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Got Student Debt? So Does Occupy Wall Street

As US student debt reaches $1 trillion and the unemployment rate holds steady at nine percent, OWS prepares for a long winter.

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 2:53 PM EDT

"I Wanted Something Productive to Do"

That library—in fact, those libraries at Occupy Boston, Occupy Washington, Occupy San Francisco, and other encampments—may be the least commented upon part of your movement. And yet, you set your library up not as an afterthought or a sideline, but almost as soon as you began imagining a society worth living in, a little world of your own. You didn't forget the books, which means you didn't forget about education. I mean, a real education.

This was both generous of you and, quite simply, inspiring. Who would have expected that the old-fashioned, retro book would be at the heart of this country's great protest movement of a tarnished new century?

When asked how the library began, librarian "Scales" (aka Sam Smith), an unemployed, 20-year-old blond dancer still in shorts on a chilly fall day, responded, "Nobody knows exactly who started it. It was like an immaculate conception. It was just here." If the movement itself were a book, that might stand as its epigraph. Even if Occupy Wall Street indeed did start somewhere (as did its library), the way it has exploded globally in a historical nanosecond, does give it exactly the feeling Scales described.

When asked why he himself was here, he simply said, "I wanted something productive to do."

In an economy where "production" is gone with the wind, that makes the deepest sense to me. Who doesn't want to be productive in life? Why should a generation that Wall Street and Washington seem perfectly happy to sideline not want to produce something of their own, as they now have?

I was no less touched, while listening in on a long meeting of the Library Working Group one Saturday afternoon amid the chaos of Zuccotti Park—crowd noise all around us, a band playing nearby—when the woman standing next to me interrupted your meeting. She identified herself as an elected legislator from an upstate New York county who had driven down to see Occupy Wall Street for herself. She just wanted you, the librarians, to know that she supported what you were doing and that, while her county was still funding its libraries, it was getting ever harder to do so, given strapped state and local budgets.

In other words, as education is priced out of the reach of so many Americans and in many communities library hours are cut back or local libraries shut down, you've opened for business.

Here are just a few things that you, the librarians of Zuccotti Park, said to me:

Bill Scott: "Part of the reason we're down here is because we live in a society which promotes the idea that education should be bought and sold on the open market. We want to establish it as a human right. What the People's Library proves is that books belong to the people, as does education. People with student-loan debt find their freedom and options limited. It severely limited my options. I'm still crawling out from under a ton of debt."

Zachary Loeb, who in what passes for real life is an actual librarian: "I'm working part time, so I wake up every morning and spend two hours sending out resumes, but the work isn't out there. My training's in archiving, but nobody's hiring. I got a degree in library science, not philosophy, which I wanted to go into, to be on a job track. Obviously, I'm not. Lots of people are here because the work situation is abysmal.

"I've been an activist for a long time. I read [the magazine] Adbusters and saw the call to occupy Wall Street. I was down here on the first day. I think we've changed the conversation in this country. We've given people permission to stand up, to talk to each other, test their ideas out against each other, and consider decisions that shouldn't simply be made by the powerful in Washington."

Frances Mercanti-Anthony, out-of-work actress ("my last play closed in August") and comic writer: "Knowledge is the greatest weapon we have. What we're doing is offering knowledge to people who have been disenfranchised. Our online database of books [in the People's Library] stands as a great symbol of the movement, of democracy, of knowledge, and sharing."


Lighting Up the Landscape

Here's what you've done: your anger and your thoughtfulness—what you don't know and don't mind not knowing, as well as what you do know—has lit up a previously dismal landscape. And every move made by those who want to get rid of you has only spurred your growth.

I'm a pretty levelheaded guy, but call me a little starry-eyed right now and I don't mind at all. It's something to feel this way for the first time in I don't know how long, and whatever happens from now on, I can thank you for that—and for the sudden sense of possibility that goes with it.

Only six weeks into your movement, with so little known about where you're going or what will happen, it's undoubtedly early for graduation ceremonies. Still, let's face it, you've been growing up fast and, for all we know, these could have been the six weeks that changed the world. Anyway, there's no limit out here, where you can make your own traditions, on how often you can graduate yourself.

So I say, go for it. Mark your progress thus far. Self-graduate. You don't need me. I'll stay here and borrow a book from your library—and later, when I'm done, just as you suggest, I'll donate it to someone else.

Shoulder your handmade signs. Lift them high. Chant your chants. Let the drummers play as you march. Head out toward Wall Street, toward the future, looking back over your shoulder, remembering exactly what your elders squandered, the world they left you, the debts they piled on you. And the next time they start telling you what you should do with your movement, take it with a grain of salt. The future, after all, is yours, not theirs. It may be the only thing you have, exactly because it's so beautifully unknown, so deeply unpredictable. It's your advantage over them because it's one thing that Washington and Wall Street have no more way of controlling than you do.

In a world of increasing misery, you carry not just your debts, but ours too. It's a burden no one should shoulder, especially with winter bearing down, and that 1 percent of adults waiting for the cold to make tempers short, hoping you'll begin to fall out, grow discouraged, and find life too miserable to bear, hoping that a New York winter will freeze you out of your own movement.

I take heart that last weekend, on a beautiful fall day, you, the librarians, were already discussing the need to buy "Alaska-style" sleeping bags and a generator which would give you heat; that you, like the mayor, are looking ahead and planning for winter. This, after all, could be your Valley Forge. As actress-librarian Mercanti-Anthony told me: "We have the whole world behind us at this point. We want to stand our ground for the long haul. If we can make it through the winter, this occupation is here to stay."

And she just might be right. So head out now, and whatever you do, don't go home. It's underwater anyway, and we need you. We really do. The world's in a hell of a mess, but what a time for you to take it in your own hands and do your damnedest.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses the Occupy Wall Street movement and what hope means in our time click here, or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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