Occupy the Crisis: The Emerging Student-Worker Direct Action Movement in California
October 29, 2009
On Sept. 24, thousands of students, faculty, and staff walked out of University of California campuses across the state. The walk-outs and one-day strike were called by a wide coalition of UC unions and activist groups as a largely symbolic protest against the budget cuts, fee hikes and firings associated with the state budget crisis. At two campuses, however, in Santa Cruz and Berkeley, some people then walked back in and began to initiate occupations. Administrators and activists alike were stunned that the logic of symbolic protest had been abandoned for concrete, insurrectionary activity. Occupation, a tactic which is mostly unfamiliar in the U.S., is widely generalized in many social struggles throughout the world, and points towards new dimensions of struggle and autonomous organization that are likely to prove particularly vital as the economic crisis continues and deepens.
WHAT IS AN OCCUPATION?
An occupation is a break in capitalist reality that occurs when people directly take control of a space, suspending its normal functions and animating it as a site of struggle and a weapon for autonomous power.
Occupations are a common part of student struggles in France, where for example in 2006 a massive youth movement against the CPE (a new law that would allow employers to fire first-time workers who had been employed for up to 2 years without cause) occupied high schools and universities and blockaded transit routes. In 1999, the National Autonomous University of Mexico City was occupied for close to a year to prevent tuition from being charged. Both of these struggles were successful. In Greece and Chile, long and determined student struggles have turned campuses into cop-free zones, which has in turn led to their use as vital organizing spaces for social movement involving other groups like undocumented migrants and indigenous people.
Occupations have not been seen much in the U.S. since the 1970s until 2008 when workers at the Republic Windows and Doors Factory in Chicago occupied the building and won back pay from the bank that foreclosed the factory. In following months, university students in New York City staged several occupations in resistance to the corporatization of their schools. It was this activity which inspired the students in Santa Cruz and Berkeley.
WHAT IS THE CRISIS?
Students at UCs and CSUs are facing a 32% fee hike which their governing bodies will ratify on November 17. 50,000 students were turned away from community colleges this year, and as many will be turned away from CSUs starting next year. The hikes, cuts and firings affecting public education (among other services) throughout this state (among other places) are described as austerity measures in response to the global economic crisis. Like the recession, those in power who are making these decisions would like us to believe they are temporary.
But it seems some of us have learned a little too well. It turns out that global capital has been in decline for about 30 years, and has only been kept aloft by various financial bubbles – the S&L bubble in the 80s, the dot-com bubble in the 90s and more recently the housing market bubble which burst in 2008. This has led to the mass foreclosures throughout California as well as food riots throughout many of the poorer countries in the world.
We are going to school to avoid having to engage in menial labor for the rest of our lives, but this long collapse means the jobs simply won’t be there. Most of us are working shit jobs already, sometimes alongside people with degrees. In the meantime, student loan volume has skyrocketed 800 percent since the early 80s. College is now just a place where we’ll get ripped off one last time on our way to be dumped out of the system as debt-laden, unemployed nobodies. Out of a workforce of 20 million in California, 2 million are now unemployed and 1.5 million underemployed. Each year, it seems, capitalism needs fewer and fewer of us as workers (except for cops to keep the rest of us in line). We could well be heading into another Great Depression where we will have to band together to squat, loot and organize our own communities just to survive.
Crises are often times when reactionary forces take hold, capitalizing on people’s anxiety and desires to get back to “the way things were”. This will very likely not be possible this time. This is why activist approaches geared towards returning things to normal and negotiating with the state miss the point entirely. We have a chance, if we use it wisely, to steer this crisis away from the reactionary option and towards a decisive break with the nightmare reign of economic value which renders us nothing but its disposable appendages.
WHAT IS HAPPENING ON CALIFORNIA CAMPUSES?
The occupation of UC Berkeley on Sept 24 failed due to the intervention of reformist student activists, but the occupation of the Grad Student Commons at UCSC went off successfully. Seizing control of this building on the campus’s central plaza, occupiers hung banners that urged “TAKE OVER CAMPUS, TAKE OVER THE CITY, END CAPITAL!” and read a statement entitled “Occupy California”. This explained that the occupation was a tactic to directly open space for the development of student and worker power, not a ploy to bargain with administrators. The discourse of the activist is dead for us. We know there is no funding and these assholes couldn’t help us even if they did see us as anything besides numbers.
Over the next 6 days, the space was used to host meetings about how to broaden and escalate the struggle, as well as to throw several raging dance parties in the plaza. There was also an attempt to raid the campus bookstore en masse which was thwarted by cops. Eventually the occupation was dissolved as the deadline of a threatened police action approached, so that the momentum could be kept up and transferred to new projects rather than everyone getting arrested for no reason. The GSC was a bold step forward in an experimental process. One thing we learned was that at this stage, authorities are very reluctant to create confrontations: they know they look bad enough already. A tremendous amount of enthusiasm was focalized through the space, but unfortunately, the occupiers of the GSC had not planned to be able to hold the building for so long and had to scramble to assemble plans to spread radical activity. We learned that people will come out of the woodwork if they are excited about what’s going on, but also that the occupation has to grow and ramify or it’s nothing.
In the weeks since then, a number of sit-ins and soft (not barricaded) occupations of space have occurred at UC Berkeley, CSU Fullerton, and CSU Fresno. Another building at UCSC, this time including the office of a dean who cut many programs and fired a bunch of people, was occupied briefly. Participants in the UCSC occupations traveled to several campuses in southern California recently and a UC-wide general assembly was held in Berkely. Many folks have been inspired by the actions taken in Santa Cruz and there is a lot of talking and planning going on right now.
Some of the main obstacles the emerging student movement is facing are how to connect with non-student workers on campus, with people at other kinds of schools and with society as a whole. Another big issue is how to avoid being recuperated and co-opted by administrators and activists. One of the sit-ins, at a library at UC Berkeley, was seized on by the administration as an excuse to privatize library hours while showing how they are really listening to the students. At the second UCSC occupation, a Marxist professor convinced many people to dismantle barricades and go home early. It’s hoped by some that the insurrectionary approach will have the virture of deepening, not neutralizing the contradictions we are currently experiencing.
Unions and student groups have announced they are planning to shut down the UC Regents meeting at UCLA on November 18th to prevent the fee hike from being voted in. With the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach on the same day, actions are being organized at public campuses around the state. While geared to this temporality, the calls to action are not being framed around any deluded hopes for a return to a normalcy that was never good enough to begin with, and is certainly not coming back anyway.
We are under no illusions that we are ‘leading’ a struggle, only that we are situated uniquely to confront the crisis as youth recognizing that we simply have no future in capitalism. We can only begin where we are. If we begin, it opens space for other people (like non-student staff) to also begin taking charge of their own lives. If we act in concert, we can collectively dissolve the academy along with the alienating and exploitative society that it serves.
As it states in the “Occupy California” communique, “This crisis is general and the revolt must be generalized… We call on the people of California to occupy and escalate.” This means schools, workplaces, foreclosed homes, BART stations. This means we will break with capitalist time to inaugurate OUR time. We have begun.