A Lesson from California’s Students: ‘WE Make The Crisis’
by Will Parrish, March 3, 2010
Darwin Bond-Graham contributed to this story.
During recent decades, the powers-that-be in the Golden State have grown accustomed to getting virtually everything on their political wish list. Declare a state of emergency, ram through unpopular and unnecessary measures that harm working class people and the environment, and brook no dissent in the process — that's been the prescription of the US Treasury, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank when “structurally adjusting” national economies in the Global South and Eastern Europe. Of late, California's political elites have used the same general formula to great effect in their home state.
Take the University of California. In November, only months after declaring a highly suspect “state of fiscal emergency,” the UC's uber-wealthy 26-member Board of Regents approved a 32 percent increase on student fees. With this latest hike, the cost of university enrollment has risen by 171 percent in the last eight years. As we examined in Part II of this series for the AVA, “Disaster Capitalism University,” these fee increases do not even directly pay for students' education, but instead are used as revenue and collateral by the Regents to boost their bond ratings with Wall Street lenders: a necessary condition for a larger debt-fueled development scheme centered on the finance capital, real estate, and high-tech sectors the Regents and their business partners preside over in their day jobs.
In the near-term, it appears the pain will grow much worse. Thanks to the the state's regressive tax code, designed explicitly to favor large corporations and land barons, revenues have not only failed to keep up with spending, but the state's budget gap this year, following several years of cataclysmic shortfalls, measures somewhere between $20-60 billion -- depending how you do the math. Despite Governor “We Have No Choice” Schwarzenegger's admonitions against tax increases, taxes have in fact drastically increased in this state, especially on the poor, the young, and other populations lacking the political power and connections wielded by those who field legions of lobbyists in Sacramento and otherwise dominate the capitol's political machinery. Students are a prime example: the Regents' serial gouging of them and their families actually amounts to a massive tax increase on a particular segment of the population.
In this case, though, the group of Californians who are resisting this opportunistic exploitation of "the crisis" are actually giving the economic hit men a serious run for their money.
In response to the Regents' November fee increase, a burgeoning student movement at University of California and California State University campuses occupied campus buildings named for former regents, presidents, and chancellors — a collection of dead white men who have loomed over these universities in years past. Occupiers of UCLA's Campbell Hall, named after the UC's 10th President, rechristened it “Carter-Huggins Hall,” after the pair of Black Panthers slain in an FBI COINTELPRO operation there on January 17, 1969. In the last few months, the occupation movement has spread up and down the state, stirring students at even the most traditionally subdued campuses. UC Irvine, CSU Fullerton, and CSU Fresno students have joined the typically rowdier UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz campuses in taking over buildings, dropping banners, distributing incendiary pamphlets and handbills, and standing firm against police intimidation.
“WE make the crisis,” goes one popular slogan of the occupiers.
The newly insurgent mood on campuses is spreading quickly. Through its refusal to be co-opted and managed by the same university leaders and politicians who have colluded in structurally adjusting California's educational system, the rebellion of California's students -- joined by many university workers and faculty members -- is in the process of forcing a tectonic shift in state politics.
A New Student Insurgency
The militant phase of the new student movement kicked off in September. Over the summer, the UC's 26-member Board of Regents had bestowed unprecedented “emergency powers” on UC President Yudof, who responded by proposing the 32 percent fee increase, laying off hundreds of employees, and imposing mandatory “furloughs” on university faculty and staff. Administrators responded by cutting numerous popular campus-level programs. It was the single most violent episode of structural adjustment imposed by the Regents thus far.
On the opening days of fall instruction, students and workers at multiple UC campuses responded by holding rallies and protests. A group of roughly 20 UC Santa Cruz students occupied the campus' Graduate Student Commons, unfurling multiple banners including one bearing the slogan “Raise Hell, Not Costs,” and another calling for an end to capitalism. The UCSC contingent voluntarily withdrew the occupation a week later, but the movement was fermenting rapidly, not only in Santa Cruz but elsewhere.
