Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Historical Moment at UC Davis - Strategies for Davis Activists

EDIT: updated to include two occupations I had forgot to mention in my late night tired as fuck rush to get this out after a hella busy week.

A brief history of the statewide UC student occupation and anti-fee hikes movements from 2009- present, with a focus on UC Davis

I wasn't here before Fall of 2011, that history is just what I have pieced together from comrades involved at that time during my years of activism at Davis, both in the Occupy UCD movement and as part of AWDU and an officer in UAW 2865.

In 2009, as part of a long trend of austerity in California and the US and the privatization of the UCs and higher education nationally, state funding to the UCs was cut by 12% and the UC Regents proposed to raise tuition 32%. Students responded with rallies, direct actions, and occupations of lawns and buildings. The fee hikes were approved by the Regents and in response the occupations and actions increased.

At UC Davis Mrak Hall is Occupied and 52 people are arrested - 51 students and 1 professor. In response to the arrests Mrak is occupied a second time and students negotiate with university administration for a letter to the district attorney asking that the D.A. consider dropping the charges. In March of 2010, students stage a walkout, shut down Unitrans buses, and around 500 students march to the I-80 to take the freeway but are blocked by the police and met with force. One student is taken by the police, beaten, tased, dragged and arrested. The police, and admin like Sheri Atkinson who continues to be part of the admin's Orwellian-named "Freedom of Expression Support Team", which watches and documents all student protest activity,  then use the student as a hostage and force the students to leave the area in return for the student-hostage to be released with no charges.

On November 17th, 2010, "Students rally and attempt to block a vote at UCSF, where Regents are voting to raise tuition eight percent and cut campus worker pensions. UCI’s police officer Kemper pulls a gun on student protesters."

In November of 2011, Occupy Davis is formed. On the ninth, UCBPD beat students and faculty with batons in the now nationally infamous instance of UC police burtality. Students at Davis responded days later with a rally and an occupation of Mrak Hall. The next day most of the Mrak occupiers and other protesters went to San Francisco, for what was originally going to be a protest of the UC Regents meeting, but the Regents canceled their meeting due to a supposed discovered "threat of violence", and joined with Occupy SF and marched around the financial district and eventually hundreds of people flooded Bank of America and temporarily occupied it, eventually around 100 people were arrested. Then on November 18th Chancellor Katehi told her staff to remove the protesters and the Occupy tents that had been erected on the quad and the now globally infamous pepper spray event took place, where Officer Pike attacked peacefully seated student protesters with pepper spray that UCDPD wasn't supposed to have and in a much closer distance than the spray is supposed to be used. Some students were arrested, and one of the arrestees was an art student whose hands were zip tied so tight that he received radial nerve damage. But the most important thing to remember from that day is that after Pike pepper sprayed the seated students that the entire crowd banned together and told the cops to leave the quad. The cops came, took down tents, arrested people, and attacked students with chemical weapons, but they left the situation having been beaten because we took control over our quad. The next day Chancellor Katehi was surrounded while giving a press conference and refused to come out to address the student who demanded answers from her. After hours of waiting and negotiations an agreement was reached where the Chancellor would be allowed to exit the building if she walked past students sitting next to each other. Students sat in total silence and her walk was a powerfully symbolic moment of the administration's and UCPD's guilt and reckless force juxtaposed by the students unbelievable self control. Two days in a row the admin or the UCPD walked away from a moment of confrontation on the losing end, we of course celebrated. Two days later, on a Monday, the biggest UCD General Assembly in history gathered (pic 1, pic 2), with an estimated 5,000 people. We then Occupied Dutton Hall for a week, as well as the quad which was now full of dozens of tents, and renamed it Paulo Freire Open university, where teach-ins were given.

Between the bad press from the police brutality at Berkeley, Davis, and UCLA, and the constant occupations and shutting down of the Regents meetings the proposed 81% tuition hike was withdrawn and a tuition freeze was enacted that has lasted up until now (Nov 20, 2014).

In winter quarter 2012 some Occupy UCD students occupied the empty building that had previously hosted the Cross Cultural Center and was soon to be home to the Educational Opportunities Program. This occupation brought to the fore ideological tensions within Occupy between various groups. The Occupiers were accused of  "white privilege and racism, and comparing them to Columbus" and the POC behind the Occupation released this response to this criticism.

