Occupy Princeton: How the Dominant Political Movement of 2011 Energized a Politically Inactive Campus

By David Byler ’14

In the November 2011 Issue of the Tory, Elizabeth Swanson ’12 wrote an article entitled “A Tale of Two Movements: Princeton’s Lack of Engagement in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.” In that article, Swanson analyzed why no Occupy Princeton or Princeton Tea Party group had surfaced on campus, citing political apathy and the presence of anti-intellectual populism in both groups as impediments to their acceptance on campus, and adding that the opportunities associated with a Princeton degree places us in the “one percent” rather than the “99 percent.” While these are all well-considered points, the surfacing and ongoing impact of Occupy Princeton refutes the idea that the Occupy movement and activism in general has skipped campus Indeed, the “mic checks” that began in December 2011 started a wave of activism that included protesting Princeton’s investment in alleged human-rights violator HEI (The University announced that it would drop HEI on February 29 of this year), protesting the suspension of pro-union bus driver “Al” and is set to include joining Occupy Wall Street for a rally in New York on May 1st. While nearly all of the ideals of Occupy Princeton and the larger Occupy movement are incompatible with many of the conservative values that the Tory espouses, criticizing the movement would be redundant – many campus publications and organizations have already strongly criticized and opposed Occupy Princeton on a variety of levels. Instead of repeating those criticisms, I intend to analyze the structure of the group and the activism it has sponsored to obtain an understanding of why Occupy Princeton has succeeded in stirring up activism on a campus that is typically very uninterested in activism.


Occupy Princeton functions extremely differently from other student groups on campus. In most student groups, there are elected or appointed officers who come together to organize other students to achieve a clearly defined set of goals. Occupy Princeton turns the logic of this structure on it head. There is no President, Vice President, Treasurer, or other officer in Occupy Princeton. The organization is completely non-hierarchical and horizontal, and the goals of the group are only vaguely defined in comparison to those of other student groups.

To get a sense of how a non-hierarchical and horizontal movement actually functions, one need only attend one of the regularly scheduled General Assembly (GA) meetings. This horizontality is first displayed in how the agenda is set. Derek Gideon, an active member of Occupy Princeton, described the process in an interview with the Tory. He said “Usually we have a Facebook event page for the GA and usually people will bring up a few things there and people will also recommend things [over the email list] .” This serves as a starting point for the agenda, but members are also allowed to bring up new issues at the meeting. Gideon continued, saying, “Usually the first agenda item is going over the agenda and making sure there is nothing to add.” While many student groups accept suggestions from members regarding the agenda for each meeting, Occupy Princeton takes this to the next level by creating the agenda almost solely from member suggestions.

The process of decision-making and action at the meetings also reflects this focus on horizontal movement. When the GA discusses certain issues, a working group might be formed to address it. These working groups propose their ideas to the GA where decisions are typically made by consensus rather than majority vote. In cases of extreme disagreement, members can “block” a proposal by crossing their arms over their chest, which signals that they would leave the movement if this action were taken. In Gideon’s words, this is “to prevent a sort of tyranny of the majority.” One might expect a process involving such measures to be arduous and for consensus to be rare, but this is not the case. In an interview with the Tory, Josh Shulman ’13 explained that “It’s not always 100% consensus, but usually that is the case” The emphasis on consensus works well with the equal status of members to create a unique group ethos, an ethos that will be later shown to be an explanatory factor in the group’s popularity.

Activism and Criticism

What is perhaps more interesting than the unique organizational structure of Occupy Princeton is the form and purpose of the protests that have come out of that structure. The three most successful and vocal forms of activism have been the effort to get the University to drop investments in alleged human rights violator HEI Hospitality, the mobilization of students to oppose the allegedly political suspension of TigerTransit bus driver “Al” and the mic checks. Since other news sources have covered these actions extensively, I will focus on the most controversial form of activism – “mic checks.” At a typical mic check, protestors will act as if they are normal attendees of the event then stand up and perform a call and response that lists their grievances and concerns. Mic checks were performed at an Orange Key Campus Tour and at recruiting sessions for JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs this past December.  Some characterize mic checks as ineffective, but Shulman disagrees. He says first that the goal of Occupy Princeton is “the decentralization of power in the University and its related institutions in pursuit of social, environmental, and economic justice” and increasing “inclusion of students and the community in the University’s decision making process” (note: at the time of the writing of this article, Occupy Princeton was still working on an official mission statement) and that “anything that inches us closer to those goals would be seen as a success. Whether the University gets more transparent, people join our GAs or just get more involved in … talking in dialogue – those would be measured as successes.”  Whether this standard is satisfying is certainly up for debate, but Occupy Princeton believes that it is and acts accordingly. Another popular criticism is that Occupy Princeton’s actions are rude. In response to that, Shulman said “The point is not necessarily to be rude but to force our presence because that in itself is a protest of the fact that we are the majority of people, citizens are silenced and are barred from using public spaces and our free speech rights.”  While rudeness and ineffectiveness are two common criticisms of Occupy Princeton, other lines of criticism exist as well. Many students oppose the group on the basis of their ideology or argue that they unfairly demonize organizations like PRINCO. Nevertheless, rather than rehashing those arguments, I will move to examining how the activism and the structure of the group come together to create its current level of impact and success.