In October, UC Santa Cruz professor Bob Meister — clearly emboldened by the rebellious mood taking hold on his and other campuses — published a scathing critique of the university's finances. In his open letter to students across the UC's ten campuses,“They Pledged Your Tuition,” Meister cited the Regents' own data and internal documents to reveal that the primary use of student fee revenue since 2004 has been as collateral for bonds to fund campus construction projects. Students take out "subprime" loans from banks and loan sharks, at interest rates as high as six percent, all designed by the Regents to shore up the UC's strong bond ratings. Under the terms of their Moody's bond rating, the Regents are encouraged to perpetually raise fees. Thus, they free themselves from the unpredictability of the State of California's budget ax by relying on a stable, captive stream of revenue in the form of tuition.
In spite of the Regents' insistence on the necessity of raising fees to astronomical levels, the university's construction budget reached $8.1 billion in the 2008-09 fiscal year, a figure Yudof bragged in a letter to the Regents in early-2009 marked “an historic high.” At the height of the UC's supposed financial difficulties, the university even loaned $200 million to the State — the university's ostensible patron — in a stop-gap measure to help close California's budget deficit! Critiques of the university's power structure written by UCLA instructor Robert Samuels and UC Berkeley emeritus professor Charles Schwartz were also widely circulated among students, faculty, and workers earlier this year during the height of the campus occupations. Despite the Regents' claims of being on the verge of running out of funding, Schwartz, Samuels and others have shown that the Regents actually hold billions of dollars in reserve accounts. Samuels went so far as to call the UC a giant "hedge fund." Such analyses among the faculty have further fueled the growing student rebellion.
During the two-day span of the November Regents meeting, students at UCSC, UCLA, and UC Davis all occupied campus buildings. One of two groups of UCSC occupiers took over the Kerr Hall administration building, wielding a list of demands that included repealing the 32 percent fee increase, stopping all current construction on campuses, instituting transparency in the UC's budget process, and even demanding that the Regents and administration "cut ties with Lockheed Martin, Los Alamos & Livermore National Labs."
The most significant turning point in the movement to “occupy and escalate” arguably occurred on Friday, November 20th, at the UC's flagship campus, Berkeley. That morning, more than 41 students barricaded themselves inside the centrally located Wheeler Hall, home to the largest lecture hall and many of the most heavily used classrooms on campus.
Word of the occupation gathered thousands of supporters throughout the day. Police moved in to evict the protest, but they were initially unable to break through the barricade inside the building, leading some of them to pound incessantly on the barricaded doors in frustration and snarl threats at the occupiers from the other side: "Get ready for your beat-down," some of the students recall the police shouting up at them. At various points, the police beat the occupation's outside supporters with batons, and one officer even shot a Cal undergrad in the stomach with a rubber bullet. Shortly afterward, a graduate student’s fingers were destroyed by an officer who struck her repeatedly with a baton for placing her hand on the metal guard rail. Her finger was left hanging by a thread of flesh, and she required reconstructive surgery to repair the damage.
Instead of being intimidated into acquiescence by the police violence, most of the protesters were emboldened. Outside Wheeler Hall, supporters continued to intervene, often physically preventing the police from evicting, arresting, and likely brutalizing the occupiers. By nightfall the occupiers remained ensconced in Wheeler Hall, a full twelve hours after the initial 6:38 a.m. Facebook posting, having sustained themselves there in the face of an all-day siege from the UC Police Department, the Berkeley Police Department, and the Alameda County Sheriffs Department. The crowd surrounding the building had swelled to upwards of 2,000. The stand-off ended when the occupiers negotiated a truce with the police and Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. They agreed to vacate the building, and the police agreed not to press charges against them. The occupiers left the building under their own power, to the raucous cheers of the gathered crowd.
A few days later, a group of 70 students took over UC Office of the President headquarters in Oakland. Rallies took place at almost every UC campus and many of the CSUs. A new student occupation of the administration building at UC San Diego began this past week, comprised primarily of people of color who are demanding an end to racist and exclusionary university policies, and who have connected their action with a cogent critique of global capitalism and the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Solidarity actions have sprouted up at Evergreen State College in Washington State and even the University of Vienna. And a growing number of occupations are now being planned, at New School of New York (also the site of an occupation in 2009) and (rumor has it) in Boston, where California's movement has catalyzed a teacher, and worker strike to take place on March 4.
