Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Occupations and the International (Student) Movement

by Shane Boyle, UC Berkeley

I did not witness the Wheeler Hall occupation on Friday,
November 20. Like so many students and faculty at UC Berkeley
who spend semesters abroad studying or researching, I was
thousands of miles away from California doing research for my
dissertation at the Freie University in Berlin, Germany. Due to
the nine hour time difference between California and Germany, I
stayed up much of the night glued to my computer following news
accounts, tweets, Facebook status updates— anything I could find
to keep me apprised of events as they unfolded that day.

The decision to occupy university buildings has recently become
the source of controversy, fascination, and most importantly,
mobilization at the University of California. My experiences
over the past two months with the student movement here in
Germany have brought to light a number of points for me
regarding the significance of occupations as a tactical choice.
As I suggest below, the use of this tactic at the University of
California is further evidence that the struggle at the UC is
part of an international movement.

Since October, I and other students from the UC have spent
considerable time working with students at universities here in
Germany. Like the campuses of the UC, universities and high
schools throughout Germany have been the site of numerous
building occupations this Fall. The concerns expressed by
students here in Berlin are echoed by the voices and actions of
hundreds of thousands of students across the country, and even
more throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and South
America. Despite regional particularities, the demands of
students worldwide resonate remarkably with our own at the UC:
democratize the university system, stop the privatization of
public education, negotiate fairly with employees. More
generally, these movements are connected by a deep consternation
over the way in which government and university officials are
using the global financial crisis to retool public institutions
of higher education according to more instrumentalizing and
market-oriented principles. As we at the UC are well aware, such
changes come at the high price of the quality and accessibility
of higher education for students, and just labor practices for
campus employees.

In Germany, the /Bildungsstreik /(Education Strike) movement has
mobilized hundreds of thousands of students in nation-wide
actions over the past year. Most recently, on November 17,
85,000 students across Germany took to the streets demanding
greater say over their universities. Their demonstrations were
part of the Global Week of Action organized by the International
Student Movement (here), which featured
coordinated events in countries around the world including
Austria, Bangladesh, France, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy,
Macedonia, Poland, Switzerland, and Sierra Leone, just to name a
few. During that week (which coincided with the November strikes
at the UC), students around the world employed various tactics,
including the occupation of university buildings at over 70
universities and high schools in Germany alone.

At the Freie University of Berlin, for example, 700 students
stormed the campus’ largest lecture hall on November 11.
Following a General Assembly there, the students began an
occupation which nearly four weeks later still continues. While
administrators are certainly not pleased with the students’
tactical choice, there have been no arrests, no attempts at
removing the students, and certainly no physical violence
against them. At the Freie University, students come and go from
the occupied space as they please. There are no riot-gear-clad
police waiting to arrest them. No administrators looking to
press charges. Far more than a symbolic gesture of dissent, the
occupation has given students a productive space they call their
own. There they sleep, eat, study, and converse with one
another. They hold daily teach-ins and planning meetings, host
concerts and cabaret productions, show films, and gather freely
without the fear of criminalization. The occupied space is a
source of inspiration and practical mobilization for the
movement at the Freie University. Most importantly, it is an
increasingly rare site on a university campus where something
akin to democratic decision-making, organization, and debate is
actually practiced and examined.

How long their occupation will last, even the most involved
cannot say. Similar occupations at nearby universities such as
at the Technische University in Berlin have fizzled out, mostly
due to activist fatigue. Others like one in Frankfurt am Main
last week ended in violence and arrests reminiscent of the
Wheeler Hall occupation. With this said, I believe that we at
the UC can draw at least two important points from the building
occupations taking place here in Germany and elsewhere around
the world.

The first has to do with the benefits, or better yet, the
necessity of occupations as a tactic in our repertoire of
contention at the UC. A university should be a place where
critical thinking, openness, and imagination flourish. This is
exactly what the occupied space at the Freie University offers.
Many faculty, students, and administrators at the UC have
decried the Wheeler Hall occupation for “forcing” the
cancellation of classes and compromising the university’s role
as an institution of higher education. Yet at the Freie
University of Berlin, following a minor bureaucratic nightmare,
classes scheduled in the occupied hall were simply moved to
another building. More importantly, one need only to visit the
occupied hall at the Freie University for a few hours to realize
that the experiences and lessons being learned there by students
are just as if not more worthwhile and relevant to this moment
than what would be taught in the courses originally scheduled in
that space. Occupations are not just about expressing dissent,
but are about learning, building a sustained movement, and
experimenting with new forms of organization and debate. Perhaps
just as key, the (certainly not unproblematic) tolerance of the
administration at the Freie University demonstrates that there
exists other possible responses to student occupations than
repression, criminalization, and condemnation.

Second, the turn to building occupations as a tactic at hundreds
of university and high school campuses around the world is /not
/a coincidence. Taken together with the similar demands and
timing of different international struggles, the increasingly
common tactic of occupation should remind us that the struggle
we students, faculty, and employees at the University of
California are engaged in is not ours alone. Whether we
recognize it or not— /whether we have started acting on this
recognition or not/— we belong to an international movement. The
movements that make up this global struggle are united by a
belief in the important role public education should play in
society, something that the growing entrenchment of neoliberal
priorities and policies in our schools seriously undermines.

Strike calls from students here in Germany regularly emphasize
that the movement against the marketization (similar to what
many of us at the UC have called the privatization) of public
education is not a national one, but rather is global in scope.
Heading into 2010, we at the UC must think hard about practical
strategies and steps we can take to build international
solidarity with movements on other continents. This will only
help ensure that our struggles, along with those of others
throughout the world, find success.


Shane Boyle
Graduate Program of Performance Studies
UC Berkeley


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