How it comes together

Before moving towards an explanation of why Occupy Princeton was effective, I will briefly consider Swanson’s arguments and assess how Occupy Princeton may have evaded some of the difficulties she foresaw before its formation. Her first idea is that political apathy and a hard academic workload leave students feeling lackluster towards activism. It is first important to consider that activism, while weak, is not entirely dead at Princeton. Groups like the DREAM Team have had some success getting students to sign a petition supporting the DREAM Act, and students phone-banked for both then-Senator Obama and Senator McCain in 2008. The atmosphere of Princeton does seem to dampen activism though – that is, students typically must feel very strongly that the activism is worth expending their previous small amounts of free time before participating. In that way, Occupy Princeton’s popularity is reasonable – the movement captured the intense anger that progressives feel towards income inequality and greed in the financial sector, and by doing so became sufficiently attractive to merit activism from progressive Princeton students. . Swanson’s second point was that the movement was anti-intellectual. However, since most Princeton students are in some respect intellectuals, an Occupy movement composed of Princeton students naturally de-emphasizes the anti-intellectual elements of the movement.  This is evidenced by the fact that although Occupy Princeton does use tactics that could be characterized as anti-intellectual (for example, no dissenting voice is allowed in a “mic check”), pro-Occupy students also participated in a public debate on Occupy sponsored by the Princeton Corporate Finance Club. Additionally, GAs revolve around discussion that leads towards consensus, a process that is conducive to intellectual dialogue. Finally, what I believe Swanson’s strongest point is that Princeton students are in or perhaps on the trajectory towards, the “one percent” by virtue of the prestigious degrees we pursue. While no answer readily presents itself to this problem, one might consider that Princeton undergraduates are not so far distanced from the “99 percent.” Roughly 60% of Princeton students are on financial aid, and more would consider themselves outside the “one percent.” While protestors at Occupy Wall Street might oppose the privilege of having a Princeton degree, Princeton students may not feel that opposition as strongly because we haven’t yet received the Princeton degree and the privilege that comes with it. Swanson made forceful points that deserve consideration, and these ideas might be a good starting point from which we can see how Occupy Princeton evaded the clear obstacles that Swanson named.
While the points made do remove obstacles to activism, they do not provide positive reasons for the success of the movement. I intend to propose some now. Occupy Princeton addresses the culture of prioritizing an excellent resume above all else. The non-hierarchical structure of the movement removes the possibility that members will be able to write Occupy Princeton, President on their resume. While some students might be understandably attracted to the extra benefit of adding lines to their resume, the temptation to do just enough add a line to one’s CV can breed laziness. Occupy Princeton removes that temptation and instead attracts people who are willing to spend their time solely for the sake of the cause. Additionally, the lack of hierarchy removes any barriers to differing levels of involvement so no one will feel trapped in their duties by an officer position, and no one will be kept from meaningful participation because of lack of previous involvement. In that way, Occupy Princeton’s structure creates an environment that for some is a much-needed reprieve from the hyper-driven and resume-focused atmosphere of the rest of campus.

Secondly, Occupy Princeton attacks prestige for the sake of prestige. Part of the short message delivered at the mic check at the Goldman Sachs recruiting session read “When you came to Princeton as wide-eyed freshmen, you probably didn’t dream of working at Goldman Sachs. What happened?” Part of Occupy Princeton’s success stems from its willingness to address the supposed cultural problem of finance – most of us do not dream of that field as high school students but the pervasive narrative on campus is that the culture of achievement pressures students into it. Though there are strong objections to the veracity of the narrative and to its underlying assumptions, the fact that Occupy Princeton is attempting to address is makes them a unique group and help explains their effectiveness.

In these ways, Occupy Princeton can be seen as popular for the same reason Occupy Wall Street was popular –it gave a voice to people who oppose systematic problems within their culture. Occupy Wall Street allowed protestors to attack a culture that they believed put profit before justice and greed before compassion. Occupy Princeton attacked a culture that prizes individual wealth, success, and prestige above all else. While the Tory does not endorse the positions of Occupy Princeton, the reasons for its popularity are certainly thought provoking.

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