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“Occupy and Escalate”: Inside the Barricades at UC Santa Cruz
During last week’s massive 10-campus walkout, several dozen students and workers occupied the Graduate Student Commons at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), issuing statements frankly acknowledging their intention to escalate the conflict: “Occupation is a tactic for escalating struggles,” they note at their website, “We must face the fact that the time for pointless negotiations is over.”
Their supporters aim to initiate some actual thought about the role of higher education in the economy. “A university diploma is now worth no more than a share in General Motors,” observes the author of the compelling Communique From an Absent Future:
We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have. Close to three quarters of students work while in school, many full-time; for most, the level of employment we obtain while students is the same that awaits after graduation. Meanwhile, what we acquire isn’t education; it’s debt. We work to make money we have already spent, and our future labor has already been sold on the worst market around. …Even leisure is a form of job training. The idiot crew of the frat houses drink themselves into a stupor with all the dedication of lawyers working late at the office. Kids who smoked weed and cut class in high school now pop Adderall and get to work. We power the diploma factory on the treadmills in the gym.
Noting that public employees, the homeless and the unemployed have been demonstrating across the state, supporters argue that “all of our futures are linked” and the struggle over higher education is “one among many, [so] our movement will have to join with these others, breeching the walls of the university compounds and spilling into the streets.”
I completed an interview with their spokesperson this morning, on the fourth day of the occupation.
Q. Sounds pretty raucous in there. How long have you been at it?
We’ve occupied this space for almost four days now! This is one of the longest student occupations in many, many years.
Q. How many of you are there, and who do you represent?
There are several dozen or so occupiers, plus countless numbers of supporters on the outside. It’s been very impressive. For example, one first-year student, after being on campus for just one week, almost immediately organized food drives with students in the dormitories for us.
We honestly do not seek to represent anyone or any particular groups. Rather, we’re emphasizing our message: we want students, faculty, and staff at UC to occupy and escalate to stop the destruction of public education in California, and we call on the people of California who are similarly and unfairly affected by our state’s fiscal crisis to escalate in their own communities. The time for piecemeal negotiations with those who have fiscal authority over us to protect our own particular programs, jobs, or bottom-lines is over because our demands are only turned against those who face similar cuts, thus making foes of people who should be building a broad coalition to stop and reverse the damaging cuts.
Q. What inspired you to occupy UCSC, as opposed to other tactics, such as demonstrating, etc?
9/24 was the first day of classes at UCSC. As you probably know, there was a system-wide Walkout across all of the UC campuses on 9/24. We did demonstrate that day; we walked the picket line with the UPTE and CUE unions; we responded to the UC faculty call for a Walkout; some of us walked in uninvited on the large undergraduate lectures of those professors who failed to honor the picket line to make an emergency announcement about the Walkout.
Let us provide some additional context: The Santa Cruz campus of UC was already hit hard last year by steep budget cuts. The Community Studies program was gutted; minority student programs were cutback; faculty searches for departments desperate for replacements, such as the History of Consciousness, were cancelled; health care costs for graduate students were forced up; family student housing rents were jacked up-just to name a few of the attempts to balance the budget on the backs of those least able to afford it and the most vulnerable in the system. Undergraduates, graduate students, and some unions organized to stop those initial rounds of damaging cuts through petitions, demonstrations, and other tactics, to no avail.
A dire situation only worsened over the summer, which prompted the faculty to get more involved at the system level. So many of us at Santa Cruz already realized by the end of last year that the nature and severity of these budget cuts required an escalation beyond tactics of resistance that were attempted yet failed last year. As our press release (https://occupyca.wordpress.com) says, “occupation is a way of escalating struggles.” This is what we decided to do to jumpstart a year of endless confrontation with the administration over their destructive logic that subordinates everything and everyone to the budget. This is only the beginning.
