SHOW ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE: A Foreign City Teaches Me Political Dissent

{Emma Staffaroni is a first-year Master’s candidate in SLC’s Women’s History program. A ruthless feminist, she slays haters with her pen and then eats them for dinner, covered in cheese. She also enjoys basset hounds, trains, and red wine.}

Before we left for Manhattan the morning of October 15th, my roommate tossed me a letter from the day’s mail, postmarked from Céline, a good friend I met when I was an English teacher in Besançon, France, last year. In our most recent Facebook exchanges Céline had asked me if I was occupying Wall Street: “Not yet!” I replied, “But I plan to.” It seemed timely that I got her letter just as my roommates and I were preparing to occupy Times Square, my first physical show of support for the Occupy Wall Street movement that has been mobilizing in New York City for over a month and since spread across the nation and globe. Céline’s letter informed me that people on her side of the pond hear about OWS in the news every day: “It reminds us of our beloved May 1968.”

In French collective memory, the revolutionary strikes and occupations during May and June of 1968 are engrained in a way tantamount to our Civil Rights Era marches and sit-ins (or even our women’s liberation movement). Rising up against capitalism and imperialism, Parisian university students and leftists held riotous and destructive protests, iconically tearing up cobblestones from the Boulevard St. Michel and building barricades against the police.

Parisian protesters on the Boulevard St. Michel, May 1968

The difference between May 1968 in Paris and the American Civil Rights Movement lies in their effects on our respective cultures some 40 years later: the French Left has not lost its fire-in-the-belly zeal for a strike or a march. Quite the contrary, our American populace has been more than reticent to repeat the bold and public displays of political dissent that filled the 1960s and 70s.

I’d learned of the May 1968 Paris maniféstations while I was studying in Paris in 2009. I shouldn’t even say that I was studying; most of the time, the entrance to my university was blocked by three or more heavily armed police. Indeed, in the Spring of 2009, the city of Paris was occupied in much of the same fashion as it had been in 1968. Nobody was tearing up cobblestones, but university professors and their students were regularly occupying the Latin Quarter throughout the Winter and Spring in objection to Sarkozy’s privatization of the public university system (and other social service sectors).

Professors in France traditionally held a significant amount of freedom in their decision to teach or to research as enseignant-chercheurs (teacher-researchers). Under the newly privatized system, the university’s administration determines the resources allocated to their faculty. Theoretically, this allows the individual institutions to favor professors and disciplines that will earn the most for the school and improve its reputation.

From our American capitalist perspective, this structure is commonplace and rational but for the French’s tacitly different socialist view, it is an aberration. And so students, in support of their teachers’ freedoms and their beloved traditions, jeopardized their hard-earned diplomas by taking to the streets instead of going to class.

Talk about a cultural experience: I learned more from the young people en grève than I ever would have in a Sorbonne lecture. These politically engaged folks taught me French values, French political history, and French point-of-view on capitalism. To say it was eye-opening would be an understatement.

Of course, I’m not French. Recounting this experience to friends and family back in the States, the punchline of my story would always be: “I mean, would you ever see American students doing something like that for their professors?” Everyone laughed. As much as I respected the French commitment to “l’esprit de mai 68,” it was still preposterous from an American cultural perspective.

Fast forward to my year abroad teaching English. This time, it wasn’t university students protesting, but high school students. The French minister of education had put into effect a reform of the high school structure mass budget slashes to the education system meant teachers were losing their jobs. If the details of the reform are too complicated for this short article, their effect is not: high school students across France organized to blockade the entrances of their schools and protest the changes to their education. One year before I would occupy Times Square, I looked out the window of my apartment to see students pushing huge trash bins and other large materials in front of the entrance to their high school. Unions staged sit-ins and occupations of the major squares in town, shutting down the bus system and parading through the streets.

Needless to say, the spirit of protest has been following me around for a couple of years now. When I first read about Slutwalk this past summer, I was overjoyed—a feminist protest movement—finally! And now: Wall Street. A woman we met on the 15th in Times Square told my friends and I: “I was arrested forty years ago in an anti-war protest. It’s about time for people to wake up! We should’ve been out here in 2004 when Bush stole the presidency.” She was reacting to the sign my friend Jenn (a fellow Women’s History student and my roommate) was holding that exclaimed in big bold letters :“GIVE A SHIT.”

Now that I’m back in an American city, occupying public space feels expected, if not overdue. Up until now my generation has seen a generally apathetic and anti-intellectual culture, which instructs us that political and civil rights have been won by our forebears. Marching and boycotting–that’s for hippies, for folks without rights, for nations without democracy. But my experience in Times Square on Saturday October 15th seemed to transcend history, and at the same time honor it. We shouted “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” or “ALL DAY, ALL WEEK, OCCUPY WALL STREET! NEW YORK, TIMES SQUARE, OCCUPY EVERYWHERE!” and “THE PEOPLE UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!” These were moments of collective consciousness and political dissent. Flanked by the Hard Rock Café, Sephora, and Times Square’s ostentatious light show flashing all around us—our voices became a part of a new American culture as well as a forgotten one—a culture that actually, and finally, gives a shit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s