Occupy Austin trickles down to students

Samian Quazi

 More than 1,000 Austinites rallied in front of City Hall on Oct. 6 as part of the nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement. Chief among these protesters’ grievances is that Wall Street and corporations have monopolized their interests — and the nation’s wealth — to the detriment of the vast majority of Americans. Class consciousness and hostility to the corporate elite isn’t new, but Occupy Wall Street’s issues are acutely relevant to UT students. UT should stand firmly behind the protesters and their cause.

Ongoing protests in Manhattan, the nexus of the movement, featured thousands of mostly young protesters camped out for several weeks in front of Wall Street landmarks such as the New York Stock Exchange. Banks became the central focus of the activists’ ire because they pushed millions of Americans to sign off on bad mortgages, but when massive housing foreclosures hit the market in early 2006, most of the affected Wall Street institutions were able to get taxpayer-financed bailouts from the government.

Much to the chagrin of Americans, the banking institutions re-emerged vibrant last year while efforts to help the public at large floundered. As the national unemployment rate remained mired above 9 percent, and countless Americans’ personal wealth fizzled while they tried to stay afloat, Wall Street deflected any attempt to repay the favor to Americans. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, which passed into law last year to curb the financial institutions’ excesses, was largely castrated through numerous loopholes.

It is thus in the context of indignation over the injustice of finance profiting off the backs of the people that the Occupy Wall Street movement sprung forth. Yet compared to the global media attention focused on New York City, the counterpart protests here in Austin are far more sedate.

The roughly 1,200 demonstrators at City Hall and in front of Bank of America’s branch on Congress Avenue remained energetic but civil and respectful of their surrounding environment. APD even proudly reported that no arrests were made, according to The Daily Texan, dispelling any myths the protests were centered around hooliganism or criminality.

A strong contingent of the nationwide grassroots movement has been college students and recent graduates. Similar to many UT students, this segment faces mounting student loan debts upon graduation and a chronically anemic job market that dampens their ability to pay back those loans.

For the past decade, the student loan market has emerged as a microcosm of the mid-2000s housing market. At a time when the nation had not yet entered recession, both banks and the federal government were keen on lending ever-increasing amounts of money to students with the expectation that remuneration would be easy after these students graduated. But when the job market suddenly went sour, college students faced the prospect of struggling for decades to pay back these loans.

Yet as the loans continue piling on, any suggestion that Wall Street in turn bails out these students is immediately shelved from public discussion. Even the idea that student loans should be capped after a fixed amount per borrower would bring howls of protest. Wouldn’t some students be priced out of borrowing to go to UT, for instance, if there were more lending regulations? Perhaps. But the odds are still greater that a given student would face even greater pain to their creditability as they were unable to find good jobs after graduation.

The easy access to credit vis-à-vis student loans has only exacerbated the problem of skyrocketing tuition. College costs have been grossly inflated precisely because students have more and more loaned monies to pay the price. Without such a debt-fuelled educational system, UT students would eventually see tuition rates stabilize and perhaps even drop, even if the financial sector loses out.

Distrust of financial institutions among young people is a legacy of the recession, and it is evidently reflected in the Occupy Wall Street protests. In June, SmartMoney magazine reported that skepticism of banks among teens was widespread: 75 percent reported the stock market was “rigged” in favor of the banks, and 83 percent agreed with the statement that banks are “mostly interested in getting my money through hidden fees.”

What really grates Millennials such as myself is how Wall Street can rob our generation of hopes of future prosperity. As the American middle class keeps on shrinking, Wall Street has encouraged corporations to peddle more so-called “easy credit” and untenable financing options instead of pressing for real wage increases.

I won’t pretend that an increasingly regulated financial sector may strip us of many consumerist illusions of prosperity we see today. But until Wall Street as an institution is given boundaries, more and more UT graduates may see even middle-class futures out of reach for them and their kin entirely. Austin and UT should stand behind the protests, for us and for our futures.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.