Mice are eating away at our libraries, which smell faintly of rot. Accordions of police barricades stand in for public sculptures. They greet our puzzlement with cold handshakes. The buzz of helicopters interrupts the hum of AV machines: unwelcome ostinatos. We are being privatized; this is how it feels.
We now know that the first to be fired in the name of efficiency will be custodial and dining service workers. Tuition increases will continue, and will continue to push members of the working classes away from our classrooms. We know that the acceptance rates for black and latina/o students are dropping sharply, while we are opening our doors to relatively wealthy out-of-state students. Shared governance is shattered, professors are leaving, and the UC Commission on the Future envisions squadrons of GSIs ‘teaching’ online classes to a pool of undergraduates who will be ushered away after three years.
This is the future we are being asked to accept. But we are having no part of it.
Our acts of refusal this past year have been varied, and have had various effects. Two such acts at UC Berkeley, my place of employment, have shown us our strength, and have helped set the agenda for the coming year: the occupation of Wheeler Hall in the fall, and the Hunger Strike in the spring.
The day after the Regents raised tuition by 32 percent, consigning our generation to a few thousand more years of debt, we opened up a vortex on campus by locking ourselves in Wheeler Hall and demanding that the University rehire laid off workers. Early in the morning, the chancellor emailed the campus claiming that the police were taking care of us; but late in the afternoon, we still hadn’t left the building. We remained inside only because of the hundreds who were outside; chanting, pressing against police barricades, getting soaked, enduring beatings, refusing to leave. Our vortex had drawn out the passions of students and the solidarity of workers, who felt, perhaps unconsciously, that reclaiming space on campus was the proper response to the theft of our time.
Since then, those of us who locked ourselves in Wheeler Hall have been threatened with seven-month suspensions. We are told that being suspended will be good for our personal growth and education. We are told that there are strict regulations on when, how, and where protests can take place. There is a Code of Student Conduct. We violated the Code. We are to be punished, re-educated, developed, fixed.
Remarkably though, the Administration is the only body on campus that seems to believe in this Code and its enforcement. In re-education. In a one hour window, per day, for amplified protest. The faculty, through the divisional council; the workers, through the unions; and the students, through the ASUC, have all called for our charges to be dropped. Those who work, study, and teach in the buildings on campus have thus begun to assert their own anti-code of conduct — a ‘code’ that nurtures our capacity to protest and that treats buildings not as property to be guarded or capital to be efficiently employed but as public goods to be put to use in ways that are determined by, and that call forth, our collective passions.
Engaged students, workers, and professors are starting to formulate the principles of a free University — a University that remains merely spectral at the moment. A shadow University. Traces of its possible realization inhabit our present; it’s time for us to seize, turn over, and extrapolate these traces.
Late in the spring, another vortex opened up on campus. This one lasted ten days, and centered on the empty stomachs and wan faces of students & workers on hunger strike. The strikers began by demanding that the Administration demonstrate a bit of leadership by denouncing Arizona’s recent anti-immigrant legislation, by declaring UC Berkeley a sanctuary campus, by rehiring workers, and by dropping conduct charges. But by the end of the strike, those who danced with empty stomachs saw the recalcitrant chancellors’ mealy-mouthed words for the dead letters they were. A hand-drawn sign lingered in the branches of a tree: “fire admin” it read. We were done with them.
Our definitive break from the administration occurred a week into the strike, minutes before dawn. Police came to evict the hunger strikers. Yellow tape was stretched around the lawn in front of California Hall. The vice chancellor sent a mass email declaring that the strike had ended and that we were dispersed. But students and workers still weren’t eating. And we were beginning to mass on the edge of the cordon.
From then on our presence was spectral, yet our force was real.
That day we blocked the doors of California Hall, held hands around the building, chanted, read aloud a faculty petition that “reject[ed] police interference into a non-violent protest,” marched across campus, sat and danced in front of the chancellors house. All day our numbers grew. All day we felt our collective power, and improvised with confidence. And in our practice we went beyond our words: we encircled California Hall not because we wanted crumbs from the chancellor, but to block the building; to shut it down. We were done with them; done with their bloated salaries and their fear of democracy; done with their hatred of organized labor, their plans to privatize us, and their cynical invocations of ‘diversity.’ We were done being ruled by capital’s bureaucrats. We had different plans.
If the hunger strike put on the agenda the closure of California Hall, it also articulated a principle of student/worker protest that we will need to take seriously in the coming months: if it is to be emancipatory, such protest will necessarily look beyond the walls of the University. The strikers saw their protest as part of a regional struggle against racism and the criminalization of immigrants. They acted in concert with those in LA, Tucson, and Phoenix taking direct actions against SB1070 and the militarization of the border.
More solidarity actions of this sort are on the agenda for this year.
The governor of California has recently declared that, while higher education should be funded, welfare, childcare, mental health services, and services for people with disabilities should be eviscerated. This is not the ‘victory’ we were fighting for, and not only because it won’t stop the Regents from raising our tuition. Our struggle is against privatization; against austerity measures that re-segregate the state and that make it harder for poor and working class people to get by. Such measures will continue to grind us down until, through collective struggle, we render them inoperative. And we will not stop fighting.
On campus, we will reclaim the spaces and times of our lives. On October 7th, our next day of action, we will initiate an indefinite strike, to be maintained until our shadow University has been made real.
Off campus, we will act in solidarity with those who are striking back against neoliberalism and mass racialized incarceration. We look forward to a statewide general strike, when the words on all our lips will be: “Let’s get free.” When such a strike comes, we’ll turn the Universities into ghost towns.
We’ll be there in the streets,
and will see you there…