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Occupy Everything!

Berkeley.

This was bound to be a big week in California regardless, as the threat of a 32 percent tuition and fee increase across the University of California system made a crashing entrance into reality with Wednesday’s vote by the UC Board of Regents. Perhaps the Regents and UC President Mark Yudof expected that their diversionary tactics–lament the crisis and direct blame to Sacramento’s budget cuts–would pay off. But this was not to be.

Aided in no small part by the explosive exposé published by UC Santa Cruz Professor of Political Science Bob Meister, the student, faculty, and workers’ movements the length and breadth of the state were no longer willing to accept privatization disguised as crisis-imposed budget cuts. As Meister explained in no uncertain terms, the proposed (and now passed) tuition increase has nothing whatsoever to do with budget cuts, but the cuts merely provided the pretext for a long-planned drive (and Reaganite wet dream) to privatize public education in California once and for all.

Anti-Capital Projects

A statewide day of action on September 24th generated mass walkouts and sporadic occupations, both successful (at UC Santa Cruz) and not (at UC Berkeley). A UC-centric assembly called for a month later yielded mixed results: a plan to build for a March 4th action, but only the vaguest of decisions regarding what such actions would entail. This sporadic guerrilla struggle, however, would yield a full-scale war of maneuver once the stakes of the November 18th UC Regents meeting became clear.

A coalition of organizations at UC Berkeley endorsed a three day strike in which the third day, contingent upon the expected Regents’ decision, called simply for “Escalation.” On Thursday the 19th, UCLA protestors seized Campbell Hall (now renamed “Carter-Huggins Hall” after the slain Black Panthers who lost their lives between those very walls in 1969). Across campus, protestors confronted the Regents themselves as they voted for the fee hikes, with the militarized atmosphere sparking first clashes on Wednesday and then a veritable state of siege in Thursday from which the Regents were forced to flee the angry crowds.

Just a few short hours later, UCSC students marched from the already-occupied Kresge Town Hall to Kerr administration building, gaining unexpected access to and holding the building until Sunday. Also on Thursday, hundreds of UC Davis students occupied the Mrak administrative building on campus, clearly touching a nerve and prompting 52 arrests. Less than 24 hours later, students again occupied: this time in Dutton Hall, where they remained until being dispersed by police. As this goes to press, Mrak is again in the crosshairs.

At Berkeley on Wednesday afternoon, after a rally and march of some 1,000 students, workers, and faculty at UC Berkeley, a group of more than thirty surreptitiously gained access to the diminutive Architects and Engineers Building, nestled between Sproul and Barrows Halls and which hosts UCB’s capital projects. Responding in part to Meister’s revelation that it was capital projects rather than budget cuts that were driving the cuts and fee increases, activists responded with a communiqué and website aptly entitled “Anti-Capital Projects”:

The arriving freshman is treated as a mortgage, and the fees are climbing. She is a future revenue stream, and the bills are growing. She is security for a debt she never chose, and the cost is staggering… No building will be safe from occupation while this is the case. No capital project but the project to end capital.

The occupation of the Capital Projects Building, however, would be short-lived, as police soon gained access and occupiers negotiated a strategic withdrawal on the promise that they would not engage in any other unlawful activity for a week. But a week is a long time at moments like these.

Lines of Force are Revealed

At around 6am on Thursday morning, UCPD became aware that Wheeler Hall, a prominent and massive building at the very heart of the Berkeley campus, had been occupied by more than 40 protesters. Police quickly gained access to the lower floors of the building, arresting three occupiers, who were immediately and vindictively charged not with trespassing, but with felony burglary. By 6:30a.m., an already surprising number of supporters, in the dozens, had received word of the occupation and gathered on the west side of Wheeler to show their support. By mid-morning, the number had increased to hundreds. As the crowd grew, UCPD responded with a mutually-reinforcing combination of aggression and fear: aggressively smashing into the growing crowds to install metal barriers where caution tape had proven insufficient, and calling desperately for backup first to Berkeley PD, then to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, and finally to Oakland PD.