March 4 will see major protests here in California across the UC, CSU, and Community Colleges. Students, workers, and faculty have planned for a statewide day of action, again targeting the Regents, State Assembly, and Governor.
Proxies of American Capitalism
This movement reflects a growing understanding among students, workers, and faculty members that the fee increases, lay-offs, and programmatic cuts are only the beginning stages of a permanent and more far-reaching plan pursued by the university's power structure, whose members serve as proxies for American capitalism at large, and specifically as representatives of the financial elites who have gained unprecedented power over the state and economy. According to one incisive pamphlet, the November fee increase represented a “moment where the truth of the UC [became] undeniable, where its ostensible difference from the violence of the larger society vanishe[d].”
This political violence was matched by the physical terror wrought by the various police departments who have responded to the occupations, particularly on November 20th in Berkeley. “It was the most horrifying things I've ever seen in my life,” one young woman told a KTVU news reporter in between sobs of shock, when describing the beatings she witnessed. Yet, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau commended the police for "peacefully" handling the situation.
Against such blatant contradictions between official pronouncement and the experiences of most students, deep-seated liberal assumptions about the essentially benign nature of authority and the university itself have begun to vanish. The reality of the brutal political economy of global capitalism is being laid bare for a new generation of mostly middle class students to see. In this particular case, that global system has turned hundreds of thousands out of their homes, embroiled millions in odious mortgage, credit card, and student loan debts, and eliminated state support for everything from education to health care for children of poverty-stricken families, yet criminalized and often brutalized those who meaningfully resist what those in power have in store for them: much more of the same.
Of course, these protests did not spring fully formed from the void. Students at Berkeley and Santa Cruz have engaged in numerous direct action protests against the university power structure since 2005, ranging from tree sits that significantly slowed campus development projects, to protests against the university's nuclear weapons development contracts. The UC's major workforce union, AFSCME, has mobilized for several years now alongside student supporters to defend worker pay and benefits, which sag below the levels paid by peer institutions and even state and community colleges.
Black, Latino, and American Indian students have been struggling since before Proposition 209 in 1996 to overcome the state's institutionalized racism and classism that have shut out working class students from the UC. Part of this effort to increase access to higher education has involved educational outreach programs into Los Angeles and Bay Area urban school districts where, because of the hyper-resegregation of the educational system since the 1970s, some high schools are upwards of 95 percent non-white. These same schools tend to be the most impoverished, lacking even the most rudimentary pedagogical resources and extracurricular opportunities that facilitate a transition to college and beyond. These programs to open up the university to traditionally excluded students have been some of the first cut by the Regents' austerity measures.
The most damaging effects of these taxes and cuts have been visited upon departments like Ethnic Studies and Feminist Studies, and against educational outreach missions to students of color. This fundamentally racist assault on working class students has gotten so bad that roughly only four percent of the UC study body is African American, as compared with roughly nine percent of the overall state population, and a disproportionately high number of those black students who do attend the UC attend the system's least prestigious campuses such as Merced and Riverside. Last year, only 124 black students enrolled as freshmen at UC Berkeley. Only 19 American Indian students were part of this same entering class.
BART police officer Johannes Mehserle's unprovoked murder of young, black Oakland resident Oscar Grant in January 2009, widely shared over YouTube and mainstream news programs, was an especially important catalyst of the Berkeley actions. Many of those now involved in organizing the building occupations partook in setting the streets of Oakland aflame in the street battles following Grant's murder (without which Officer Mehserle likely would not have wound up facing charges of murder). Students and young people across California have been connecting the dots: dismally low rates of admissions into the UC for black and Latino students are matched by shockingly disproportionate rates of incarceration of these same populations. More black men in California are now in prison than enrolled in a university. Analyses relating the grave injustices being visited upon the ghettos to the exploitation of students and workers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and common-sensical.
