Action Reports


Report on yesterday’s action at Labor Relations at UC Berkeley, with a couple of brief remarks about the grade-in at UC Santa Cruz – including photos.

Successful action at UC Berkeley As scheduled, rank-and-file members of UAW 2865 and their student allies gathered at Sather Gate for a brief rally before marching past California Hall and then taking to the streets.  We marched through campus and right down the middle of Center Street before meeting up with our clerical worker comrades and fellow rally organizers in CUE/Teamsters.  Also in attendance were members of AFSCME, AFT, UPTE, and a couple surprise guests from ILWU Loca … Read More

via THOSE WHO USE IT

With impeccable timing, the UC Regents met during UC’s Spring Break last week at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.  On Tuesday, the main agenda item was the report from the UC’s Commission on the Future, aka the Gould Commission (named after subprime mortgage profiteer Russell Gould).  The recommendations offered by the Gould Commission are absolutely stunning (and you can read all about them here).  As Jonathan Dettman nicely summarized (on Twitter):

UC Regents’ grand vision for the future resembles nothing so much as turning the UC into the world’s most expensive diploma mill.

However, before anyone on this blog provides a sustained critique of Gould/Yudof’s vision for the (non)future of the UC, I want to tell you about what it was like to be present at the Regents meeting on Tuesday.

Students and workers protest outside the Regents' meeting.

First things first: if you haven’t been to UCSF Mission Bay campus, you may sometimes wonder where all our fees are going.  Once you’ve seen the sparkling new campus (that looks as if it sprung up overnight), however, you’ll understand the concrete (pun intended) consequences of privatization.  Indeed, on the morning of the Regents’ meeting, we gathered on the Bank of America Terrace just off the Koret Quad across from Genentech Hall.

Even though it was Spring Break throughout the UC, several dedicated organizers from UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley put together a picket and rally outside the meeting itself.  In addition, AFSCME and UPTE had significant turnout from UCSC and Berkeley.  Students drove up from UCLA and Irvine.  And, perhaps most powerfully, a teacher from Oakland Tech High School brought a class of her students to demand that the Regents take steps to increase racial diversity in admissions!  At the height of the picket, around 11:30 AM, there were 150 students, teachers, and workers chanting outside the meeting (in addition to a significant number of students and workers inside the room).  From 11 AM until 1 PM, the crowd managed to keep up a nearly constant chanting that observers report was very audible inside the meeting.

There was certainly a remarkably large presence of UC cops, but even so, I think that they were caught off guard by such a large number of protestors.  I suspect that UCSF police are not nearly as experienced when it comes to protests as their counterparts on undergraduate campuses and there was clear nervousness (as well as compensating postures of toughness).  At first, the officer in charge told us that we couldn’t protest outside the meeting at all because the sound would be too disruptive and he threatened to arrest us.  Later, the same officer threatened arrests for trespassing for protestors who were gathering in another part of the building.  I believe that it was only the presence of an intrepid observer from the National Lawyers Guild (with a videocamera) that prevented some police from over-reacting on this day.

"My other sign is a torch"

One performance highlight of the early afternoon was the creation of a giant air-filled black cube that Irvine students had made by ironing together trash bags.  They filled the cube with air using a fan and were in the process of spray painting slogans on all of the sides.  One side said “Chop from the Top”; another said “Fuck the Regents.”  However, during the spray-painting, the cube started to (inexplicably, to observers) float away.  As it continued to rise above the buildings, we realized that the sealed black balloon on a sunny day had become the equivalent of a hot air balloon.  Last we saw, it was floating several hundred feet in the air, heading south.  (Did it make it to the airport?  Did it land in the Bay?  Is it in Outer Space?)

The Irvine "Cube"

"Chop from the Top"

Oops.

Goodbye!

When the time for Public Comment Period arrived, however, things started to get nasty.  Those of us who remained outside the room gathered against the barricades outside the windows so that Yudof and the Regents would have to see us.  The police protection was stepped up.  This photograph from the Daily Californian pretty much sums up what “Public” Comment Period was like for most of the “public” that was there.

The relationship between the UC and the "Public."

Public Comment Period was also pretty grim for those who were inside the room.  Audio was provided for those of us outside through speakers (how kind!), so we could hear the comments.  It was a farce.  And a fascist one at that.  The admin began by announcing that because the Gould Commission presentations had run over, there would only be fifteen minutes for public comment (instead of the scheduled thirty).  Twenty speakers were chosen from the list (although at least thirty had signed up to speak) and they were told that they would each have less than a minute to address the Regents.  A beeper was set to go off when they reached the end of their remarks.  In practice, if the speaker exceeded her minute, the microphone was taken away; if the the speaker continued to talk, she was physically removed from the room by security goons in suits.  Outside, we heard one student, as she was trying to finish her comment, yell “Get your hands off me!”  Several other speakers were cut short.  The comments were impressive: sharp, sometimes angry, but always well-informed and constructive.  I am told that UC President Mark G. Yudof smirked throughout.  Many of the other Regents, I am told, acted appalled–presumably not by the strong-arm security, but rather by the hubris of students and workers addressing them as equals.  At the end of the question period, Yudof and the Regents slunk away behind a line of police officers with batons, smilingly impervious to the chants of “Shame on you!” from the students they are supposedly serving.

