the population is university students, the weekend of fall break was probably not the best time to start the spark of protest in Lawrence, Kansas.

But on Saturday October 8, Occupy Lawrence , a local group of people imitating and supporting the movement in New York known as Occupy Wall Street, gathered on Lawrence’s main downtown street.

Luckily, the weather in that first weekend of October was perfect, and town residents were out enjoying what threatened to be the last summery weekend of the year. So the protest found enough success in starting the “conversation” they desired to serve as the jumping off point for more demonstrations. And the Occupy Lawrence protests have continued driving discussion and debate among people - students and townspeople alike - since then. [See photos from the first Occupy Lawrence protest]

The importance of ideas

In a state as traditionally conservative as Kansas, a small college town like Lawrence is the perfect stronghold of those who think differently. The University of Kansas does a great job of being a big stage for idealistic interchange - hundreds of student groups give life to college campus and provide opportunities for people to discover new ideas, or to just talk and rethink about them. Among those groups you can find the “KU Young Democratic Socialists” and the “Federalist Society,” two politically driven groups that couldn’t be more opposed to each other, as well as everything from “Students for Life” to the “Student Coalition for Immigrant Rights,” and many others.

I have to confess that this is one of the features that attracted me the most to KU. And these groups are not restricted only to politics; they can also be intercultural, religious or just plain entertaining (like the Quidditch team!). Ideas that are sprung from the fresh and naive minds of college students (whether fun or serious) are, to me, what drives society to the future. And that is what college should always be - a platform for ideas.

To me, this is the philosophy driving Occupy Lawrence; that people shouldn’t be afraid to raise their voices. The people at the Occupy Lawrence demonstrations are trying to raise awareness of certain political issues, yes, but they also want to reinvigorate political engagement.

Almost exactly a year ago, during the U.S. midterm election, I wrote on this blog about the relative lack of political participation in America – compared to Bolivia at least. Today, the Occupy Wall Street protests and their offshoots feel like they are changing that.

VOA reports on worldwide growth of Occupy movements

Occupy Wall Street has been going more than a month (it started on September the 17th) and doesn’t seem to have a near end. In recent weeks the rally has increased demographically (more and more people gathering in midtown Manhattan) and geographically (to hundreds of cities all over the world, like Sydney, Australia or our own Lawrence, Kansas), seemingly with people driven by the idea of free expression rather than by one specific political agenda. This movement that started in New York has become a flag of free-thinking and democratic rebellion in the western civilization, raising comparisons in the media to the Arab Spring.

What Occupy Lawrence looks like

Back in Lawrence, this past Thursday the 13th there was a second big rally, and this time I had the chance to go. People gathered at 6 pm at Clinton Park, and then about 50 people started marching towards the more central area of downtown.

While marching, people chanted things like “Whose streets? Our streets!” or “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop.” Some of them were holding signs with slogans like “We got sold out, banks got bailed out.” At least one sign read “We are the 99%,” referring to one of the central messages of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

I myself participated for only about 10 minutes, since I intercepted them when they were already halfway through, but it did give me a chance to talk with the people involved and find out their opinions on what this demonstration was about.

Brian, one of the protesters, told me, “There are many issues in the town, like homelessness. It’s time for politicians to hear the voice of the people.”

Another protester, Joel, had a more specific answer. He said, “The government is too big and too powerful. We have to take power back to the people.” When I asked him how this relates to Occupy Wall Street and their anti-corporatist message, he said, “They [the government and corporations] are all the same.”

The rebirth of political engagement?

For Occupy Lawrence as a whole, like Occupy Wall Street, there is not one thing that they are fighting for. Their overarching goal is not higher taxes on the richest 1% or a health care reform for everyone (although those may be the driving factors for specific individuals among the organization).

For the group at large, the cohesive goal is get their voice heard, to “start a conversation,” as Jason Phoenix, one of the founding members, has said. [Hear Jason talk to about the aims of the protest]

The movement is still going in Lawrence, and this past weekend demonstrators set up permanent camp in a downtown park. They seem determined to stay, despite the fact that the warm weather that helped start their campaign has given way to winter cold (see the photo at right, posted to Twitpic by a protester).

Whether the specific ideas thrown out are agreeable to you or not, the fact is that political engagement and activism are happening in America now. What this demonstrations are making noticeable for sure, and I can tell by experience now, is that there is far more involvement in present America than only one year ago.