Coming to Terms

“It’s complicated.” That was how Bryant Jackson-Green, chairman of the libertarian UofC student organization Students for a Free Society, summed up his position on the Occupy movement for an audience member as he made his way up to the podium at last Thursday’s debate. Billed as a discussion on what role Occupy should play in the 2012 elections, the debate touched on the fundamental relationship between protest movements and politics, and the terms we use to describe them.

The expression “we are the 99%” is perhaps the Occupy movement’s most polarizing asset. Journalist Zeeshan Aleem, representing Occupy Chicago, praised the movement’s diversity, noting the inherent difficulty in having a single panelist speaking for so large a group. He shared his vision for the movement as a form of agitation from outside the current political arena that could ultimately push the system toward change. Aleem pointed out that in the wake of Occupy, corporations have begun to change their PR rhetoric, choosing words like “freedom” over “capitalism.”

Representing the UofC Democrats, Sam Baron had different ends in mind. “I’m not sure how much Occupy has done besides change the political discourse,” he said.  For Baron, a self-described member of the 99%, but only a “highly sympathetic outsider” to the movement, the Democratic Party was still the best means of enacting change in favor of the American left. “I’m asking for a movement that is radically less sexy than what’s taking place,” he acknowledged.

In true Occupy fashion, the roughly 30 attendants played a major role in directing the debate. More than once the panelists abruptly stopped talking when someone from the crowd made a face, and the audience’s “questions” were usually prefaced with lengthy, heated remarks and historical clarifications. Beyond being mere points of debate, however, the questions repeatedly hit upon matters of definition.

“Is Occupy ‘the left’?” asked one woman, confused by the various uses of the term that had been thrown around. Later, another audience member, responding to Baron’s criticism that Occupy lacked a clear purpose, asked with a knowing grin: “What’s the Democratic party’s purpose? Hope? Change?”

In his closing remarks, Aleem tried to bring the discussion back to its original purpose, suggesting that Occupy “might be something other than the left.” But the war over words could not be put away that easily. After the debate, a member of Students for a Free Society stood by the doorway handing out fliers. “Are you interested in liberty?” he asked.