NOVEMBER 13, 2011
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 students rallied on Sproul Plaza, marched through Telegraph Avenue to Bank of America, returned to the Plaza for a General Assembly, and voted almost unanimously to set up an encampment near the administration building. When they tried to do so, already-staged riot cops from the UCPD and Alameda Sheriff’s Department immediately moved to stop them. As the students and workers linked arms and tried to defend the small grassy area, the police attacked with batons, beating many, tackling and pulling the hair of a few, and arresting a handful, all of whom were then charged with resisting arrest, with one being sent to the hospital with injuries — all in the process of trying to prevent a single tent from being raised.
But the crowd was actually pretty tough, and grew swiftly, because, as it turns out, people — including people from university communities — don’t like violent cops, and it is increasingly implausible to recognize the existence of any other kind. The police were compelled to withdraw for a while, promising to return for an eviction at 10 p.m. Up went a few tents. Out went the call for support that night. The cops returned early, moving swiftly and angrily, beating people indiscriminately and ironically on the Mario Savio steps, knocking over the tents, arresting about 30 more, forming a militarized line to defend a micro-knoll. The inevitable crowd gathered, the helicopters hovered: it felt like old times. By after midnight a General Assembly of 3,000, fired by a still-burgeoning shock at the actions of the administration (especially the odious, miscalculating Chancellor Robert Birgeneau), convened to plot next moves. There will be next moves.
But perhaps what is most striking is that, at this exact moment, the battle of the East Bay has two fronts.
When the call for support went out, it went around campus; it also went down the street. Less than five miles away, at the far end of Telegraph Avenue, Occupy Oakland had established itself as the most militant of “the Occupies” — enforcing a strict no-cops policy, declaring itself not simply an encampment but the Oakland Commune, supplying its own needs, and reestablishing itself spiritedly after being violently evicted on October 25. Having come through a cloud of teargas, rubber bullets, and other ordnance, the Oakland Commune swiftly called for a General Strike (the last in the nation had been in Oakland in 1946) which shut down numerous businesses for a day as well as the nation’s sixth largest port.
It is easy enough to note that Occupy Oakland seeks to push the Occupy movement to its limits. The slogan “Occupy Everything!” had accompanied the new movement since its inception in September. Indeed, the initial call for Occupy Wall Street, formulated in the Canadian magazine Adbusters, had borrowed heavily from the ideas and writings of the university militants of 2009, whose actions they had chronicled (albeit poorly) at the time. Of absolute significance is the fact that the Occupy movement fashions itself openly, if sometimes ambiguously, as broadly anticapitalist.
In short, the ideas and programs of Fall 2009 that presented themselves as too militant and unrealistic for that moment — occupation as material tactic, no demands, strike and refusal, anticapitalism — are now simply the general atmosphere of the most popular political movement in decades. To quote the Situationist writer René Vienet, “Our ideas are on everybody’s mind.” This would be a remarkable denouement, but for three things.
The first is that the story is by no means over. Now everyone is a crisis maven and can understand these irruptions in the context of objective conditions. Cycles of joblessness and homelessness, of debt and default, and of exclusion from the grounds of capital are not easing but intensifying. Everybody knows there will be no ponies gotten simply by asking, or by arguing eloquently from some principle of justice or reason. We’re going to have to seize the ponies. Which is to say, the homes and the jobs, and the mechanism which excludes an increasing number of people from such amenities. At this point, visions of wandering bemusedly out of recession and back into boom times are in fact less plausible than the vision of various Occupies expanding outward to meet community anti-foreclosure struggles in an increasingly unified reorganization of daily life — by which I mean, a reorganization of who holds what, and how.
The second is that it would be a mistake, finally, to see the Occupy Everything movement as beginning in the California university struggles of 2009, which themselves drew on similar struggles in New York, which themselves…. In truth, the failure of the international economic regime and the tidal fury it has produced have been wandering the globe for a while now. The content is misery, dispossession, and a willingness to struggle. It looks here and there for whatever form to which it can fit itself in order to gain purchase on a given situation. It typically involves students and the dispossessed. It looks one way in the French banlieue in 2005 and another in the Paris CPE riots the following year. It takes one form in the streets of Athens and Thessaloniki in 2008; another in Tahrir Square in January, and another in the squares of Madrid and Barcelona. It burns differently on the campuses of the UK and in Tottenham and Hackney. And then there’s Chile.
It is critical to understand the university struggles in California not as some independent rise and fall, some odd pulsating rhythm proper to this place and this situation, but as one appearance of a far broader — and in many regards far more advanced and intensified — conflict that has been afoot for some time. When hostility to capitalism moves to the fore, it is not some mutation, or the ascent of some ideological fraction against another; it is the irreducible truth of the situation, having found the form in which it can finally appear unmasked.
But the third reason for skepticism in advance of any conclusions is that there is no irrevocable march forward. Conditions guarantee this conflict, but they also present limits. Right now, the limits for Occupy Cal and Occupy Oakland are most obviously the police: the same government-paid thugs who rode camels into Tahrir Square, here kitted out with far more advanced weapons. But there is also the weather and real estate, the two things that strangers discuss at bourgeois dinner parties. These turn out to be the objective conditions of the moment. The shift of occupation strategies in the last two years from inside to outside spaces, to semipublic arenas, was both necessary and unforeseeably effective. It was also a plan for a mild season. Now, as the fog and the chill of late autumn sets in — brumaire, this month was once called — the movement of the squares, the plazas, the universities and the Occupies will need to reclaim some indoor spaces for itself. Whether these can be gotten, and held, is a most pressing question.