This rebellion is set against the overall backdrop of what John Ross has called an American "Obamalandia." In January, the largest crowd in UC Berkeley's Sproul Hall since at least 1970 gathered to celebrate Obama's inauguration by watching it on a big screen rented out by the student government. With Obama-mania now waning, if not down right extinguished, many of those same students were out in force to surround Wheeler Hall a mere few hundred paces away from the Sproul Plaza steps, undaunted by the threats levied by the UC's riot police.
The loss of faith in authority among these students, surely hastened by the Democratic Party's declining ability to appropriate and channel their critical energies, is palpable. Whether it is the effort to transcend the bursting of a speculative economic bubble by fueling yet another speculative bubble, or the attempt to solve interlocking ecological crises caused by industrial capitalism through still more capitalism, or a campaign to forestall violent blowback against US imperialism by waging still more wars of aggression in the heart of the world's greatest energy-producing region, the efforts of political elites at virtually all level of society to address the multi-layered crisis they have presided over appear more farcical and hubristic by the day, revealing as they do the self-destructive nature of a political and economic order based on an ideology of endless growth.
The University of California, led by an arrogant and structurally unaccountable Board of Regents, presents a microcosm of these larger global crises. Through their neo-liberal approach to managing the UC, and their other roles in steering state government, the Regents had a primary hand in creating the state's budgetary meltdown and the UC's specific woes. Now, the solution they offer is even more neo-liberalism, perhaps including full-fledged privatization of the university. One lesson already drawn by the students who have been occupying buildings and rallying against layoffs is that the same individuals and institutions who create large-scale crises aren't liable to fix them. Rather, if the problems are to be fixed, it will be because they take matters into their own hands.
In a sense, these California students state are merely late in joining with their counterparts in the rest of the world in protesting neo-liberal privatization. Student strikes at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City throughout the 1990s, for example, had a profound influence on social movements in the global south. In the past few years, strikes and occupations in opposition to neo-liberal restructuring of education have occurred at universities in at least a dozen countries, perhaps more. In the fall, 2,000 students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna began an occupation of their university, after some of them had conducted a solidarity action with the California protesters at the American embassy in Vienna. The occupation movement's ethos strongly reflects that of the European autonomous social movements that arose in Germany and Italy following the dissolution of the New Left in those countries in the '70s and '80s. Students celebrate the building takeovers not merely as acts of political protest aimed at "influencing" the power elite, but as opportunities to form “autonomous” organizing spaces. It may sound odd to the uninitiated, but many students have paired their battle cry of "occupy everything" with "demand nothing!" In this case, autonomy means independence from all forms of capitalist institution and authority, as well as from centralized forms of leftist political organization and liberal democratic procedures. The radical flank of the movement has important tactical shortcomings, which we will examine in another column, but one thing is overridingly clear: Something new is afoot here.
To paraphrase the 1960s Berkeley Free Speech Movement spokesperson Mavio Savio, students today are not only raw materials of the productive economy, whose lives and identities are formed and deformed in the service of corporate America. Nowadays, they have also been effectively rendered as a dehumanized revenue stream, as debt collateral for finance capital's next spectacular bubble, forced to take on lifelong debt in the face of a dying economy so that the university can run purely on speculation. Yet, the promise that this debt will pay off in the long run is growing more hollow by the day. There are few jobs available, and there already exists a glut of university-trained graduates competing for those few that will be created. As with students and other young people in the 1960s, something much deeper is stirring than just temporary anger over degrading economic conditions. Aware, even if subliminally, of the unworkability and distortions of many institutions, many are in the process of radically interrogating the roots of the present crisis – and many, dissatisfied with the answers they have thus far received from the authorities, distrust and reject them. Through the new student movement, previously unarticulated frustrations and aspirations have found an avenue for expression, while providing an opportunity to experiment with new social forms.
For now, their protests are causing no end of trouble for California's ruling elite, who are responding with eagerness to co-opt and channel it in more moderate directions that preclude further militant direct actions. In fact, UC President Yudof has even surrounded himself with a high-paid public relations staff, replete with Madison Avenue types of advertising execs, to conduct a publicity campaign on behalf of the university, which ostensibly targets Sacramento legislators with appeals to increase university funding, but which also appeals to students whose attention the Regents would much rather turn away from their radical challenges to the university's internal finances. “Students are a legitimate voice. [They] are there as a consumer, and we are seeing if our product is fulfilling your needs,” UC Regents Chairman Russell Gould — one of California's leading finance capitalists — has offered by way of sympathy with the student movement.
