Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why Occupations? A Q&A with a Berkeley Student of German Activism

In the following interview, UC Berkeley professor Catherine Cole asks  Shane Boyle, a doctoral candidate in UC Berkeley's Graduate Program  of Performance Studies, to provide comparative analysis of the recent European and Californian student occupations. During Fall 2009, Boyle has been in Germany studying protest culture as part of his dissertation research.

COLE: I'm really struck by how widespread occupations as a tactic are in Europe among the International Student Movement. What do you think is the reason behind the prominence of this particular tactic, occupation?


BOYLE: Why occupations? I can really only speak to my experience with occupations here in Berlin, but I see the choice coming down to at least least three things.

First, occupations are a clear expression of dissent. By taking (and holding) a university building, students are able to symbolically declare their position to the administration, the public, and other students. This might sound obvious, but aesthetically, the holding of a building, especially a known, highly visible, and well-known building on campus and hanging massive banners and signs from its windows can powerfully change the experience of being on campus not only for the occupiers, but also for everyone else. This is hard to explain, but easy to understand once you have experienced it. Think back to Fresh who I wrote about a few years ago in your class. Not only were the banners he hung from the tree in front of Wheeler highly visible to thousands of people a day, but it also changed/disrupted the experience of walking through campus for everyone else. What people got from this experience and the opinions it helped to shape are a whole other matter, of course. But he was able to defamiliarize the campus space. So first, there is a symbolic and even aesthetic dimension.


Second, the actual occupation, the literal being inside of the space and taking part in the actions, events, etc carries with it powerful experiential effects. As I write in the piece I sent to you earlier, the occupied space at the Free University is more than just an expression of dissent; it is a place where students are learning, discussing, debating, and practicing democracy. It is a space at the university that they see as their own. At the same time, anyone is welcome to take part in the occupation-- students, faculty, employees, the public. Of course, there are cafeterias, libraries, common spaces, etc. students can gather in, but there are clear differences between what can take place in those highly administered space and the near limitless possibilities of the occupied space. This makes the space highly empowering as well as productive for building and sustaining the movement. Everyday there are teach-ins, meeting, concerts, films, cabaret, etc. to take part in. It is a space where their social and political lives are combined with their education. Many students regularly sleep, eat, and study in the space. This is why I disagree with faculty who complain that an occupation blocks or hinders education. It is not that simple. First off, in Berlin, after some (quite significant) reshuffling, classes originally scheduled in the occupied hall were moved to another building. Also, and more importantly, I do not think that what can be learned and experienced in the occupied space is any less worthwhile or relevant to those students at this moment in their lives than what was likely scheduled to be taught in that space. Quite the contrary.

Third, the actual taking of the space was very important for students here in Berlin. Not only was it a symbolic action but the actual process that led to it helped galvanize a movement. On November 11 between 600 and 700 students met in a General Assembly to discuss the issues they were facing and possible actions. Following a near consensus vote, students decided to take the hall. Not only was this step empowering, but it was also a highly collective and democratic action that would likely not have been accomplished with only one or two students. 

From my conversations with students here in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany, these seem to be three of the key reasons for the prominence of occupations. Of course, the fact that most students are not facing suspension or police attacks (although at some universities this is the case) also helps the “popularity” of this tactic.

To my knowledge, the tactical choice of occupations is not at all new in Europe, especially in Germany. Moreover, protests and movements of the scale taking place right now in Germany and other European nations are much more common than in the US. As a friend of mine who is very involved with the main occupation here at the Free University of Berlin remarked half-jokingly in a meeting last week, major strikes like this take place every five or six years in Germany. Like I said, he was exaggerating, but in Germany, nationwide or at least large-scale student strikes are more common than in the US (for a variety of reasons), and I would say they are even more accepted by the public as well as administrators and faculty. At a discussion forum between UC and German students held last week at the Kennedy Institute at the Free University, another student from the UC who has been taking part in the Bildungsstreik (education strikes) here in Berlin commented that the public and even government sympathy for student concerns in Germany seems incredibly higher than in the US. I am not sure how one would verify this opinion, but her remark does confirm something that I too had been thinking. This is not to make a value judgment on either the US or German movements and publics. In fact, I think the quickness with which one can gain widespread sympathy for ones cause goes a long way in showing the low degree of radicalness in ones demands.

The tactic of occupation, like you suggest, is more common in Europe than in the US. There have been occupations in the US over the past decade, but not on the scale as in Europe. Regarding the situation right now, a spreadsheet I just received tonight from a group I’ve been working with at the Free University reports there are currently 68 occupations of universities and high schools taking place right now in Germany alone. Elsewhere, the list has confirmations of 139 ongoing occupations worldwide, and this does not even include the very recent developments in Riga, Latvia and the massive protests throughout Greece.  

COLE: How do activists think about this tactic in relation to other tactics, such as protests, lobbying, etc? 


BOYLE: I hope my answer above can partly answer this question. Each tactic performs a different function and carries with it differing experiences and effects. Demonstrations are important but they take time to mobilize and of course nearly impossible to sustain for any long period for a variety of obvious reasons (number of participants involved, infrastructure, etc). So the difference between a demo and an occupation should be clear. Lobbying is of course important for students in Germany because there actually exist formal channels for them to lodge their complaints (unlike at the UC right now), but lobbying bodies that do not grant full or even representative representation to a constituency depend on effective and spectacular actions to make a group’s will known. That is why tactics such as demos are important. Blockades of the Education Ministry conference in Bonn this week are being scheduled but they also serve a different function than protests. Of course they will help build the movement, but they are also spectacular and are short-lived. Occupations on the other hand can last a long or short time. They are only limited by police or activist intervention. This goes a long way for building movements and also building the imagination.


