Putting a Chisel in the Ground

Yoni Golijov is a 21-year-old student at Columbia College (2012). He was an organizer of the Bloombergville actions in Manhattan over the summer of 2011, and has been active in Occupy Wall St. He is a member of Columbia's International Socialist Organization and CU Activists.

JC: Was the Columbia walkout organized by one group, or many groups?

YG: It was ad hoc. My friends, Sumayya and Senia made the Facebook group and they did that along with some friends. The walkout was originally planned by SUNY and CUNY students over the summer. So they planned it as part of the New York Students Rising (NYSR). But after Occupy Wall Street really picked up the pace, and the May 12th Coalition got together with unions like UFT, non-profits like NYCC and decided to use that, with OWS, to make a big statement. So it was all happening really quickly.

JC: The CUNY NYSR happened over the summer. When did Columbia students join?

YG: Just a week before the walkout. We were definitely planning on having a solidarity event here, raising awareness about the fact that SUNY and CUNY kids are facing tuition hikes for the next five years, that were passed during the summer when the students weren't around to protest. Cuts to professors' benefits. They have a direct reason to protest the budget cuts. It's slightly more difficult to get private school students to relate. So we thought, 'I don't know if we'll be able to get everyone to go for a walkout, let's just do solidarity.' And then it turns out we could get 200 people to walk out, so it's a good thing we did it.

JC: CU Activists is kind of an umbrella group, right?

YG: It's more an intersection group. There are members of each group so we can coordinate our efforts, but we're not necessarily – we're not even recognized by Columbia. It's just kind of an ad hoc.

JC: Was there any contact with the Columbia administration prior to the walkout?

YG: There wasn't any contact that I know of. But I do know that a bunch of professors actually ended class early. Some of them even before we contacted them. Some of them ended class at 3:20 because they heard about the walkout. Others were contacted by students. So there was definitely faculty support.

JC: What is the meaning Columbia Activist students are trying to demonstrate to their audience.

YG: Well I think there's multiple reasons to walkout at Columbia and to bring this movement to Columbia. I mean, first of all, we really do have the same issue as public school students do. Our tuition is probably going to go up, we're graduating with tons of debt. I think about 90% of private university students graduated with an average of $24,000 of debt.

And also, Columbia has a deep connection with Wall Street. Some of our board of trustee members work for these big banks, including the CEO of Citigroup. There's also a connection between theory and what people are teaching here, the fact that so many of these students go to work for Wall Street. And that doesn't make them our enemy, that makes them exactly the people we need to reach.

JC: Was there outreach to the community around Columbia about the walkout?

YG: Yeah, I'm involved with a group at St. Mary's Church that's been doing some community work around trying to get people to not fight each other, fight the system. The people in the community of Harlem are obviously more affected than we are by Wall Street's wheeling’s and dealings, by the high budget cuts in New York City and New York State budgets. And I contacted groups protesting Columbia's Manhattanville expansion, and we had a couple people come up, including alumni from Columbia, people who graduated in '66 or '68 and still live in the area. So I hope that leads to more of a bond between students and the community.

JC: Can you relate the walkout to OWS? They converged on the same day, even though they were planned months before and not in unison.

YG: So many student organizers are part of the Occupy Wall St movement. And we know that there's obvious connections between the fact that we bail out these banking intuitions with our tax money, then they lend us that money back with interest, so then we have to cut our city and state budgets. And that's what can really lead to the fact that there's a $300 tuition increase for the next five years at CUNY and SUNY.

JC: Do you know how many students joined the Columbia walkout?

YG: I think we had 150 people meet us outside the gates. And when I went down I saw even more Columbia students that I hadn't seen at the gates. So I think maybe 200 of us or more, including the faculty that took their classes down. I think there were at least 4 or 5 faculty members. A bunch more cancelled class.

JC: Can you describe the rally downtown?

