Monday, February 27, 2012

Why Strike; Why March; Why Occupy?

In less than a week, another round of protest on behalf of public education will commence. This Thursday, March 1st, students and educational workers across California, as well as other states, will hold teach-ins, rallies, and walkouts at their schools and universities; in doing so, they'll begin shaping the latest sequence of what's become a multi-year struggle against rising student fees, layoffs of instructors and service workers, the re-segregation of our campuses, and massive budget cuts to all levels of public education.

At UC Berkeley, the plan for the day is to converge around California Hall at 8am for a kickoff action, which will lead into the Occupy Cal open university, featuring dozens of self-organized workshops and teach-ins. The March 1st planning committee is asking all instructors to either cancel, reschedule, or take outside your classes, in order to allow students to participate in the open university and other strike actions. At noon, the open university will give way to a short rally at Sproul, followed by a march down Telegraph Avenue to Oscar Grant Plaza – the East Bay convergence site for the day.

In Oakland, students from various schools and universities will gather at 2pm in order to take direct action against banks that profit off of student debt, and to hold a send-off event for those planning to march, over the next four days, all the way from Oakland to UC Davis. The “99 Mile March for Education and Social Justice” will then wind through northern California, stopping each night in a different town to discuss with local residents the current crisis of education and to build support for the March 5th occupation of the capitol.

On Monday the 5th, people from across the state will converge on Sacramento in order to occupy the state capitol building. The occupation of the capitol will coincide with, and unsettle, the annual “March in March” – a mass lobbying day organized by student government representatives from the Community Colleges, CSUs, and UCs. Those occupying the capitol hope to shift the dynamics of the day: rather than soliciting legislators, they want to reclaim the state building for a people's assembly and thus to displace the very state representatives who've defunded and privatized our schools.

What follows are some reflections about the timeliness and purpose of this particular sequence of actions. Hopefully, you'll find some of the following arguments worthwhile, and will end up deciding – whether for these reasons or for others – to take part in the campus strike, the long march, and/or the occupation of the capitol.

Why strike?

In recent years, the strike – a core tactic of the labor movement – has been taken up by university students in their struggles against fee hikes, and against the ever-increasing debt burdens that follow from rising tuition rates. In the UC system, for instance, student fees have increased from $4,000 dollars per year in 2004 to nearly $13,000 dollars today. Similar shifts are taking place at public universities across the country; total student debt nationwide now exceeds 1 trillion dollars. (For a graphic depiction of the structural, economic forces driving the growth of tuition and student debt, see here; for a more comprehensive account of how student debt has recently been financialized, see here).

Last fall, UC President Yudof floated a long-term financial plan that, if implemented, could have raised in-state tuition to as much as $22,000 dollars per year. In the face of significant campus protests – including a wave of student strikes from mid-November to early December – the UC Regents decided to table Yudof's proposal, and to hold off on raising fees for the rest of the academic year. They're already considering a fee hike for this summer though, meaning that without further protest actions – up to and including strikes – we'll likely face future rounds of tuition increases, even if Yudof's extreme proposal to raise fees by 81% will almost certainly never be revived.

The student strike is clearly an effective tactic in resisting fee hikes, university privatization, and intensifying student debt burdens. It's worth considering though, whether and how a tactic associated with labor struggles makes sense when employed by university students. How are students, who generally don't earn wages for the time they spend in class, able to strike in any meaningful sense of the term? And doesn't walking out harm the student herself, who is seeking an education, just as much as it affects university administrators, who, after all, don't have any immediate financial stake in courses being held as usual?

Student strikes are best understood, I think, as actions that indirectly disrupt processes of accumulation, or as actions that raise the specter of such disruption, even if they don't immediately block flows of capital or halt production processes. To abandon the classroom – whether through the initiative of students, instructors, or both – is to initiate a rupture with what has become a site of hyper-exploitation in the contemporary university. Undergraduate classes, particularly classes taught by graduate student instructors or adjunct lecturers, generate massive surpluses for university administrators, who often divert these surpluses into construction or research projects that produce profits for particular university Regents. At the University of Michigan, for instance, the typical TA-taught class generates $20,000 dollars in profit for the university. This profit is underwritten not only by under-compensated graduate student and custodial labor, but also by the future labor of undergraduate students (which is available to the university upfront thanks to the existence of student loans).

