Saturday, October 2, 2010

Addendum to the Organizing Article

       I have been in a couple informal conversations about an earlier posting that I wrote, Provisional Questions Around Organizing.  I thought I would work through that all to fragmentary reception history here in a slightly more formal manner.  A sympathetic reader implied that my posting questioned the ability of campus activists to work on non-campus issues effectively.  The difficulty is that the bulk of my comments were not about student activism per se, but were focused on a specific project within student activism, that is the fight against the austerity measures in the university, as well as within public schools and community and state colleges.    In this sense, we can think about the anti-austerity struggles a potential space for an intersectional alliance that brings in a multiplicity of concerns and subject positions, but that it is not the only potential for such an alliance, and more significantly, that particular movement does not exhaust either the existing or potential forms of activism that exist on campus.  To put it simply, this alliance may take up the time of a lot of activists right now, but its only a small part of student activism, particularly when we think historically.

     If the article that I had responded to had made the simple claim that activists should continue to work on other subjects, and continue to see the university as connected to the larger world through a set of practical projects, I wouldn't have had a problem with the article.  (To give a couple examples of what this might look like, you might drawn on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaigns against South Africa and Israel, or the attempts on the part of anti-sweatshop activists to demand that university apparel is produced by non-sweatshop labor.  In both cases, activists look to university specific behavior that links to the structures of oppression within the world at large.)  Let's be honest, this would be a fairly modest claim, but certainly not one that one can argue against.  We as students have resources that can directly and indirectly contribute to global social justice struggles, although perhaps without the hubris that our activism frequently takes. 

       However, the article that I was responding to wasn't making a set of claims about what student activists can do, but how the anti-austerity movement can directly link itself to a diverse series of other struggles, from the Arizona immigration law to the Oscar Grant case.  My argument wasn't that students couldn't contribute productively to those struggles, even within the space of the campus, but that the movement as such could immediately create an effective coalitional front that fused those issues.  Instead, I suggested that there were much more immediate connections we could make with teachers and students to transform our struggle from one that is often read as a special interest to one that represented the needs and desires of the middling classes.  (More specifically, a step towards that.  I don't think that it would create that effect in and of itself, but it would put us in a much stronger position to both formulate and put forwards such claims.  However, those are a set of formulations that would need to be created through struggle, and not assumed ahead of time.)

       I suspect that this assumption comes out of the following passage from my comments.  I noted, "I'm not sure what can practically be done to support struggles against police violence beyond education and fundraising within the space of the university." To be honest, it is probably one of the weaker statements that I made in the piece, but there are a couple problematic assumptions in operation when one reads this as dismissive.  1.  It assumes that education is a lesser form of activism.  2.  And within that assumption, it operates within the false binary of speech and action.  To make this specific, I think that student organized forums on the topics of the Arizona law and the Oscar Grant case are in themselves important forms of activism, and were as significant as the more publicized anti-austerity demonstrations.  They are ways of demanding that students take issues of social justice seriously, and at the same time, they are direct demands on our institution about what it means to educate and to be educated.  Speech and pedagogy are the topography of struggle in the educational institution, and to ignore them is to not take one of the role of one of the largest ideological state apparatuses seriously.

       However, I would also acknowledge that it contains its own flaws as a statement.  The most obvious is that it collapses the particularities of the Grant case into police violence tout court.  In a certain sense, this statement replicates the flawed thinking of the article that it responds to, except that rather than collapsing a multiplicity of forms of state violence into a homology, it takes one incident and uses it to define the phrase 'police violence.'  Certainly, anyone who has been to a protest over the past year knows that police violence occurs on campus, but it's connections to a case such as Grant's is tenuous at best.  (I think that there are forms of racialization that can be found to run through campus police violence and the Grant case, but that kind of analysis has to operate on a more complex level than simply declaring the events as the same.)  There may be ways of connecting the prison with education, but this is a different logic than simply equating all forms of oppression with the swing of a police truncheon.  The second is that symbolic solidarity protests are irrelevant.  This is simply untrue.  These actions can often serve to show support for our friends and often they become ways of showing that a particular struggle has wider relevance.  Often, we're not very good at doing this effectively, but that doesn't mean that there aren't ways of accomplishing these goals.

         As someone who has some sense of the traditional structures of composition, I'm tempted to end this with synthetic conclusion, but in some sense, that would be kind of dishonest.  This is more or less a string of thoughts that connect to some conversations that I have had that I wanted to work through.  I think I'll leave it at that.

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