Saturday, November 20, 2010

Noting the Backlash: The Response to the Student and Worker protests of the U.C. system

       Many of you have probably already seen or heard about the footage of Officer Kemper pulling his gun on student protesters in San Francisco in response to dropping his baton, along with the extensive use of pepper spray on protesters. For those who haven't seen the footage, I have included it below.

Most of the coverage has gone to these incidents, but I don't want to focus on them. Rather, I want to focus on a set of events that have occurred on a number of campuses within the day to day activities of organizers and activists. I'm not dismissing those incidents. They are significant. We should also recognize the students and workers involved in the protests, and their willingness to resist the continued privatization of the university. But, we need to recognize that our ability to fight the efforts of the regents, President Yudof, and the upper administration to privatize the university is dependent on our ability to congregate, demonstrate, speak, and communicate to the broad public of the university. That ability is currently being challenged by the university in very practical terms.
Those challenges have taken very practical forms on the University of California-Irvine campus. Student groups ranging from the Muslim Student Union to the Worker Student Alliance have had difficulties obtaining permits for demonstrations in the so-called 'free speech' zone of the university. The university has made unprecedented demands on those groups, such as lists of speakers and the content of the speeches. Furthermore, the administration has sent threatening emails, attempting to curtail the activities of those demonstrations. Additionally, student activists were briefly detained by police for chalking the campus, and a significant activist group is being threatened because they were associated with a protest action put on by an unknown group of students. That action involved releasing helium-filled balloons with messages into a number of lecture halls. Each of these actions effectively reduces the ability for activists to communicate a message of an alternative vision of the university to the broad base of students and workers of the University of California-Irvine. (see below for footage of the UC Berkeley balloon action, a minimally disruptive action, designed to re-purpose public space.)

      Perhaps, these activities should be expected on the famously conservative University of California-Irvine campus, but similar responses to student protest have been occurring on the University of California-Berkeley campus as well. There have been police responses to simple activities such as chalking and fliering with police ripping down fliers and harassing students for the use of chalk. More notably, police have been posted outside of public meetings of student activists.  Once again, these forms of repression have been in response to traditional forms of activist communication on the university, attempts to communicate a message to students, and to freely assemble for peaceful political action.

       While the activities of two campuses cannot stand in for the entire UC system, these actions can't simply be dismissed as anomalies.  There has been an increased effort on the part of the UC system to shut down the protest movement against privatization through curtailing the rights of protesters.  It has been a response that has taken the most visible form of police presence, but it has also included disciplinary threats to students and organization, attempts to divide organizations by administrators, etc.  We should see these actions as the other side of privatization, the restriction of the ability of students and workers to utilize the public sphere of the university as a commons for assembly and communication. It is as much of a threat to the public status of the university as fee and tuition increases and military contracts, because it restricts the ability of students to use the space for their own purposes.

       I suspect that most of my readers will be sympathetic to this basic premise, but in case there are some folks who aren't because of the disruptive or volatile nature of the protests, I'll add a couple comments about those concerns.  To begin, there has never been a successful protest movement that has not been disruptive.  Events that we take for granted as positive for our society, such as the Civil Rights movement and the fight against Apartheid in South Africa were not seen in that light.  Instead, the demands of those movements were seen as threatening, creating unnecessary tensions, and disruptive to daily life.  I would recommend reading Martin Luther King, Jr.'s A Letter From a Birmingham Jail to get a sense of the conflicts created by the Civil Rights Movement.  The attempt to divest from South Africa was met with similar confrontations.  Change,  as Frederick Douglass noted, does not occur without a demand, and that demand can only occur through confrontation.

     Additionally, those who claim to be concerned about disruption are ignoring the more profound disruption of students who are unable to complete their education because of the fee increases, and the disruption in students lives because their increased debt load.  There is also little concern for the reduced classes available to students.  Nor does there seem to be much concern for the disruption in workers' lives because of layoffs, cuts in hours, and other austerity measures.  Within that context, the short disruption in a class or in the functioning of an administration building becomes an ethical act, both marking the more substantial disruptions created by the changes put in place by the regents, president, and administration, and simply refusing to allow the functioning of the structures that created those disruptions to run unopposed.

      The administration of our school system can simultaneously celebrate the legacy of that type of protest institutionally, while refusing to recognize our claim as students to draw from that same legacy.  Perhaps more disturbingly, students often are willing to accept this logic, as well, through a combination of the threat of reprisal and the privatized forms of common sense that pervade our campuses, as well as a sense of despair.  Within that context, it is also important to remember that the threats that we face as student protesters are very mild compared to most social movements, and that the vast majority of participants have suffered at most by having to listen to a bad speech or two.  Additionally, the protests have limited the ability of the administration to take further actions, even though they have not advertised that fact.  Within that context, the consequences for all of us if we don't act are substantial.  They open the floodgates of a fully privatized university.

       But beyond that rhetoric, we are still placed in a difficult situation.  What should we do in response to the combined despair of the massive body of students, and the attempts to restrict our rights to speak and organize on the part of the administration?  It seems that we need to do a couple things.  First, we need to defend our rights on campus, by practically challenging the restrictions being placed on our rights to speak and assemble.  On the UCI campus, a small group of activists is organizing a chalking action on Monday, November 22nd at the flagpoles at 11am to challenge the university's restrictions of that activity.  Despite some of my disagreements with people involved in that action, I commend their action, and if well executed, it may constitute a way forwards.  Second, we need to be willing to defend folks who are using their rights to assemble and speak to fight the austerity measures and privatization.  I recognize with the conflicts that occurred last year, that this proposal is easier to state than execute, but we need to recognize this as a form of self-defense.  But beyond these immediate practical responses, I'm not sure what to do.  But without the practical organizing that is enabled by our ability to assemble and speak, no solution is possible.

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