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Protesters head back to school: Speaking with Occupy UT student organizer, searching for clarity

Protesters head back to school: Speaking with Occupy UT student organizer, searching for clarity

Austin Photo Set: News_joe_occupy UT_jan 2012_march
Austin Photo Set: News_joe_occupy UT_jan 2012_student debt
Austin Photo Set: News_joe_occupy UT_jan 2012_apathy
Austin Photo Set: News_joe_occupy UT_jan 2012_capitol

The Occupy movement hit its three month anniversary in Austin with a bit of uncertainty. Like much the rest of the country, Occupy has begun to feel the pressure of staying relevant in a hyper-fast media environment.  

As some of the attention begins to fade, unless it takes the form of an infamous meme, some have wondered what is next for the group. Or I should say groups, because there seem to be events popping up everywhere, claiming to be related to Occupy.

That is not necessarily a bad thing.

As someone who teaches public speaking for a living, I try to gather as much information as possible before assuming a "side" on an issue. Like a lot of people, I am still on the fence about what to do with Occupy. Those involved seem to have their hearts in the right place, but I've also seen some people camped out at City Hall that I wouldn't exactly say I agree with.  

I've written before about how universities are never completely isolated from issues affecting the rest of the country. As a member of the University of Texas community I was particularly interested to learn that there is an Occupy organization at UT.

I recently met with Occupy UT organizer Trevor Hoag in the search for clarity on a movement that has gained a lot of attention, yet remains confusing to many. 

What would you say your title is in relation to Occupy? There is certainly a difference between people who attend protests and those who set them up.

There’s not really a fancy title. Really the only titles that people take on are things like "I’m a magnet for this particular working group." Say you are interested in the communication aspect of an [Occupy] organization, you can be a communication "magnet" or you can be an education "magnet," but beyond that, there aren't really titles to be had, because it is not organized that way.

Students are defaulting on their loans, going bankrupt and they are not contributing to the economy when they are paying off debts, which only exacerbates our overall economic problems.   

So how did you get involved with Occupy and then with Occupy UT Austin?

I went to the initial events and got excited about it — what they were doing and what they stood for. I was trying to keep active with that, and then after a couple of weeks, I decided I wanted to look into whether or not there was anything going on at the University of Texas because most other colleges had something, and we didn’t. 

So I thought, "Well what the heck, I’ll just create media streams for us and I’ll start cycling out what I’m reading online to other people," and before too long hundreds and hundreds of people were following those streams, so I knew there was a lot of interest. 

I started meeting other student activists who were going to Occupy Austin and we started getting on the same page and said, "Okay, let’s start doing events at UT. Let’s create our own satellite." Between a month and two months later, there were regular meetings.

Why Occupy UT? What makes Occupy UT different than Occupy Austin?  What issues are better addressed there than, say, protests at City Hall or on Wall Street?

One thing people need to know up front is University of Texas tuition has quadrupled just in the past few decades, and it’s a huge problem. And unfortunately, the justification you hear from the University is, "We have to increase your tuition because we want to ensure you are getting the best education possible for your money."  

But by that logic, that means that the education you are receiving now is four times more valuable than it was two decades ago, which in the current job market is obviously not the case — people are having even more trouble finding jobs. 

What about student loans because that is becoming a big part?  I’ve seen student loan signs either when I’ve walked by city hall downtown or seen images on the internet or on television. What is going on with that with what you are doing with UT because it seems like a place where you would have the upper hand?

One of the first things that Occupy satellites do is identify a statement of grievances, and in our statement of grievances the debt problem and loan problem is one of the very first things on the list. 

Students go to a university, they think they can afford it, they come out with thousands and thousands of dollars of debt and that has real consequences. Students are defaulting on their loans, going bankrupt and they are not contributing to the economy when they are paying off debts, which only exacerbates our overall economic problems. 

The University of Texas Student body holds $500 million in collective debt, and that has widespread ramifications.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment there are a lot of people who are unsettled by having so many grievances, because even if they support some of them, if you want to do everything, you are going to get nothing. If you cast a wide net, someone can find the one thing they disagree with and disagree with all of it.  It feels like some of the larger things can get lost there.

There are a diverse number of grievances. But ultimately they can all be traced back to a certain economic arrangement.

All of these issues that seem disconnected are actually held together under and economic umbrella. You can fight all these social injustices but eventually you are going to have to hit them at your root. And the root is an economic one.

What kinds of events does Occupy UT have coming up for people who want to check it out and get more information?

There is going to be a forum on Martin Luther King Day for education, connected to the Martin Luther King celebration. It will  be a march that has been held in Austin for the last few years. We are inviting people to come the march and also the educational forum where people can discuss these issues.

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For more information about the group, including the upcoming Education Forum and March at the University of Texas on Martin Luther King Day check out the Occupy UT website or find them on Facebook.

Information about other events related to Martin Luther King Day in Austin can be found at www.mlkcelebration.co