YG: It was an incredible rally. We had 20,000 people there, is what they're reporting. Which is great because the original call for Occupy Wall St was 20,000. So it just goes to show that it takes a little more time than they gave us, but the people are out there. And the movement is just building. I think the rally showed that there's a lot of energy. There was tons of music, brass bands, drummers. The Columbia contingent was one of the loudest contingents, they were leading chants. It's an important feeling to go down there and be with all these people that are on your side, marching for the same thing, who are sharing their messages, because people also have their own messages. People make connections to the wars, to the occupation of Palestine, connections to hydrofracking, at Indian Point the nuclear power plant. It's a community building moment. It's really great to see the larger group of people. It makes good on the chant, "We are the 99%" And now the next steps are to get students and people into the organizing mode. So that we can get even more than 20,000 people down there next time.

JC: Are there follow-up actions already planned, for after the walkout?

YG: The pace is moving incredibly fast. Today there's a mass student convergence on Occupy Wall St to plan. To organize what our next steps are as students, and there's about 300 people going, from as far as Wesleyan and places out of state. The walkout made it able for us to communicate. I'm now in touch with students from Sarah Lawrence and we're organizing a poetry reading at Occupy Wall St.

The CEO of Goldman Sachs was going to speak at Barnard. He cancelled his talk, for some reason he has to go to D.C. Possibly because he's visiting Obama again, for the 11th time. No other contributor gave more money to Obama than Goldman Sachs. So we are still going to stage a teach-in at Barnard Hall, in response to the fact that they invited him to teach about excellence in leadership.  So we definitely have a lot planned on campus and as a student movement. There's also an Occupy College idea floating around, you know, that people will start occupations on campus.

JC: Do you think the Occupy College movement would be a good idea?

YG: It's complicated. It would definitely create a lot more buzz and media. I think there's a lot of criticism and dismissiveness coming from the media and from students and from people who don't agree with Occupy Wall St and who see it as disorganized or overly privileged and white. And there are valid criticisms. I hope that anyone who has a criticism comes down and helps us, because that's the whole idea. So I think an Occupy College movement would work best if it really focuses on the student's issues.

For instance, Tent State University [at Rutgers], which is in New Jersey, for a week they have tents out on their lawn, and they have a pre-school kind of atmosphere of people teaching each other and showing how education is more than this banking system of a teacher depositing knowledge into his student's head.

JC: One of the criticisms of the Occupy Wall St movement is not having articulated demands. But its greatest strength seems to be building and strengthening coalitions.

YG: First of all, it's obvious what we're protesting against and what some of the things we'd like to see are. Taking corporate money out of politics, ending corporate personhood, and there's a lot of talk about reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act or creating a token tax or actually collecting the Stock Transfer Tax which hasn't been collected for decades and would create I think $10 billion a year.

Also, it's a weakness and a strength not having demands. One of my friends put it really beautifully: the occupation is just putting a chisel in the ground and it's just hammering it. It's creating a space for people to actually discuss and to meet each other, to connect. There have been a lot of concrete things raised. There was a Declaration of the Occupation published last week, the principles of solidarity are going to be published soon, which is another form of demands.

And there's a lot to be said about not having demands. People are saying that when you have demands you're asking for reforms from the top. When our real demand has been, Everybody wake up, start an occupation, start a place where you can have these discussions, and start moving.

And that's really worked. We issued a demand that was directed at the people and the people responded.

JC: What has your involvement with Occupy Wall Street been?

YG: I got involved when the call came out in mid-July. Immediately talking with friends from Bloombergville, as well as a few Spanish Indignados. I went to the first General Assembly August 2nd. Unfortunately I had to leave NYC or I would have kept going and organized but I stayed up to date via email and went down to OWS the first night, and have been going when I can now especially for student activities since one of our main goals is to broaden the movement and now is the perfect time at Columbia to build a student movement and work in sync with staff, faculty and community to win our 99% back! I'm not on any committees or tasks downtown, time is tough especially when I remember I have school! 

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