Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reflections on the UCD 11-18-14 Take Back Your Tuition Action

I want to start off this post by saying that while it will focus on a critique of the actions that have happened at Davis since the start of the Take Back Your Tuition movement, it is in no way a personal attack on anyone, and that leadership I am critiquing are my comrades and they have put in lots of hours and hard work into making Tuesday's rally one of the largest that happened statewide this week. I hope that they and others who are participating in this movement will read this and think critically about how to move forward in a way that makes our movement stronger and makes it grow. This is comradely criticism, I write because I see them as comrades. Notice that I never wrote comradely criticism to the reactionaries in the union, I merely wrote them off. I hope that the spirit of debate in the movement can be furthered by this discussion. Love and solidarity. -Duane

Strengths of the current leadership - ASUCD Office of Student Advocacy

The newly formed ASUCD Office of Student Advocacy has done an amazing job in using the resources and legitimacy of ASUCD to engage in grassroots organizing. The last time there was a student movement at Davis ASUCD was no where involved in this level of organizing and support. The night before the pepper spraying ASUCD passed a resolution, brought to them by Occupy UCDers, to support the occupation. That's as far as I think their involvement ever was, other than maybe some ASUCD people supporting it as individuals. This alone is a fantastic step in the right direction. Historically student governments tend to act more like company unions, but they are a contested terrain with potential to be part of the struggle. I think the Davis GSA is much closer to the company union type than ASUCD is currently acting as. The GSA board won't even come out with a statement against the tuition hikes. They sent out the following message in an email:

The GSA represents a wide variety of students who have diverging view points on the proposed tuition fee increases. I'd like to state for the record GSA supports grad and professional students' individual decisions regarding action on this issue. 

They go on to say that they will be bringing a resolution to the GSA assembly in their December 3rd meeting. It is a shame that they can't even show the leadership to oppose the tuition hikes even if the GSA then overturns the boards statement. As students affected by the hikes, and as instructors of undergrads facing these hikes the GSA should be standing up for accessible public education. So ASUCD, mainly through the Office of Student Advocacy has managed to not make itself politically irrelevant to the students it represents, unlike the GSA.

The next thing that the ASUCD Office of Student Advocacy did that needs to be acknowledged and congratulated for was that it drew in a wide coalition of progressive orgs on campus to plan this event. Many groups usually left out of this kind of work were specifically brought in so that they wouldn't be marginalized further. As one undergrad involved in the organizing put it

Many of y'all know I've been involved with student movement and action both in and out of ASUCD, and when in ASUCD, only in the specific role of advocating for historically underrepresented and marginalized communities. I'm the first person to critique the shit out of "The Association." That said, though key organizers were ASUCD-affiliated, I think this particular part of ASUCD (a new advocacy unit) has done the most to operate from as inclusive and intentional a model as I've seen, and the ASUCD senators at the forefront today have been and continue to be some of our communities' most progressive and vocal advocates...

In terms of this new ASUCD advocacy unit's role in today's action - it's what I saw as a major shift within UCD student govt leadership around what is "permissible" student action and advocacy. Plus the active inclusion and outreach to a lot (not all, definitely there's room for improvement) of historically underrepresented groups within ASUCD was apparent to me by looking at who was present and speaking - particularly compared to Occupy 2011's problematicness.

From the beginning it was argued that our analysis needs to be intersectional and that our movement must be making connections between struggles. This was UAW and DDS's position the entire time, and at times when people fell into the "tuition-first" or "tuition-only" mindset (arguing that other oppression and struggles should be sidelined) it was great to see ASUCD Office of Student Advocacy arguing on the side of a more intersectional movement. From my perspective it felt like the AWDU vs USEJ/Paycheck First debates all over again.

Lastly, the Office of Student Advocacy was able to use the ASUCD resources and legitimacy to reach out to over 9k students to let them know about the Take Back Your Tuition action (the facebook event page had nearly 10k peopel invited!) and 500 or so in attendance that day! Had the Office not been involved I doubt we would have seen numbers like that at a first action.

Problems with the on-the-ground strategy of the action

Strengths noted and many thanks to the comrades who made the action happen, I have many strong feelings about the way in which the day unfolded.

Politics of Voice
Despite warnings from myself and others in UAW and DDS there was still a strong framing of the day with the politics of voice. The politics of voice is the idea that if we just let people in power know how we feel then the bad things will stop. Marches and rallies are a great way for people to realize they aren't alone and to measure the size and militancy of a movement. They also however can easily play into the politics of voice by just wanting to make a spectacle to "let our voices be heard". Petitions are also part of the politics of voice.

The problem with the politics of voice is that it is an appeal to those in power and that it rests on the idea that they just don't know how we feel, that if we just let them know then they will stop doing the bad things. Its model of change puts those in power central to making things happen. The agency of the people in the struggle are denied, instead we are told that we cannot make the change ourselves but rather that we must appeal to others. Is this the model of successful social movements of the past? Did the Civil Rights Movement's strategy rely on just letting Whites know they Blacks didn't like Jim Crow Segregation? Did unions just ask their employers for better pay and working conditions since they are the ones running the business? No. These people saw themselves as the makers of history. They took action to disrupt the operation of an oppressive or exploitative system. They were the subjects of history not merely objects of history -- they were the ones doing, not just things for history to be done to.

