Sunday, December 13, 2009

Why Occupations? The Tactics of the International Student Movement

By Catherine Cole

Today, December 10, is the fourth day of a new occupation at UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall. Quite different from the first Wheeler occupation on November 20, this one appears to be modeled on recent European student occupations. Angus Johnston, a scholar of student activism, confirms:

"This new occupation has a lot in common with recent UC library study-ins, but it’s far bolder than those actions. Wheeler II is clearly modeled on the large-scale, long-term campus occupations that have swept Europe in the last year — occupations in which students have sought to establish functioning open university communities in campus spaces. A few recent American occupations have attempted to create similar environments, but I know of none which have reached the level of success that we’re seeing at Wheeler right now."

See the map of European occupations  
More on International Students Movement (ISM)
map of US student occupations and protests

Given that European student occupations are the model for this new Wheeler event, I thought readers might be interested in hearing a perspective from a Berkeley graduate student, Shane Boyle, who is presently in Germany conducting research on protest cultures. I posed to him a number of questions about occupations as a tactic in Germany and Europe, and with his permission, I circulate his answers below.

But first, some context: The current Wheeler event (billed as "Live Week" instead of "Dead Week") is an open door occupation, where people can come and go throughout the week, with no polarization of "inside" vs. "outside," etc. Occupiers of Wheeler are relocating within the building to make room for any scheduled classes/events, so there has been no interruption of the "service delivery" of regularly planned educational activities.  The organizers have had a careful negotiation with the police, who have been attentive and responsive. As of Tuesday night, the occupation became officially sanctioned through Friday, which seems to be an acknowledgment of how well both the students and the police have managed the rules of engagement.  Programming includes several general assemblies, strategy meetings, films, national conference calls, and lectures, which began with a talk by Bob Meister on Monday night. The Live Week/Open University website provides more info.  Or you can just drop by. There is a welcome table in the lobby where greeters have the most up-to-date schedule of events. The occupiers have also established a rotation of custodial duties. A video tour on their website begins with an image of students mopping the lobby of Wheeler:  Like the recent Irvine (non)occupation, it appears occupiers plan to leave Wheeler cleaner than when they found it, which is a big improvement over what happened at UCSC.

The primary goal of the new Wheeler occupation/Open University seems to be not necessarily garnering public sympathy or even massive media attention (which is relevant to Prof Meranze's recent post on Newfield's blog).  Rather the goal seems to be to raise student awareness about their power and rights, and to have them take ownership of their university and build networks of coalition and communication. Their manifesto states: "This university is yours!  We shift competition to cooperation.  We replace stress and anxiety with compassion and joy.  We transform the traditional balance of power of this institution to create an education that includes the interests, concerns, and passions of all of us, and embodies the true ideal of democracy. It’s time to reinvent public education together, So come one, come all to your university!' Twitter feeds show that students in other parts of California (Davis, UCLA, SF State), and indeed around the country and the world (Vienna, Berlin, Macedonia) are watching things unfold at Wheeler. Last weekend I logged on to an international chat among student activists which included participants from Austria, Croatia, Macedonia, Germany, Greece, Sierra Leone, the US, Puerto Rico, and Spain. Students really are comparing notes about tactics, strategies, experiences, etc. They seem to be linking up struggles in all these geographically disparate places in a way that faculty are not. They are also conducting research and organizing conferences on these linked struggles. For instance, this call for papers circulated on the "ucstrike" twitter feed earlier this week.

UCLA professor Michael Meranze (in his blog post referenced above) contends that "the narrative of the Occupations would demand a surrender of the University," which certainly seems to be true of some of the US occupations and their manifestos. But it might be helpful for us to think about occupations in more precise and differentiated terms. Not all occupations are the same. It's pretty clear that the current Wheeler occupation aims to do quite the opposite: occupiers are encouraging members of our community to claim the university. Furthermore, if it is true that, as Meranze contends, "the supine nature of the system-wide Academic Senate reveals that our own institutional agents are part of the internal problems we face," then perhaps faculty could learn from the students what it means to take full occupation (i.e. ownership) of what is ours.

Students may well be doing the math: There are 220K students in the UC, 440K students in CSU's and 2.8 million students in the CA community college system. Most of these students are California voters (and it's worth remembering that many students in the 1960s protests didn't have the vote.) Add it all up, and you get over 3.5 million students in California public higher education. If each CA student persuaded 3 additional non-students in CA (parents, neighbors, co-workers) to pressure the government for greater support for higher education, that's 10.5 million people. There are 36 million voters in CA, and I'm guessing many of them don't vote. So if actions like this succeed in building a shared student consciousness, a perception of students' potential power as a voting block, and the motivation and coordination to act  as a block--all of this could have a significant impact on the status of higher education in our state and, indeed, well beyond our state.  Students have the numbers in a way faculty and the administration don't. They have numbers that, frankly, I would think few interest groups in California possess. Furthermore, they are part of a much larger movement, and they know it.

To become part of the movement, stop by Wheeler, or tune your computer to the "tweets" from sites like:

or the remarkably multilingual and multinational #ouruni

Or just check out some of the links I've provided above. The movement is transpiring in both actual and virtual spaces. You are entitled to occupy any of them.

--Catherine Cole
Professor, University of California Berkeley

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