COLE: Does the site of the occupation matter--for instance whether a site impacts other students (classrooms) vs. a site that interrupts the administration (i.e. administrative buildings such as those occupied at UCSC and Davis).


BOYLE: Of course, but administration buildings would be much harder and I think more dangerous to hold, even though the symbolic effect could be greater. Also, who and what type of university business would be effected would also be much different if one occupied an administration building. There have been talks about occupying administration buildings here in Germany (some attempts might have already been made), but the risk of doing so is much greater. I guess it depends on the effect that is desired. At the Free University, students were looking to make a symbolic statement but were also very concerned about the sustainability of the occupation. In the occupation spreadsheet I mentioned earlier, their is column dedicated to the status of the occupation (active, geraumt/cleared out. threatened, reoccupied, dwindling, etc). So the sustainability of a space, at least for students in Germany is very important, which I think makes taking an administration space less attractive, despite its potential symbolic value.


COLE: How have both the administrators and faculty at German universities been responding to the occupations? Can you point to a campus where you think there has been particularly strong faculty leadership/responsiveness?


BOYLE: At the Free University, departments have started holding weekly general assemblies (or so I understand) to talk about the issues and the occupation. I know some faculty have taken part in occupations, but not to the scale that students have. For example, in the recent arrests and violence against an occupation in Frankfurt am Main a professor was among those arrested. The administration at the Free University is obviously not happy with what is going on, but they have not threatened disciplinary or police action. Students can and come in the space as they please. At the same time, there is also some talk that the president of the university is taking a position at another school in Germany. I wish I could say more about faculty involvement, but I cannot. The occupations I am most familiar with here in Germany are almost completely student (and by that I mean undergraduate) run. But like I said, students have commented how the occupations are being discussed in these regular departmental assemblies.


COLE: Do you think there can/should be a parallel International Faculty Movement to go along with ISM. If so, what would ISM student leaders see as being important to a faculty agenda? What is our role?


BOYLE: One thing I think is wonderful about the movement at the UC is the coordination and involvement of students, faculty, and employees. One thing I always say to people in Berlin about the UC movement is that it is not a student movement, but something involving more sectors of the university population. With this said, I hope that any International Faculty Movement would work closely with the ISM. The involvement of faculty in the movement here in Europe is far less than at the UC so it would be hard for me to comment on what student here in Europe would thing a faculty movement’s agenda would be. I can offer my own opinion though. So far faculty at the UC have been wonderful at doing research, getting the information out there, holding teach-ins etc. At the same time, the solidarity and openness to the tactics used by employees and students has also been very important. Also using the leverage you have to pressure administrators and express your views in the media has also been significant. I was not there on November 20 so I cannot comment on the involvement of faculty that day, especially their involvement as mediators, but I am not certain that is a role faculty must always see themselves as having to perform.


COLE: To your knowledge, has the ISM gotten media coverage that links up all these locations of student occupations? What do you think it will take to get that kind of coverage, if it hasn't gotten that thus far?


BOYLE: The actions of students during the global week of action was often mentioned in national and local newspapers as being part of an international movement. But most of the coverage about the “internationalness” of the movement here in Europe focused on the Bologna process and included only EU countries. There were articles about the November strikes at the UC in major media outlets here in Germany and they did link it to strikes in Europe, but not with any substantial analysis. In my personal opinion, I think that articulating to the media that the struggle of the UC is part of a larger international movement could do a lot, not only in gaining legitimacy in the public eye for our movement, but also for highlighting that the issues we are facing are not due simply to developments happening in California or the US, but a global defunding and retrenchment of public services, particularly education. Articulating our struggle as a global one could help make clearer to the public what I, at least, find to be the source of the problems we are facing.  How we do this? By making mention of the global struggle in interviews, articles, editorials about the UC movement. Doing the same in our calls for action (like the German movement already does). Even carrying signs that express solidarity with movements in other countries. Also holding solidarity actions in conjunction or in response to events elsewhere as students in Austria did following the Wheeler Hall occupation.


COLE: I've heard you say that you think CA students aren't really aware of the ISM so much. Why do you think that is? How could that change? I did notice on the November 20 occupation of Wheeler that international tweets were regularly appearing. UCB students seemed REALLY inspired by the sense that they were part of a global movement. But were those reading those tweets part of a movement, or more part of a flashmob?


BOYLE: I think students are aware of events happening elsewhere but not about the ISM in particular. With all that has been happening at the UC the past few months, it is hard enough work just to keep up with what is going on at the UC’s ten campuses and become educated about the highly complicated crisis we are facing. This is actually something I really hope to help do in the coming months when I am back in California: raise awareness of the incredible movements mobilizing around the world whose demands and tactics are so similar to those of the UC movement. And hopefully, we can develop practical strategies and steps to take to build and express solidarity with other nations. Some of us in the ISM, here in Germany, and at the UC have started talking about making March 4, the planned date of the march on Sacramento, a global day of action.


COLE: One last question: in a note I sent to faculty, I included a link to a Ukranian site that was focused on the UC strike. I couldn't read the site at all, and a colleague who could noted that a fair amount of the coverage of Yudof was focused on his Jewish identity. This was pretty disturbing. Have you seen any kind of similar bias in German coverage of the UC situation?


Not a word.

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