Myself and others had made these arguments to those who would lead Tuesday's action, even sharing this article the night before and I even shared this great post about the politics of voice and strategies for the 2014 student movement by Little Red Henski and tagged people in it and posted it in the event page saying "Required reading for tomorrow".

Demands in a Vacuum - Politics of Voice again
After a march to the administration building - Mrak Hall- where we are jovially met by Chancellor Katehi and others, we marched around campus and back to the quad where we came up with a list of demands. The list was arbitrarily set at 10, and there was little discussion or debate, just voting, on these demands. But the worst mistake was that there demands were made in a vacuum. There was no discussion about power - what power do students have, what tactics are available to us, and most importantly what do we think it will take to stop the fee hikes. A historical analysis of the student movement from 2009- present would have framed the day and the movement in a way that would have made sense strategically. instead people had no idea about what they COULD do, let alone what would be NEEDED to be done in order to win.

Making demands without any power backing them up, or at least any discussion or strategic understanding of potential power to back them up, ended up just really serving the purpose of making a statement of "things we like and things we don't like" to be delivered to the administration. This amounts to a more aggressive sounding version of politics of voice.

Town Hall with Admin - Politics of Voice yet again...

Predictably then the leadership led the marchers back to Mrak Hall where-in the admin asked to engage us in a dialog about our demands (surprise surprise!). The admin engages int he politics of voice because it is a tactic that demobilizes us, maintains their power and authority, and is ultimately the best way of stopping us.

Some employers, like Walmart, have "open door policies" and others have "suggestion boxes". These policies work best when small gains can be given away as rewards to keep workers invested in this system which doesn't challenge the power of the bosses.

UCD admin knows this, and that is why Chancellor Katehi has office hours at the Coho weekly, it is why they had a "Forum" a couple weeks ago about the proposed fee hikes. If Tuesday's leadership thought that a dialog was enough to stop the hikes then why didn't we stop the hikes when we attended the "forum"? Furthermore what does it say about your tactics when the day basically ended with the admin filibustering for hours until people got bored/tired and left? If we are supposed to be challenging and escalating, what does it say about our tactics when the peak of our day ends up just mirroring their movement-busting tactics?

Admin ended up running OUR action, they controlled the room and the conversation, and they demobilized us with dialog. There is a politics of space, a power behind the way in which the room is set up and the way in which the conversation is controlled. We were no longer on the offensive, we were no longer in movement, instead we were stagnant while admin quelled the mood and any action. One of the lead organizers learned this lesson as my student when he and his classmates went on "strike" for the sociology of labor class, however that lesson wasn't taught to the protesters that day, nor was it applied by the leadership themselves.

This is on top of the fact that our movement should NEVER be giving oppressors a platform. But that's  another argument all together. I suggest people read about why that is important.

Leading means directing and making hard arguments 

One of the defenses I have heard is that it was not the fault of anyone, that all decisions were voted on. Democracy is being used to cover a failure or weakness of leadership to frame the day and to intervene in ways that could have prevented the problems above.

Leadership means starting the day off with a framework so that people can understand in context both historically and sociologically, just what the problem is, what the solution is, and how to get there. It means framing all the discussions in a this broader context.

Leadership is making difficult arguments, and if you are outvoted fine, you tried, but at least you should be pushing the crowd to do what needs to be done, pushing them to more radical action, instead of allowing them to fall into a comfort zone of mostly symbolic action.

I have seen this done before by the leadership, for example intervening in the debate about intersectionality. But it was not done with the politics of voice in general or in the particular moments it came up in.

It is not that the leadership was opposed to making any interventions, when some of us tried to steer the crowd to the right at an intersection and toward downtown Davis, where we would have caused some significant disruption, one of the leaders of the day intervened to try to get us to go left back to the campus. He succeeded by bringing it to a quick vote. There was no strategic discussion. He wanted to get back to the quad and come up with demands, that was his agenda, and he had no problem intervening.

The ASUCD framework - you guessed it, politics of voice

The privileging of the written word -- a list of demands -- has been the central focus of the leadership. At the second day's occupation of Mrak Hall the focus was on perfecting and clarifying the written words of the demands. Why?

It is my opinion that this is what they know. As ASUCD people they have been socialized to pass resolutions and to engage with the administration. This institutionalization of the politics of voice has framed their understanding of the needs to the student movement. ASUCD doesn't make threats of the administration, they work within the bounds allowed by the administration, and therefore in this newer context of demands, the focus was still on speaking to the admin to "let them know what our demands are" which still centralizes them and makes what we are doing merely something in relation to them instead of putting forth that we can be independent of them and engage in action and make changes all on our own. Furthermore, like any good resolution the written words are what is most important, because that is what will be voted on. So the words themselves become the focus of our energy.

However I argue that it is not words, or voice that will make changes. It is bodies. We all know the words to the famous Mario Savio speech at UCB, but do we understand them?

Read my previous post about an earlier Dialog with the Chancellor.

My next post will be a strategic analysis of the historical moment, in the same spirit of the Little Red Henski piece.

1 comment:

  1. A response to my post: