From the W.E.B. Du Bois Library to the Amherst Town Common, they marched yesterday – wielding protest signs and chanting. A contingent of people that assembled at the University of Massachusetts, they partook in a national walkout critiquing the current American financial system and the way in which business is carried out on Wall Street.
Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City and the subsequent ones that have sprung up in areas around the country, a group of students, professors and other members of the community – numbering over 100 at times – participated in Occupy Amherst, part of the national Occupy Colleges demonstration, which called for walkouts at college campuses across the country yesterday.
Around noon yesterday, the group of students came together in front of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and marched from the UMass campus to the Town Common – making brief stops to demonstrate in front of the Whitmore Administration Building at UMass and the Bank of America on South Pleasant Street in Amherst Center – chanting and shouting in unison during their march. They also continued on to Amherst College following the demonstration at the Town Common – which was the bulkiest part of the gathering, where protesters shared stories and criticized American capitalism.
Those demonstrating cited a number of different items of frustration during the protest – from rising tuition fees for college students to outrage with the controversial Sept. 21 execution of Troy Davis, a Georgia man convicted of killing a police officer.
But something most of the protesters hammered in as a flash point issue yesterday was what they defined as corporate greed in the country.
“It all comes down to corporate greed,” said Seth Meldon, 17, a UMass freshman studying in the School of Management. “We can say it’s about Troy Davis, we can say it’s about Barack Obama … but it’s all about f***ing corporate greed.”
Demonstrators took part in stump speeches on the Town Common, where some of them chastised what they called American imperialism, shared personal stories and reflections, and evoked some words calling for a revolution.
“This is only just the start of something,” said Ben Bull, 21, a graduate student in the Labor Studies Department at UMass, who helped to put together yesterday’s demonstration. “This was basically for UMass specifically as part of the nationwide student walkout.”
Bull said that one of the goals of the demonstrations is to focus more on communities than on corporations.
“People are angry,” he said. “We have problems.”
“Obviously the big goal is a complete and total re-shift of the values of this country – moving away from profit and putting it on morality … communities not corporations,” continued Bull.
For some, the protest yesterday was a chance to recall their experiences of participating in the main demonstrations in New York.
Nonkiko Richardson, 31, an Amherst resident and former UMass student who said she was one of over 700 people arrested over the weekend on New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, said she participated in the demonstrations in an attempt to try to provide for a better future for her 8-year-old daughter.
“Her future is bleaker than mine,” said Richardson, who wore a mask during much of yesterday’s demonstration in protest to rules in New York that she said barred demonstrators from wearing such items. “We have to fight for her future.”
The money that banks, corporations and the wealthiest citizens possess, she said, is enough to end the famine taking place in Somalia.
“The issues are big,” added Richardson, who said that she thinks that if everyone does enough during demonstrations and protests, those in power will begin to recognize it. “But the money’s at Wall Street.”
Ben Taylor, who also said he was among the group of people to be arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge over the weekend, said the sentiments in New York were energizing.
“It was electric,” said Taylor, a UMass student studying political science. “There was a sense that this was the start of an absolutely new movement in American history.
“People are f***ing angry about the system, which benefits the top 1 percent while screwing over everyone else,” he added.
UMass junior Laurie Roberts, who has been following the occupations since their inception through social media but was unable to travel to New York or Boston to participate, said she was “excited” when she found out about the protest in Amherst.
“This is what needs to happen,” said Roberts. “I am so excited that students and people are finally standing up for what is wrong right now. We have to speak up or nothing is going to happen.”
Nothing happening could be one of the worst possible outcomes, according to UMass economics Professor Gerald Friedman, who was also at yesterday’s demonstration.
“This is called the great recession but it might as well be called another great depression that is the magnitude of what we are facing,” said Friedman. “And we are not going to get out of it until we really dramatically change our economic policies. So the only hope is that there is popular mobilization like this and all over the country to get the government to change its policies towards the bank.”
According to Friedman, the government currently is giving banks money in an attempt to drive interest rates down and encourage them to loan money. However, he feels banks are afraid to lend the money and are now holding on to $1.6 trillion in excess reserves. He said the system “is not working, and it is not going to work.”
Friedman also believes that legislation needs to be passed that will force the banks to loan money. In addition, he thinks that the government needs to pass a much larger stimulus than the one passed by Obama in 2009.
“The Obama stimulus was 2 to 3 percent of GDP,” said Friedman. “It was enough to kind of help things along. At the time, I was looking at some notes from a talk I gave back in February 2009 and, for once, I was right. I said we need a stimulus four times as large, and we still need a stimulus four times that large.”
But Friedman said he doesn’t think any solution will come from Capitol Hill or the White House.
“There is nothing in Washington … I like the president. I like a lot of what he is doing, but there is nothing in the White House or Congress, certainly not Congress, that is going to do anything significant to improve circumstances.” Friedman said.
For Jonathan Goldin, 60, one hope of the demonstration is to that it will serve as an impetus to bring back a sense of fairness and improve the quality of life in the country.
“The quality of life in America has gone down,” said Goldin, a self-employed psychotherapist who works with UMass students and is also affiliated with Western Mass. Jobs With Justice.
“The thing that will revive it is fairness,” continued Goldin, a participant in yesterday’s demonstration, who added that more needs to be done to motivate students at the University and prepare them for the workforce.
Yesterday’s protest, though, was the first in what is expected to be a slew of protests in the area in the coming days and weeks.
A general assembly planning meeting for demonstrations in the area was expected to take place at the Town Common yesterday evening, and organizers have already planned for a large demonstration to take place there Sunday, Oct. 16.
William Perkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Katie Landeck can be reached at email@example.com.