Sunday, December 13, 2009

What Yaman Said

Don't give Birgeneau a free pass to shut down student organizing:
One need not agree with whatever happened at the Chancellor’s mansion to resist the administration’s attempt to co-opt independent student forces by soliciting their blanket condemnation of the incident.

Governor Schwarzenegger finally took notice of public education after the incident, calling individuals who were allegedly involved “terrorists.” Earlier today the Chancellor and his PR spokesperson Dan Mogulof echoed a similar approach, calling them “extremists.” Of course, we have no idea what actually happened yet, or if police provocateurs played any role, but it is clear that with this incident the administration and police hope to obtain a pretext to further suppress student organizing efforts. Students should not give it to them -- even if they disagree with what their peers are accused of doing.

Problems began last Friday morning when the Chancellor’s police raided the Open University, a beautiful show of a student-run university, at 5am, sending over 60 students to jail for the day despite agreements between administrators and Open University strikers to keep the hall open until the evening.

After the arrests, the University was quick to invoke its new doctrine of “preemptive” police raids, claiming that an advertised concert was actually an intent to violate that agreement. The University gives itself away here, though, because if protestors merely “intended” to break the agreement, then the University is admitting they had committed no such violation. Instead, the Chancellor himself was the first to violate it. Such a breach on the University’s part only re-affirms that the administration cannot be trusted in these matters, given its eagerness to shut down the student movement as a whole. Why else would it use such extreme punitive measures of raid and arrest and jail time to students in their pajamas, if not to send a deterrent message to other students?

One week ago marked the anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. Today, that movement is praised on a consensus even by University officials and conservative parts of the student body. However we should not forget that when that movement was still growing, University officials took strong positions against it, engaging in smear campaigns against the strikers similar to the one we see today. One need only visit the Free Speech Cafe at Moffitt Library to confirm this by reading the headlines printed on the coffee tables. What won out in the end was not conforming to the behaviors and ideologies espoused or tolerated by administrators, but strong student resolve against the administration and even against police attempts to arrest strikers. Today the very same people maligning the student movement pretend to praise the FSM, but their position is incoherent and does not actually show any regard whatsoever to political activism.

Students today face a similar scenario. The administration wants to impose a specific topology on the student movement, pressuring all students to affirm their belonging to one area of the map and not another. The governor has adopted the Bush language of terrorism to demonize the movement that his own gutting of public education created, and the administration has invoked the Bush doctrine of pre-emption to justify police raids and mass arrests even in the absence of criminal activity or evidence thereof. Students should not allow the administration to set parameters on discourse or action. If such parameters are to exist, they should be created by students with common aims and not by the administration when it exploits events like these for its own sake.

In forging a new language of political engagement and action, students will face vigorous resistance from the powers that be. Minor events like today’s, involving few students, will be characterized by administrators and cooperating media as flash points marking the ominous direction of the student movement at large. Incidents where police deployment was so clearly inappropriate will be let aside as incidents like these are foregrounded to justify future police presence and action against protesters. Everybody will pay attention to violence against the Chancellor, even as the Chancellor orders violence against student strikers acting well within their rights.

What gives the Chancellor the pretext to shut down the student movement, though, are not the actions of a few people but the reactions of the rest of the movement. If we allow them to shift the focus to these incidents, instead of fee hikes, program cuts, police brutality, and abominable mismanagement, then they have done all they need to do to preserve their own power. Even if a wrong is ever committed, students should never give the administration or police a free hand to do with the accused as they please. After all, no rhetorical concessions are necessary on the part of student organizers and activists to keep moving forward -- and they must move forward, because -- do not forget this -- the administration is comfortable not moving at all.

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