What does a rural occupation look like?

Posted in activism on November 17th, 2011 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I wasn’t at the N17 day of action today. I taught a class. And nearly all of my students showed up.

You may not think this is particularly radical, and perhaps it’s not and the 15 of us have jeopardized the entire movement. However, in our last class, we discussed how feasible it was to go to the protests this afternoon (our class has already made one group visit to OWS, and several students returned multiple times after that). Most of them had other classes before and after mine, and they said they’d be at school anyway. So, rather than wasting their evening, we had one of the most productive discussions I’ve heard among any students in my time at CUNY.

Many of them expressed their support, admiration, and hopefulness about OWS. Last month, we discussed in great detail the potentials of this leaderless, non-hierarchical movement. Now, many are wondering where OWS is headed — without demands, will it fall apart? Will it take violence before any real change can happen? How exactly can students participate in an effective way without jeopardizing the education they have worked to hard to get?

Somehow our discussion shifted to the New York- and urban-centric nature of the entire global movement. It seems to me that this movement is relevant only in places where geographically and demographically, large numbers of people can amass in central areas to be noticed and to take their protests to sites of power. While there is an ongoing Occupy Charleston movement in West Virginia’s capital, and Occupy Pennsylvania has spread across the state, I feel that a large majority of states’ populations are being left out simply because they are too spread out. There’s no subway to hop on to get to the protest for a few hours. It’s even questionable if there’s a place to occupy. Would Martinsburg occupy the library? the mall? the Wal-Mart?

Of course the issues that OWS raises impact rural populations. However, Occupy movements in big cities are neglecting to connect those issues to the plights of rural folks. Bank of America has been a target of protests — why not connect to the bank’s financing of mountaintop removal, which is an issue here in New York as much as it is in rural areas? One of my students suggested that we in Martinsburg occupy City Hall. But what about the even more rural places like Marlowe, Falling Waters, and the hundreds of other places that you can’t get to without a car?

Both because of access and because of the way issues are being tackled, rural communities are being excluded from what is being touted as the new global social movement. However, the exclusion of rural people from urban visions of Democrats and leftists — despite the radical histories of places like West Virginia — is what often pushes them towards right-wing politics. These rural communities are also part of the 99%. How can OWS start to include them?

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