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Inspired by Wall Street protests, Occupy Colleges sparks campus walkouts nationwide

In a matter of 48 hours, college campuses across the country organized a nation-wide walkout to show solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests that are spreading to several other states over the next week.

Occupy Colleges, the student-led version of the ongoing New York City-based protests, carried with it a similar theme of economic justice and an end to corporate influence in politics, but added a call for improving equality within higher education.

In Texas, a handful of college campuses joined the movement including The University of Texas, Texas State University and Austin Community College; 75 universities and colleges across the nation are listed as having executed mid-day walkouts.

At UT-Austin, roughly 50 students holding signs and chanting slogans mimicked protests of rising unemployment and corporate welfare in other cities like Boston and Chicago. But the students also focused on higher education issues, like rising tuition costs, program cuts and staff layoffs.

UT staff, graduate research and teaching assistants, who are part of the Texas State Employees Union, showed up at the Wednesday rally. Mike Gross, vice president of the TSEU, said they supported the Occupy Colleges effort because the ad hoc event aligned with the 12,000-member union group’s mission for equality in higher ed.

“Public universities are becoming more and more out of reach for middle-class and poor students,” Gross said. “The Legislature basically told colleges, ‘Now you are on your own.’ We need to put the public back in public university.”

The share of state-appropriated funds in Texas’ public university budgets has decreased from 40 percent eight years ago to 20 percent today. Gross said that’s led to higher tuition, student fees and a growing need for universities to “sell themselves to corporations.” Higher education policies are increasingly steered by corporate grant money, said Gross.

“This is a movement, even with mass arrests taking place, that is not backing down. And it isn’t just a few angry people — thousands are pissed off and mad about what is going on,” said Juan Quintero, a UT freshman who attended the campus walkout, which began at noon.

Jonathan Cronin, a lead organizer of the citywide Occupy Austin protest planned Thursday, said the Occupy movement is in the spirit of Egypt’s Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring protests, as well as the labor rallies that took place earlier this year in Wisconsin. He says the protests signal a fundamental desire to reevaluate American priorities as it applies to representing the working class, or the “99 percent” — a term which refers to the country’s elite one percent who carry home with them some 24 percent of the national income.

(Mary Tuma/Texas Independent)

“While the extreme excess and wealth continues to grow, the vast majority of Americans are just trying to make ends meet without being weighed down by increased financial burdens,” said Cronin, who is also a student at Austin Community College. “The protests deliver a sense of empowerment to show we need a political process that benefits us all equally.”

The campus protest forged unlikely alliances, Cronin said, with historic rivals like Texas A&M and the University of Oklahoma, which planned walkouts in conjunction with the other state schools. And while the nationwide protests have been criticized for lacking direction or clear demands, Cronin says the fluid nature of the protests is part of its appeal.

“The character can change day by day, people will drive this movement. At this point there is no ceiling to how far it will go and what it can do,” he said.

Nick Scott, a UT junior, said he identifies himself as “part of the 99 percent.” Echoing Cronin, he said, “What makes this movement so beautiful is that each person can bring their own reasons and meaning into the protests, and we can all work together to achieve equality.”

Gross said the movement does, in fact, have a clear message: financial institutions and corporations need less control in the U.S. government. “The big banks and high flying corporations were bailed out during the recession they helped cause, while the middle class was completely passed over. The protests mean we are tired of the way things are and we are pushing back.”

Occupy Wall Street protests are planned in Texas for Thursday, Oct. 6 in a handful of cities across the state, including Houston, Austin and Dallas.

(Mary Tuma/Texas Independent)

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