Although I was present at the UCLA Regents’ Meeting in November (the one where police pointed shotguns into the crowds of students), I found this meeting to be almost equally demonstrative of the UC’s current mode of operation.  At this point, any gesture that Yudof and the Regents make toward the “public” (and in this I am including students, faculty, and workers, in addition to the people of California) is merely theatrical and entirely empty.  Sometimes it’s “good” theater (like when they manage to keep protestors away during press conferences or “public” forums); sometimes it’s “bad” theater (like when the goons in the suits get a little too aggressive).  However, this type of theater only works when most people do not recognize its theatricality.  Which, I would suggest, gives us something to think about for the next Regents’ meeting in May.

I’m writing this while recovering from a good, long, and successful day on the picket lines at UC Santa Cruz, where, over the course of the day, more than a thousand students, workers, and teachers successfully blocked the major entrances to campus, shutting down most university business for the day. Students gathered as early as 4 AM (with a larger infusion arriving at 5) in order to form picket lines before day shift workers arrived for work.

Most union contracts with the UC require workers to come to work in the event of a strike; many workers wanted to honor the student strike and join the protest, but could not do so contractually. (Several campus unions endorsed the day of action and participated in the protest, though they could not legally strike.) A vibrant picket, solidified between 5:30 and 6 AM, was enough to interrupt business as usual, keeping most workers away. (Picketers allowed health center and childcare workers to cross their lines.)

Shortly after 6, campus administration began sending emails, text messages, and recorded phone messages to students, staff, and teachers encouraging them to stay away from the main entrances to campus. Administration and police gathered some workers in clusters and tried to drive them in vans or make them walk them onto campus.

While in a few cases this succeeded, mostly the strikers responded quickly to each rumor of a new entrance or path being used, sending flying squads of 10-25 people to throw up new pickets and reenforce others. By mid morning, the administration had given up on conducting any semblance of business as usual, telling workers at home to stay there and sending home most of those gathered at locations around the outside of campus. Around a thousand people, if not more, participated in the day of action.

A ubiquitous urban legend on campus says that UC Santa Cruz was specially designed to be resistant to effective student protest, lacking a central gathering place such as UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Our university on a hill lacks a good location for mass symbolic action to become visible to the broader community, but its location is quite a boon for the direct action aspect of a strike. There are only two primary entrances to campus; a handful of additional entrances provide difficulties for administrators’ attempts to circumvent pickets.

Comprehensive reporting on March 4

Around the state (and, to some extent, around the country and around the world), the March 4 day of action brought attention to austerity programs in public education: budget cuts, fee increases, and declining accessibility especially for disadvantaged students. A few early writeups of the day’s events can be found around the web: Socialist Worker’s Day of Action Journal, an aggregated page from Occupy CA, a wrapup from Angus Johnston’s Student Activism blog (this is fairly rudimentary, but I imagine Johnston will post a more detailed wrapup and evaluation sometime in the next few days), and a collection of links from thirdworldjournal.

Over the next few days and within the next couple of weeks, student and teacher activists will be evaluating the impact of March 4 and thinking about next steps for the movement. Therefore, my own comments here are rudimentary. I’m sure my ideas will change after I’ve heard more detailed and qualitative reports and after I’ve participated in some of those conversations. Nevertheless, it is the nature of blogging to offer preliminary, tentative views on a thing which is not yet fixed.

March 4 and the development of a movement

First, how does March 4 represent a development of this movement? One dynamic appears to be a broadening of the movement, particularly outside of the University of California system. Actions took place throughout the state in public schools (K-12), community colleges, and on California State University campuses.

The September 24 protests and the actions around the November 16-18 UC Regents meeting last year were large and in many cases militant; they drew a great deal of media attention nationally and forced a response (albeit a tepid, problematic, and reversible one) from the state’s political leaders. However, last year’s actions were limited to a relatively small sector of public universities: the UC campuses and a few Cal State campuses, with a small handful of other, relatively isolated locations doing something. March 4 achieved an impressive level of social saturation throughout the state. A significant percentage of Californians with a family member in school had some level of contact with an action on March 4 – probably short of a majority, but not so far short of a majority that the question is not worth asking.

One anecdote: a lecturer with whom I’ve worked told me that a discussion about March 4 and educational equity was held in a reading group based in her church. The church is relatively conservative one, albeit in a mainstream, liberal denomination, in Redwood City, a Silicon Valley suburb which is hardly a hotbed of radicalism.

