Thursday, October 7, 2010

Berkeley protests

Today’s protests at Berkeley against fee hikes, bad-faith bargaining, layoffs and the general neglect of public higher education in the state took on a familiar pattern. A crowd (larger than I expected) gathered in Sproul Plaza to hear speakers representing a wide cross-section of the university community: faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, lecturers, gardeners and other workers. People brandished UAW and UPTE signs (two key unions), anti-Meg Whitman banners, and a host of individually-crafted takes on the budget mess.

Many speakers were fairly on-point, identifying the structural problems at the state and university levels. Other speakers were particularly effective when describing, in personal terms, the effects of the fee increases and of the breakdown in contract negotiations. By the time the gathering became a march, most people in the crowd should have had a fairly good idea of the problems facing UC.

But problems remain. There is still a need to create a narrative that does more than energise a university crowd, which can bring in different segments of the state community. The tendency on the part of many organisers is to speak under the assumption that their audience is in agreement with them, to express lots of outrage without ever doing the persuasive work that will prove necessary if we want to bring large numbers of Californians around to thinking that higher education is worth their investment.

And the choice of slogans remains problematic. ‘Chop from the top’ may rhyme, but it plays into the hands of Republicans who are eager to promote the idea that public institutions are inefficient because they are public. Moreover, it wrongly presupposes that making (justifiable and necessary) cuts to administrative salaries will solve UC’s budget problems.

The march itself wound around and through campus, growing as more students joined in, and attracting the attention of sun-bathers on memorial glade, students who peered out of lecture halls, and patrons of the Free Speech Cafe, who shouted their support. It took a surprising turn into Doe Library. Students paused, momentarily intimidating by the step they were taking, in front of the enormous facade, before venturing inside, chanting ‘Whose university? Our university!’, making their way up the steps, and occupying the cavernous North Reading Room.

Some 600 protestors packed into the space, and the organisers quickly jumped onto tables. High on righteous indignation (among other things, judging from the smells wafting about), demonstrators vented their spleen. ‘They’re trying to take all of this from us!’ gesturing to the soaring windows and curved ceiling. ‘And today, we’re going to take it all back!’

A key element of any movement is passion, but it’s incumbent on that movement to present an argument and a way forward. Who are the they? And what is being taken back? Organisers need to work much harder on and be less lazy about their arguments, and they need to take seriously the fact that at some stage they will be making the case to an audience outside of the campus. They should already be more conscious of how their actions will be reported, because as commendable as their goals are, half of the media will simply spin this as another stunt on the part of a hard-core group of protestors who get a thrill from proclaiming their militant radicalism to all and sundry.

The list of demands doesn’t help. They range from the specific (‘Rescind 2012 admissions policy’; ‘Meet UAW and CUE demands for contract’) to the perhaps overly-specific (‘Hire a full-time director for the Native American Development Centre’) to the vague (‘Free education for all!’; ‘Stop degrading our education! No cyber university’) to the macro (‘Repeal prop 13 as it applies to corporations. Tax oil companies. Majority vote for the state budget’).

There is little sense of a strategy in the demands, no sense of whom they are directed at, and little sense of proportion.

Police initially refused protestors in the upper floors of the library access to toilets and water, and there were some tense moments (I experienced an almost parental sense of worry with the knowledge that several of my students were upstairs). The police soon relented, and the strategy of the moment (upwards of 200 people, I understand from those coming in and out of the reading room, remain upstairs) is to allow people to come in if others come out, so as to maintain a kind of equilibrium.

The librarians, in true Berkeley fashion, welcomed the students, and asked them not to stand on the tables. The administration, as per usual, seems to have its head in the sand, though it would be interesting to know what communication took place in the run-up to the protest between the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellors’ offices and University Police (no one is answering my e-mails on this point, and the police on the Doe Library stairwell averred that it was above their pay grade).

Much will depend on how demonstrators and police conduct themselves for the remainder of the day and in weeks to come, and on whether the General Assembly that’s been called for this evening develops a coherent strategy for moving forward. The problem with the current strategy is that the protest as such becomes the story, rather than the plight of public higher education

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