Governor Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, even credited the movement with inspiring the governor's recent proposal to restore some funding to higher education by privatizing some of the state's prisons. “Those protests on the UC campuses were the tipping point,” she said.
Naturally, Kennedy and the Regents have failed to credit the militant occupations that sparked the larger movement to which they are making empty promises: Schwarzenegger's inane privatization proposal has little chance of making its way through the State Legislature this summer intact, as Regent Richard Blum has even acknowledged. Meanwhile, these state and university leaders have denounced the occupation movement and its offshoots (including the recent highly publicized and sensationalized riots in Berkeley), to the extent that they have remarked on it at all, in a transparent effort to divide its participants from more moderate students, staff, and faculty members.
As with any political movement, there are indeed ripe divisions between those who advocate different tactical approaches. In one effort to get the current pulse of the student wing of the movement, leading up to the March 4 strike, we contacted our friend Laura Zelko, a third-year Berkeley student majoring in public health. Zelko, who has been deeply involved in organizing the radical flank of Berkeley's campus-based resistance, spoke to us while engaged in a "study-in" inside of Shields Library, UC Davis, over the weekend of February 6-7.
"There is a lot of public critique by organizers of the University's resemblance to a corporation," Zelko said. "We recognize that the UC's administrative body, which fancies itself a corporate board, is doing its utmost to undermine the agency of students, faculty, and staff who are attempting to resist what the university has in store for us."
At the same time, Zelko notes that a moderate political philosophy that emphasizes changing hearts and minds in Sacramento, absent of any fundamental challenge to the university power structure, still holds greatest sway among most students. "Of course the piece missing from that puzzle is that the Regents are infinitely intertwined with Sacramento, and in the case of the several Regents Ex Officio, are Sacramento," she said.
A Local Structural Adjustment
For those of us who live in Mendocino County, this burgeoning movement involves our daughters, sons, friends, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and significant others living down there in the heart of Babylon, in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, and other urban campus settings. If we are serious about the multiple crises that most directly impact us in our own lives, we might do well to study up on the current student rebellion and its more direct links to Mendo.
On the California North Coast, the economic meltdown has heaped further hardship on a region already devastated by the liquidation of forest lands in the '80s and '90s, accompanied by the disastrous "grape bubble" of vineyard developments that has been colonizing hillsides and valley plains ever since.
With every passing year, more and more water is diverted (“stolen” being the proper term) for the production of wine grapes. With every year, there are fewer and fewer fish fill local creeks and rivers. At the rate things are going, we too face an "absent future" – the exact phrase UC students used to describe their plight in a widely circulated "communique" last year. The sterile dominance of the vineyard industry and the private equity groups behind the biggest of them are building an economic system that amounts to a veritable “grape bubble,” characterized by rising land values, disastrous water and land abuses, increasing exploitation of immigrant workers, and the decimation of local self-reliance. This is also a manifestation of neo-liberal plunder, a local one.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of the University of California's connection to the violence of the larger society, recalling the student pamphlet we quoted earlier, came at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, where then-UC Regents Chairman Richard Blum stood in the first column of a handful of main supporters who were immediately lined up behind the new president -- an image immortalized the following day on the cover of the Los Angeles Times, among other media outlets. As a man whose wealth is directly tied to the systemic impoverishment of millions of people, Blum is a perfect symbol of the university, its crisis, California's unwinding under the heels of financial greed, but also for the ongoing destruction of our ecosystems and social fabric here in Mendo.
In the final installment of this four-part series, we will explore how Alpha Regent Blum and Senator Dianne Feinstein's business interests and political webs are playing a leading role in destroying the California North Coast through speculation-fueled vineyard development.
(E-mail Will Parrish at email@example.com and Darwin Bond-Graham at firstname.lastname@example.org.)