While a day-long student strike may not materially affect these exploitative dynamics, such an action shows the possibility that such dynamics might be more consequentially undone – either through semester- or year-long strikes, or through grading/finals strikes, all of which would interrupt what is a central transaction of contemporary university life: the payment of debt-financed funds for course credits. This possibility is what unsettles university administrators about student strikes.

If student strikes thus rattle university administrators, don't they also negatively affect students' education? A bit, perhaps; though last fall's Occupy Cal open university – where members of the campus community organized autonomous workshops and teach-ins during the afternoon of November 15th – showed that education could continue even after classrooms had been (temporarily) abandoned. On the morning of March 1st, we'll be holding another open university, which will hopefully reinvigorate the open university working group, so that public workshops and classes will continue to be organized, and to meet outside, for the remainder of the semester. The best way to get a sense of how the open university tends to loosen academic hierarchies, and how it points toward an alternative educational practice is to participate directly in the project this coming Thursday – to lead a workshop, you just need to fill out the form here.

Before the open university begins, a group of students and workers will also gather at California Hall to engage in a relatively low-risk action designed to disrupt business as usual for the Chancellors. It's important that we not only craft – at the open university – a positive, prefigurative vision of what education could be like, but also that we concretely challenge the authority of campus administrators, particularly given recent incidents of police violence at Berkeley, Davis, and Riverside. Campus-level administrators, the chancellors in particular, are charged not only with carrying out local austerity measures, but also with containing student and worker protest, including protest against educational privatization. With respect to the former charge, Chancellor Birgeneau has in the past three years hired the Bain consulting firm to advise the university about how to lay off staff members in order to cut costs (rather than cutting upper administrators' salaries and positions), has instituted a series of reforms that have increased undergraduate class sizes, and has altered admissions practices to favor wealthy out of state students over working class California residents.

With respect to the latter charge – to contain protest – Chancellors Birgeneau and Breslauer have consistently, over the past three years, employed severe police force, as well as disciplinary sanctions, to repress student protest. We recently learned through a freedom of information act request that the two chancellors were in communication on November 9th, and that Chancellor Birgeneau reaffirmed that day his support for violent police intervention, including baton strikes, to clear a handful of tents on Sproul. He suggested callously that those involved with Occupy Cal, “obviously … want[ed] exactly such a confrontation.” These revelations directly contradict his subsequent testimony, in front of the Academic Senate, where he claimed not to have authorized the use of baton strikes against student protesters, that he was out of the loop on the ninth, and that he was shocked when he learned of what happened. Taking action to disrupt the Chancellors' work day on March 1st is, in part, a way to refuse to let recent police and administrative violence fade into the vaguely remembered past. It's also a way to reaffirm the view that austerity for students and workers, coupled with relative security for upper administrators, is not an acceptable response to contracting state support for the university.

Following the morning actions, there will be a noon rally at Sproul, and then a march down Telegraph Avenue to Oscar Grant Plaza (14th and Broadway). The walk down Telegraph will echo two marches that took place last fall; the first on November 2, when Berkeley students took the streets to join the Oakland general strike; the second when members of Occupy Oakland marched north to join the mass, Occupy Cal general assembly on November 15th. The cross-regional solidarity manifested through these marches, as well as through dozens of other coordinated acts of protest, was part of what made last fall so massive across the bay area. As the 1969 Third World Liberation Front Strike demonstrates – where solidarity strikes by Oakland municipal workers ultimately compelled UC Berkeley Administrators to concede to students' demands – university struggles are always much stronger when they're articulated with broader social uprisings, as has been the case this past year with the Occupy movement, and particularly with Occupy Oakland.