Q. What are your demands specifically?
Our primary message is directed at those who should be our allies within the UC, the public education system generally, and indeed throughout the state of California, as opposed to those who have power over us. We would like to see a broad social movement against cuts to education and all other state social programs and services. Thus we appeal to these groups to organize, occupy, and escalate at their schools and colleges and universities, as well as in their local communities. To sum, demonstrations address specific issues; our actions aim at a much broader struggle. Workers are losing their jobs. Students are unable to enroll in school. We have no choice but to occupy and escalate. We call on the people of California to do the same.
Q. This is a movement that you hope will spread to other campuses, isn’t it? Any developments we should watch for?
Not only the other UC campuses, but actually throughout the entire state of California and even beyond. We’ve already been on the radio shows of several UC campuses to talk to those UC communities about the need to organize and escalate and occupy, so, yes, you should watch for developments there! The one-day Walkout and our occupation are only first-steps, the genesis of a year-long or multi-year effort to take back the UC, to re-write its priorities in the interest of public education and not privatization. The same thing needs to happen to protect K-12 education in California; did you know that one school district closed all 28 of its school libraries due to budget cuts? Whose vision of a quality K-12 education would not include access to libraries? Our purpose is not to blame local school administrators but to show how the cuts affecting the UC are also impacting everyone else in the public sector of the state. The process which has led to this point is simply unacceptable.
Q. I take it you’ve followed the recent occupations at NYU and the New School, and perhaps earlier ones at Urbana-Champaign. Any lessons you’ve taken from those experiences?
We’ve received statements of solidarity from student groups across the country, including several schools along the east coast, which can be read at https://occupyca.wordpress.com. We want to express our thanks for the support across the nation. Why stop at the borders of California? Let’s take this effort to escalate to the nation as well! Public universities are being run like corporations all across the U.S. This must be brought to an end.
Q. Are you in touch with supporters outside?
Absolutely. The occupation on the inside is only one aspect of the escalation. This requires a lot of outside support, including many students who’ve been sleeping outside the doors to the occupation zone, volunteers to pick up trash and keep the space clean, students going around campus to spread the word about the occupation, and more. Then there are those who are working on logistics and press coverage.
Q. What will it take for the state government and administration to
This is a big question! Unfortunately, it may not be enough simply to focus on amending the state of California constitution, which makes it notoriously difficult to construct a reasonable budget, or simply to focus on the next round of state elections in order to put into power friendlier decisionmakers. These things might certainly help or be steps along the way.
On the one hand, our occupation is informed by a deep critique of the political economy of the system that underscores the unacceptable way in which things are accorded value by nothing more than the bottom-line, by nothing more than the potential to make profit (and this is what is driving the budget cuts and re-structuring at the UC); on the other hand, we don’t suppose to have the answer in detail to this question, though we are convinced that attempts to negotiate to protect our own singular interests or programs or jobs–which is tantamount to arguing for their value against, and not in conjunction with or in a complementary relationship to other programs–are only making matters even worse for everyone. Deleveraging in order to rectify problems in one’s balance sheet–whether at the state, university, or local level–does not cleanly map onto a process of social devaluation, and yet this congruence is a demand of the standard operating procedures of how our institutions are currently being run, including our universities. Protests are a manifestation of that gap between the two processes of balancing a budget and people feeling their own devaluation by the system.
Anyone who slavishly submits to a social logic that reduces social things to a line item in the budget might find it hard to comprehend how protests are part and parcel to the system, not roadblocks to its smoother operation. Protests on the level of the UC Walkout and now our occupation signify that this imperative to rectify accounts is determined by a grossly unfair set of priorities that must be rejected.
We’re tired of hearing UC President Mark Yudof talk about making the UC more “efficient,” more “competitive,” about “human capital,” not because we are against some notion of what it means to be efficient, to not be wasteful, but because his speech demonstrates he needs a more complex analytic of the dynamics over-taking the UC system in this crisis. A broad-based social movement that has the capacity to articulate an alternative collective vision to the narrow, corporatist special-interests that control our budgets and strategic planning will be necessary. Nobody is sure what this will look like yet.
For now, we believe one of the first steps to building such a movement is to show that escalation and occupation is necessary and possible. We hope that groups of students, faculty, and everyday Californians can begin to see themselves, too, as people who can organize, occupy, and escalate to fight back.