In my opinion this split (was it a split or just the realization that there were differences so strong that there was no longer a shared project?) was the end of Occupy UCD as it was known. Those involved in ASUCD and who worked inside the institution of the university went back to their work and abandoned on the ground organizing and those who occupied the CCC went on to sit peacefully and block the entrance to the MU branch of US Bank (There was also a small group that politically fell into the middle of these two groups, people who were dedicated to working outside the institution of the university but were also interested in organizing and building a mass movement, the grad students were those involved in the TA union UAW 2865 and the undergrads went on to form the Davis Democratic Socialists, DDS, but both groups were so small and were still getting this shit together that they really didn't have much of a presence after this point). After over a month of keeping the bank closed, US Bank announced it was closing that branch permanently and threatened to sue the UC. The bank's letter to the UC stated, "The regents have refused to remove or arrest the persons participating in the illegal gathering even though the regents have used available laws to disperse protesters who have congregated elsewhere on the university's campuses." In response, eleven students and one professor, the "Davis Dozen" or "Bankers Dozen", were eventually charged, and faced up to 10 years imprisonment and $1 million in damages. The case was dragged through court for over a year and half, being a type of invisible violence that one cannot capture on film and share with the world. The Dozen were eventually let off with a small amount of public service.

On March 5 2012, Occupy Education, a coalition between student organizations and teacher unions led a march on the Capitol Building in Sacramento and temporarily occupied the building. Seventy-two protesters refused to leave and were arrested. This was an important moment because 1. it was a broader coalition, not just a UC student movement, and 2. it showed that the movement understood that both the Regents and governor Brown were the problem, that both were attacking higher education, and neither was an ally to our movement.

Coming out of this new coalition and opposition to Brown the Occupy Education coalition prepared to get the Millionaire's Tax on the ballot as a proposition. The Millionaire's Tax would only raise taxes on the richest Californians, and the revenues would go to:
  • 36% for K-12 schools
  • 24% for public colleges and universities
  • 25% for services to children and senior citizens
  • 10% for public safety
  • 5% for road and bridge maintenance.
The Millionaire's tax was hugely popular in early opinion polls. However, Gov Brown, representing the millionaires and billionaires of California, struck a backroom deal with the California Federation of Teachers for a watered down agreement, Prop 30, that also had regressive tax elements - an increase in the sales tax. He promised CFT more money for K-12 if they pulled out their support of the Millionaire's Tax. Since CFT was the biggest financial backer, this effectively killed the tax.

In late 2012 and mid 2013 and lasting until winter and spring of 2014 the UC entered into contract negotiations with the two biggest unions at the UC, AFSCME 3299 representing UC service workers and patient care workers in the UC MED Centers and UAW 2865 representing  grad student TAs and Instructors, and undergraduate tutors, respectively. UC management committed countless violations of labor law (Unfair Labor Practices) during both sets of negotiations. Due to these violations of their rights these UC workers went on strike numerous times. (AFSCME, AFSCME on strike and UAW on sympathy strike, UAW strike). Despite illegal intimidation and police violence on some campuses both unions were able to work together with undergraduate students to fight UC management and win.

On May 16th 2013, Dutton Hall was occupied for 24 hours to commemorate Nakba Day. This was the communique released by the Occupiers.

And that bring us to the present moment of the 5%/year for 5 year tuition hike...

What does this mean for the struggle at Davis, what are the particulars of the balance of power of this historical moment we are in now, and what does that do to inform our strategy moving forward?

There are some important lessons that everyone should know from this history.

1. Administration is not your friend. They don't want to listen to you. We need to stop appealing to their conscience  and start making our own changes.
2. Administration will use police repression, and police brutality, if it suits them. The privatization of the university is backed up with the militarization of our campuses.
3. The governor is not an ally in our struggle against the administration/Regents. From defunding higher education, to killing the Millionaire's Tax, the governor has shown that he will enact policies that serves his millionaire and billionaire backers.

These are big generalizations that apply to the entire student movement, but I want to focus on a Gramscian analysis of the locally-specific particulars of our struggle here at Davis.

Gramsci's theory of War of Position

Gramsci's concepts of hegemony and "war of position" are the central concepts for this analysis. Hegemony is what gets one group of people to consent to their own oppression. It is the "common sense" ideas in society that don't normally get questioned and that either mask power relationships or naturalize them. An example of this would be "Human nature is just selfish, that's why we will always have inequality." This statement hides the fact that the vast majority of human history has been defined by equality, it is only with the rise of social classes - people who produce and people who own - that inequality has been a dominant feature of society. The problem with hegemony however is that people's everyday lived experience can cause them to question things more critically. The role of those who want to end oppression/domination in society is to organize people to challenge the structures of power and violence that maintain that dominance and to counter hegemony by getting people to more critically think about society. 