This breadth extends beyond mere numbers, as well. Students of color have been represented in this movement from the beginning, but last year’s actions did not, for the most part, engage large numbers of students for whom education itself is precarious. Last year’s actions also did not reflect the movement / mobilization culture that has characterized previous student of color organizing in California (perhaps most prominently in recent memory, the movement around Proposition 187, a series of high school walkouts, and student organizing around May 1 in 2006 and 2007).

With March 4,  there are some signs that students of color organizing may intersect with the September 24 student movement, or, put another way, that a sector of the movement centered around students of color and educationally disadvantaged students may emerge. Many mobilizations at less-elite universities and colleges were student of color led, and reports I have heard from the gathering in Sacramento suggest both a diverse attendance and some of this movement culture.

In comparison with last fall, the direct action aspect of the movement was a bit quieter this time – though this statement must be qualified. The UCSC strike was successful enough to interrupt the operation of a university for an entire day; this is a kind of direct action. Activists in Berkeley and Davis took their protests to the freeways. One could argue about whether this form of action is “direct” or “symbolic,” but it was certainly militant and it aroused an immediate police response. There was a sit-in at UCLA, and there were occupations at UC Irvine and CSU Fresno.

What’s the next step?

One lone blogger can’t propose too much in advance of the conversations which need to happen. Some activists are talking about May 1 as the next target date for a big action of some kind. The spacing is probably about right for a May 1 action, but the details of it, and what happens outside of that big action – besides a lot of outreach – also need consideration.

We can’t just do the same things we’ve done before over again and expect them to be just as successful or more successful as they have been in the past; the slight tailing off of excitement around occupations probably shows this. If our goal is to build a movement which can actually challenge the social organization of education and the hierarchy of who receives it and what it looks like as a function of / producer of race and class strata – if we take our shared notion of free public education for all seriously, at least as a meaningful limit concept – then we are still at the very beginning.

Even at a seemingly more tangible level – reforms we could win that would reverse austerity programs such as budget cuts, fee hikes, and declining accessibility, this is a multi-pronged struggle, and we’re nowhere close to meaningful victories yet. UC administration still refuses to admit that a major aspect of the problem in the UC system lies within their priorities and decisions, not merely within the state funding system; we are a long way from getting them to accede to any major movement demands. At the state level, to address the long-term defunding of public education, as well as other public goods, we would need to overturn or at least overhaul Proposition 13, which limits the ability of the state to pay for anything. Most mainstream politicians, including the leaders of the state Democratic Party, don’t want to touch this. To achieve something of this magnitude, we would need to build a movement still much broader than the one we have now, one which could begin to articulate a new, movement-left pole of political attraction within California politics.

We need to think bigger than just the next day of action and how it might be larger, broader, or more militant than the last one. We need to think bigger to keep the movement growing. People will participate in an action or two because they are angry, but to keep going over the long term, they have to believe that there’s a plan to win, a way that collective action can lead to the changes we want. A big action or a series of successful, militant actions give people hope. However, if we just try to repeat them, active supporters will quickly become disenchanted. In the current historical moment, political hope tends to metastasize back into despair unless it is fueled with excitement.

Therefore, we need not just another big day of action or another series of occupations. We may well need both of those things, or something involving analogous levels of mass participation and militant direct action, but we also need something else: a blueprint for an effective campaign to force decision-makers to accede to meaningful demands and a vision for building a movement with the scale and power to make changes that are currently out of our scope.

Activists are already debating these questions. At meetings over the next week or two, they will plan next steps. I have heard that a statewide conference is in the works, to be held in Southern California sometime in April. General assemblies and large conferences – and, for opposite reasons, blogs – are imperfect tools for the collective honing and putting into practice of strategy. General assemblies and conferences tend to be exercises in compromise and avoiding the bombastic excess of an ego-driven few who like to hear themselves talk; they do not lend themselves to the development of a nuanced strategy. Movement theory and strategy have been developed and shared in this movement mainly via blogs and zines. For this movement, these media function as something like the 21st century equivalent of the 18th-century political pamphlet; ideas can be thrown up, discussed, and countered rapidly. The final product of a blog or a zine reflects the perspectives of an individual, in conversation with others, or a small collective; they are not by themselves a good vehicle for collectivizing strategic conversations across sectors.

We need to develop a movement apparatus capable of developing these conversations in a nuanced way, putting out a strategic vision including immediate campaigns and an audacious vision of how we get from here (a new, vibrant movement without the power to enact its vision) to there (a larger, broader movement, which would have the scope and militancy to enact aspects of its vision or to create conditions in which other aspects of that vision become “self-evidently necessary” to leading social groups).

I believe the movement needs, essentially, something like a movement-wide strategy committee. Such a thing could only be productive if it could coexist with the ethos and practice of autonomous action on the part of independent groupings and the reality of cross-sector diversity which constitute great strengths of the movement. A strategy committee would be in tension with the culture of the movement, but could this tension be productive, creative tension rather than a squelching which would lead to disunity and fragmentation? What do we dare risk – not only in the streets, but in ourselves?

This piece was originally posted on the Solidarity Webzine.