THE ACTIONS THIS WEDNESDAY on the UC Berkeley campus under the banner "Occupy Cal" were the largest political manifestation there since September 24, 2009. On that occasion, a faculty-initiated walkout in concert with two union strikes, shortly joined by a mass of students, mobilized protesters across the UC system against the privatization of public education — 5,000 alone at Berkeley. Amidst broad and spectacular national attention and predictable comparisons to the spirit of "the Sixties," the action in 2009 threatened to begin a new era in campus agitation and struggle.
It also threatened to bring it to an end. An attempted occupation of Wheeler Hall by a militant fraction of the participants, proceeding from a more sweeping anticapitalist analysis seeking "to push the university struggle to its limits" within a declared program to "occupy everything/demand nothing!" failed amidst great acrimony. The ill will arrived no more from the administration than from the main body of that day's protestors, committed to the seemingly more realistic and less divisive goal of restoring a marginally more affordable and hospitable academic environment.
These two positions — revolution and reform, in their latest local incarnations — had a brief moment of rapprochement that November when, two days after another failure to hold a different building, more than 40 participants locked down part of Wheeler Hall for long hours during which the building was surrounded by riot police from multiple jurisdictions. The police were, in turn, surrounded by thousands of students challenging the threat and authority of the robocops, while helicopters nattered overhead and faculty members endeavored ineffectually to broker a deal that would end the standoff. Cops beat students for refusing to depart, charged into crowds, issued endless streams of threat and invective. They were answered. Students and staff found their inner militants. In the event, the threat of the massed and notably non-pacific supporters compelled safe passage for the occupiers, who walked out into the embrace of an exhausted and briefly jubilant crowd.
That moment's tenuous unity would exhaust itself in the months to come. Fractious divisions returned, planned actions grew more chaotic and less charismatic, and it became increasingly evident that a mild reformist program — tuition rollbacks, job preservation, a curbing of the administrator class's expansion — might as well have been demands for a new utopia with ponies for everyone. Everywhere the only response from administrators and politicos was paternalistic contempt, disingenuous handwringing, and a monolithic, blank insistence that the tide of history moved in one direction, against which even the most concerted, realistic or well-mannered entreaties would find no purchase. Against all that — demoralization among the temporarily inspired participants, sheer exhaustion among the committed organizers, divisions all around — the campus anti-privatization movement seemed to have guttered out.
Which brings us to Occupy Cal, and the apparent revitalization of the fight over public higher education in California. On Wednesday a thousand or more ...