A "war of position" is the battle between social forces that produce hegemony and those engaged on counter-hegemony. It is a battle on a cultural terrain, however that battle takes place in a material world; this means that while for example subversive literature or music can be a way in which we engage in a war of position -  a war to challenge hegemony - but also things like challenging social norms can be as well. When people no longer consent to their own domination and challenge it by changing their practices it not only makes a difference in the relations of domination/dominated but it also corresponds to a change in the ways in which we understand ourselves and society, and therefore these kinds of struggles have cultural implications and therefore can be described as a war of position.

The War of Position at UC Davis

 Before 2009 we can describe the relationship of domination (administration's domination over students and workers) in the following two ways (among other possible ways):

*buildings - the control over the flow in and out of and the claims of ownership over - were not property of students, they were property of the administration
*police violence - was a perfectly understandable consequence to "bad" student behavior

However, because of the amazing wins of the student movement from 2009 to today this no longer accurately describes the current position (in the war of position). It is like this: imagine a lne was drawn in the sand pre-2009 and the student movement redrew this line forward a little more since then, and then the administration tried to redraw the line again and students fought to push the line forward again. Now in 2014 the line is more advanced thanks to the work of the amazing student activists who came before us.

Not only has the informal social norms around occupations changed, but there was even a formal policy change. Davis students are now allowed to occupy a building for a single night without it being a violation of campus policy. In 2009, 52 people were arrested for what is now a basic right of student protest! Furthermore, Katehi became globally infamous for being the chancellor of Pepper Spray University. She somehow managed to evade being fired, and didn't step down like UCB Chancellor Birgineu. This meant that student protesters were able to take advantage of her precarious position by occupying Dutton (renamed Paulo Freire Open University) for an entire week with no police presence. However this also meant that when the stakes were higher -- the blockade of US Ban, that Katehi had to use less visible but more repressive force, pressing charges and potentially ruining people's entire lives.

Now in 2014 Katehi knows that one slip up could mean her job, though a limited use of police force could easily reestablish the norm of visible police repression. And invisible police repression - using the legal system to stop activism and harm activists - is still very much unchallenged. Building occupations don't seem to evoke a response because they no longer push the line back in the sand. We are taking ground we already won. Admin has learned that as long as we don't directly impede the operation of the university that a building occupation can just be waited out. 

What does this mean for our strategy moving forward?

If we wish to challenge the relationship of domination at Davis then we cannot simply reenact or mirror past movements. We need to find where the line is and push it forward more.

Simply occupying the lobby of Mrak will not phase the administration. Any occupation of Mrak must either take administrative offices or must blockade the entire building. Occupations of non-administrative buildings, like teaching building like Wellman or Olson might be strategically important as centers of student activity, but may not evoke much of a response from admin either unless they are also blockaded. If not blockaded then we cannot expect the occupation to evoke a reaction from admin, so the occupation must serve some other more strategic purpose.

Blocking the entrances to campus has not been done at Davis, with the exception of the 2009 blocking of Unitrans buses and very briefly in 2014 during a UAW 2865 strike, though it was done at UCSC during labor strikes in the past. This might be a tactic worth experimenting with.

Other than the attempt to take I-80 in 2009 it seems like student activism has been contained to the campus. Finding targets in the larger community, such as businesses connected to the Regents, may be a way to expand the terrain in which the war of position is being fought over.

I think in general this phase of the Davis student movement must be focus on radical experimentation with tactics. We must all become tacticians, we must have a historically grounded analysis of power in the UC and we must get creative in how we think about this struggle against the administration, Regents, governor etc.

We should expect police repression, especially if we are pushing the line back. If we challenge the administration enough they will not hesitate to use whatever form of violence is at their disposal.

Lastly it goes without saying and has always been true that we need to stand with the movement at other UCs because our success depends on their movement staying alive and strong. We cannot win isolated. This is a statewide struggle.

Sources on the history of past UC student movements and occupations:,_2011_UC_Davis_Police_Response_to_Occupy_UC_Davis

1 comment:

  1. Yeah there's too much emotional energy tied up in trying to be the past or be another campus. Just because Berkeley and Santa Cruz do something doesn't mean Davis should. We can learn from them but not be trying to play "catch up" we are not them not their context not their campus. We have our own role to play.