Not only is the march to Oakland this Thursday meant to sustain relations of mutual solidarity with Occupy Oakland, but it's also meant to demonstrate the cross-sectoral quality of the current public education movement. The UCs are not the center of organizing this spring; in the Bay Area, Berkeley High, Laney College, and SF State are all centrally shaping the upcoming week of action. Laney and Berkeley students will be meeting in Oakland, just as Berkeley High students will be holding an autonomous action in MLK Park (to be joined briefly by the 99 Mile March), and as students in San Francisco will be meeting up by the Civic Center for a string of actions. Santa Cruz has also emerged as a center of strike organizing this spring. In southern California, meanwhile, an organizing body composed of activists from dozens of schools and universities has been meeting since the winter to plan concerted actions in March, and to begin building for a strike on May 1st. The kind of cross-sectoral and cross-regional coordination that we've seen this spring is significant, not only because it helps prevent the state from pitting one college or university system against the others, but also because the fate of our various schools and universities are tied up together. As Bob Meister has shown, privatizing reforms in one sector of higher education reverberate throughout the system, affecting all students:
As tuition rises, students eligible for UC transfer down to get cheaper credits and degrees in the CSU system, which has turned away in recent years more than 40,000 eligible California students as of two years ago. This affects the California Community Colleges (CCCs), where a recent study shows that an increasing number of degree-seeking students, including 19 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Latinos, will eventually transfer to a for-profit that does not require them to have transferrable credits, or even a high school diploma. After six years, 70 percent of degree-seeking community college students will have dropped out and only 15 percent will have fulfilled the “Master Plan Intent” of completing the first two years of the requirements for a bachelor’s degree at UC or California State University (CSU) .... Higher prices at UC have thus produced enrollment bottlenecks at the CCC level, where according to a new survey one-third of all students could not get into the courses they needed as compared to one-sixth nationally who face the same problem. Jobless, low-income students, no longer well served by community colleges, find places in federally financed for-profit schools that expand to meet demand and allow them to live on credit and student grants for as long as they are willing to borrow for tuition.

In sum, the California Master Plan for Higher Education is now operating in reverse. Higher prices at UC have produced a downward cascade of enrollments within the public system .... The effect of growing debt-aversion at the top is that students with fewer choices at the bottom end up with a large amount of debt and a low likelihood of being able to repay it.

On March 1st, students from schools across the state will continue our coordinated push-back against these systemic processes of privatization, which are contributing to the re-segregation of our universities, to the re-entrenchment of class and race inequalities, and to the indebting of a generation.

Why march to Sacramento?

If the student strike has become a relatively standard tactic in recent years, there are a number of actions being planning for the next week that constitute significant departures for the California public education movement. The first of these actions is the “99 Mile March for Education and Social Justice,” which will involve students and educational workers, mostly from northern California schools, walking on foot over the course of four days, all the way from Oakland to UC Davis. Each night, we'll stop in a town along the way, meet with local students and workers, share dinner, and build relationships that will hopefully form the basis of collaborative organizing in the future. We'll arrive at UC Davis on Sunday the 4th, thus forming a physical connection between two of the centers of student protest in November 2011, and will join the Occupy UC Davis encampment for the night. Then, on the 5th, we'll travel with Davis students to Sacramento, in time for the actions around the Capitol building.

If you want to join the march, you can find out more about what the event will entail and can sign up here. To join at the last minute, you can just bring a sleeping bag, sleeping pad (if you have one), and a bag with a few changes of clothes, toiletries, good shoes and a hat. March organizers will provide tents, food, water, and medical supplies, and will be able to transport your luggage from one base camp to the next.

Part of what's exciting about the long march through northern California is that it both draws upon recent experiences of encampment – where groups of relative strangers worked together to meet each others' basic needs and to sustain and build a collective life – even as it recasts the logic of the outdoor occupation or encampment. In moving from place to place, the long march, with its roving encampment, suggests a particular relation to space and to social power. The roving encampment reveals something that's been generally true about the occupy movement from the beginning, but that can sometimes be forgotten or neglected: namely, that the purpose of the encampment is not to lay claim to a particular, delimited space, but actually to undo state and corporate claims to space, to overcome the emptiness and artificial boundaries these entities would like to impose on public parks and squares. Encampments are constantly changing sites through which our bodies can circulate, can be nourished and supported, can sleep for a spell, and can meet and plan how to build more expansive, autonomous worlds. The long march, with its constantly shifting character – now in the road, now in a park, now on another campus – is one way to overcome the imposed emptiness of public space, and to sustain each other as we move from here to there.

