Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press
MIAMI — Mo Tarafa stood before students at a small, outdoor concrete auditorium at Florida International University and called for volunteers to sit in the 10 chairs before her. Each chair, she said, represented 10 percent of the wealth in the United States and 10 percent of the population.
The students, mostly in their 20s and wearing jeans and T-shirts on a balmy fall Thursday afternoon in Miami, took their places. Then Tarafa asked nine of the students to squeeze together into five of the chairs. This, she said, was the distribution of wealth in 1996.
Next she asked nine students to fit into three of the chairs.
This, she said, is the distribution of wealth today.
"How are you all feeling right now?" she said.
"Uncomfortable," said one of the students piled up on one another.
The exercise was part of a teach-in that took place recently at FIU and dozens of other campuses across the country in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. As the protests have grown to cities across the United States, they've also taken root at the nation's universities, where students have staged rallies and walk-outs from classes. On Thursday, students were among the thousands who took part in protests across the country. They've even set up their own tent cities: At the University of California, Berkeley, where 40 people were arrested in a violent confrontation with police last week, officers removed 20 tents on Thursday. At Harvard University, dozens of students have set up tents in the middle of campus.
The students' concerns: The rising costs of tuition, seemingly insurmountable student debt and weak job prospects — issues unique to them, but which student organizers see as directly connected to the larger issues being raised by the Occupy protests.
"I love my education. I think it was completely valuable; however, I feel I'm not using it on a daily basis," said Natalia Abrams, 31, a recent UCLA graduate who has been helping organize students through Occupy Colleges, a loose coalition of universities across the country. "We didn't go back to school to have $20,000 in debt to work at Starbucks."
Whether the protests mark a rejuvenation of student activism in the United States is yet to be seen, but already some important distinctions are being made from their involvement in politics and society over the last few decades. In the 1960s, students held sit-ins to protest racial segregation and marched against the Vietnam War. But since then, activism on campus has tended to focus on specific issues, like rape awareness, anti-sweatshop campaigns and equality for gays and lesbians, notes Robert Self, a history professor at Brown University.
"There hasn't for a long time been a single issue like the civil rights or the war in Vietnam that brings a whole generation together," Self said.
Students at more than 120 universities have participated in protests so far. They range from students at private and Ivy League colleges, many who come from middle and upper class families, to those who work and attend state or community colleges full-time.
At Harvard, 70 students walked out of an introductory economics class taught by a former Bush adviser to protest what they called the "biased nature" of the class, which they said, "contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America."
Gabriel Bayard, 18, a student who helped organize the walk-out, said the professor, Greg Mankiw, "makes questionable statements and tries to pass them off as fact." He pointed, for example, to the argument that economic equality and efficiency are a zero sum game.
"There's mounting economic evidence that's not the case," Bayard said.
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