Rachel del Valle | Protest in ‘the people’s university’
Duly Noted | A first-person account of Friday’s Occupy Eric Cantor demonstration
October 24, 2011, 1:30 am·
Rachel del Valle
Friday afternoon, I headed downtown. About halfway there, as I hit the Schuykill, I began to regret my choice of footwear. I looked up from readjusting the ball of my foot in my stacked oxfords and was met with a crowd of beanie-wearing, sign-toting people chanting “We’re unstoppable/Another world is possible.” I’d forgotten about the Occupy Eric Cantor protest. Plans for an afternoon in Rittenhouse were scrapped.
At first, I was timid. I kept to the sidewalk, scribbling anxiously in my reporter’s notebook. From my measured distance, I could see the people in the crowd — young, old, tattooed, non-tattooed. There was a plastic-glasses-wearing yuppie type with clipped hair and a messenger bag. There was a pixiesh girl with teal hair and combat boots. There were men with beards. So many beards.
On the walk down, the energy was contagious. By the time we got down to Penn, I was giddy. Glancing down Walnut, near David Rittenhouse Laboratory, I could see the glittering lights of cop cars as they cleared the street. The protesters were going to have an audience now. As we went past Fisher-Bennett Hall and crossed the street onto main campus, I was merged into the crowd. The smell of body odor hung bluntly in the crisp fall air. Now I understood why some people had kerchiefs tied in front of their mouths like cowboys.
Marching past College Hall, a prospective parent, clutching his paper bag from Admissions, stood agape. His son standing next to him looked equally discomfited.
As we moved down toward Huntsman Hall, the current leader with the megaphone signaled to make a left. The crowd gathered, with the speakers centering around a table advocacy groups Keystone Philadelphia and Fight For Philly had set up. There was a palpable, sense of “now what?”
A coolly stubbled, charismatic guy appeared, held the megaphone and said, “Welcome to UPenn.” He began to sing: “Cantor, Cantor, can’t you see/What this movement means to me?” smiling, like he was improvising.
Some speakers were introduced by different groups, each displaying their own signs of nervousness mixed with exhilaration. A former public-school teacher, a laid-off factory worker, an urban studies major, a Wharton senior. The speakers from Penn were received with as much, if not higher, decibels of support.
After the speeches had finished, the guy who had been singing said that he heard that Cantor was inside the building for a meeting. He made the unexpected announcement: “I want you all to turn around right now. We’re going inside Huntsman Hall, so he can hear us.”
And we did. That’s why the protest moved into Huntsman.
One guy, with small silver glasses boxing in his eyes and a dark wool coat, stood on top of the reception desk. A woman said, “Sir, get down” and he did. That’s about as crazy as it got.
From the balcony above, a student interrupted a chant. He shouted, at first muffledly, then loudly, “Get a job!” It didn’t really catch on. A black guy with Buddy Holly glasses who led the protest on the march toward campus told us to be cool. The “Give us a job” retort died out and he took the megaphone: “Let’s not respond. Look how many people are here today, and look how many people are up there.”
From above, a suited student — presumably a Whartonite — grinned cartoonishly, holding a sign that said “Get in our bracket.” From behind me, someone said, “Get in your father’s bracket, I think you mean.”
In front of me, a button-down and Ray-Ban wearing student talked to someone in the crowd. He said he was not a protester, mumbled something dismissive about “a bunch of homeless teens.” One of the main organizers overheard him and they talked calmly for the next five minutes. “What’s going to happen when you graduate?” the guy with a blue bandanna tied on one arm said.
Another bit of chanting started up:
“Is this Wall Street’s university?”
“Is this the government’s university?”
“This is the people’s university!”
“This is our university!”
As we turned to exit the cylindrical building, the chant “We are the 99 percent/And so are you!” picked up. The crowd turned back to point at the group of students gathered on the balcony with each “and so are you!”
And most of us are, even if we’d like to pretend otherwise. Penn wasn’t being protested against. Our school was the site of frustration toward a cowardly politician. If you are uncomfortable with political debate coming to your campus, maybe you shouldn’t be going to school in the fifth-largest city in the country.
Rachel del Valle is a College sophomore from Newark, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Duly Noted appears every Monday.