The long march doesn't simply draw on recent experiences with the occupy movement however, it also resonates with more enduring histories of struggle, particularly those connected to movements against racism and colonialism. As a recently-published call for submissions for a pamphlet on long marches notes:
Traversing great distances on foot has long been part of the tradition of popular resistance. Perhaps one thinks of Gandhi’s 241-mile journey across the Indian subcontinent, which he undertook in 1930 in opposition to the British Salt Tax. Or perhaps one thinks back to 1960, when about six hundred Americans participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights. The first time the Montgomery-bound protestors set out, they were met with billy clubs and tear gas. A second attempt was made, and after making their way across highway and mead, they arrived at the Alabama state capitol.

Part of the purpose of the long march to Sacramento is to take time to recall these particular histories, as well as, among others, the history of the United Farm Workers' march through the central valley, and to consider how these past episodes of struggle might inform current movements against inequality.

It's striking: over the past few years, student organizers have repeatedly been told by our administrators to “go to Sacramento.” This dictate has been one of their most persistent rhetorical moves, designed to divert attention from their own involvement in university privatization, to split us geographically from our campus bases, and to suck our energies into tidy rallies and lobbying days at the capitol building. After three years, organizers from various schools have finally decided collectively to go to Sacramento; and while there is some risk in doing so, we're trying to go there on our own terms, and in our own time. We'll be meandering there, occupying roads and meeting new comrades along the way, thus turning the trip itself into a direct action of its own.

Why occupy the capitol?

If the long walk through northern California shifts what it means to “go to Sacramento,” the plan for the 5th also inverts what our Administrators have had in mind when they've told us to take our cause to the state capitol. (If you are interested in riding a bus to Sacramento on the 5th, you can sign up here).

In recent years, student government representatives have organized demonstrations and lobbying days in early March, designed to appeal to state legislators and to limit the damage these representatives have annually done to our schools and universities. This year, a similar initiative is underway, with representation from the UCs, CSUs, and Community Colleges, which actually are governed, to a certain degree, out of Sacramento. But those calling for the occupation of the capitol are hoping to radicalize the day, in part by inviting those present for the lobbying efforts to join an ongoing peoples' assembly, where discussions about how best to occupy the grounds of the capitol, and about how to turn this event into a galvanizing rupture with Jerry Brown's austerity-based politics, will be ongoing. By the evening, we're hoping to have mass support and participation for what could become a sustained occupation of the capitol building, along the lines of the 2011 capitol occupations in Madison, Wisconsin.

The occupations in Wisconsin were ultimately diverted into a recall campaign (which has not yet borne fruit); but while the capitol remained occupied, it seemed that more transformative, mass actions – up to and including a general strike – could perhaps be on the horizon. Now, with general strike calls for May 1st emerging from assemblies across the country, it seems that a mass strike, or at least its partial, unevenly realized shadow, could actually take shape over the next couple of months. A successful, multi-day occupation of the state capitol just might provide the spark necessary to convert what remains at the moment a relatively abstract strike call into something that holds some force, and that feels real to workers, students, and unemployed people from various sectors and regions of the state.

It's important, especially in this election year, for us to continue building these sorts of mass, extra-parliamentary direct actions. For, while there are some potentially promising ballot initiatives being proposed for November – including a tax on millionaires and an oil extraction tax, both of which would help restore state funding for public education and social services – the ballot box remains a woefully insufficient mechanism of social transformation. Even if we are able to partially restore state funding to our schools and universities, we'll need mass movements to ensure that this money is used to rehire workers, to restore pensions, and to lower student tuition levels. Moreover, without the pressure that strikes and free schools provide, we'll not be able to fundamentally alter the relations of university life, to undo the unaccountable power of the Administration and Regents, the impunity of the police, and the basic dispossession of the student and worker. While this week's actions won't realize such transformations in one fell swoop, they have the potential, with broad participation, to quicken these long, jagged walks we're on toward less damaging and more emancipated worlds.

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