Around 1pm, the skies opened up in a downpour that might have, in other conditions and other situations, dispersed the crowd entirely. But instead, umbrellas popped up like mushroom caps, tents were erected, and plastic bags distributed as makeshift ponchos as the crowd of hundreds persisted. Had the police gained access to the occupiers during the storm, the day would have ended much differently. But as it turned out, the occupiers held strong, the skies cleared, and as evening fell, the crowds began to swell further. One demonstrator confessed nostalgia at the sight of the umbrellas, and the reminder they offered of another seminal moment in trans-sectoral unity: that of the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle that sparked the alter-globalization movement.

The occupiers, visible through a series of windows on the west side of Wheeler, relayed their demands to the gathering crowds by megaphone:

Rehire all 38 AFCSME custodial workers recently laid off;

Drop all charges and provide total amnesty to all persons occupying buildings and involved in student protests concerning budget cuts;

Maintain the current business occupants of the bears lair food court and enter into respectful and good faith negotiations;

Preserve Rochdale apartments leased to Berkeley student cooperative for $1 a year in perpetuity.

It became clear that the police and university administration were in no mood to negotiate on these terms: this much they communicated non-verbally with their pepper spray under the door, with their battering rams and wedges, and verbally with their promises of violence, as occupiers were told to “get ready for the beatdown.” Some of the occupiers, overtaken by the unmistakable candor of such threats, sought a last-minute compromise that would allow them to leave unscathed.

For a while it seemed as though such negotiations had failed dismally. Demonstrators outside could hear the police making a final offensive to smash down the door, and the occupiers could be seen as dusk fell, back to the window, visible only in outline with their hands raised to be arrested. But the atmosphere was tense, and the swelling crowd had no plans to let the police carry the arrestees out without a fight. Hours earlier, tactical groups had been preemptively dispatched to all possible exits from the network of underground tunnels that connect Wheeler to the neighboring buildings. Students who, by all outward appearance, could have been members of sororities or fraternities, demanded to know where bodies were most needed to maintain a strong and impermeable perimeter.

Let this be clear: if the students were arrested and carried out, there was going to be a fight. A riot? Perhaps (this much depended on the police). A fight? Mos def.

A “Victory”?

As with all massively important political moments, the rancid stench of opportunism was never far off, emanating from some student leaders and faculty alike. While many faculty members performed admirably during the standoff (some, like Professor of Integrative Biology Robert Dudley even being arrested for their efforts), some skillfully substituted their own voices and their own demands for those of the students engaged in the occupation.

Particularly egregious in this respect was Democratic Party “framing” strategist and self-styled movement guru George Lakoff. Visibly angered by the occupiers’ refusal to leave Wheeler voluntarily (without any of their demands having been met, of course), Lakoff seized the megaphone to spew the morally bankrupt argument that since the students knew they would be met with police violence, they would themselves be responsible for creating that violence if they chose to remain. No more repulsive a phrase was uttered that day. And were this not sufficient, Lakoff was even heard lying repeatedly to the occupiers, insisting that there had been no police violence, no rubber bullets, and no injuries outside the building, all in an effort to manipulate those inside into abandoning the occupation.

In speaking with more than a dozen of the occupiers, one sentiment above all was expressed regarding the role of many faculty that day: a deep sense of betrayal. As one occupier told me: “we asked the faculty to mediate and to negotiate with the administration as a way to get our demands out, but apparently they interpreted this as a call to negotiate with us so that we would leave the building.” In fact, many of those mediating–be they faculty, ASUC officials, and leaders of student organizations–were self-appointed and drawn almost unanimously from the ranks of those who had opposed the tactic of occupation to begin with. And this would show: according to many of the occupiers, these mediators, in focusing their attention on calming the crowds outside and encouraging the occupiers to leave, had effectively performed a “policing function” that protected the administration from the protesters.

Ali Tonak, a UC Berkeley graduate student, summarizes the feeling that many expressed:

They have a warped understanding of how power works. They think that calming people outside was keeping the people inside safe, when it was really the opposite: the only thing that was keeping the folks inside safe was people being rowdy outside. In the end, the negotiators were doing the job of the state.

And this opportunism was not limited to faculty. As word came down that a deal had been struck to allow the students to walk out the front doors of Wheeler with nothing but misdemeanors, those who had spent the day attempting to calm the angry crowds shifted their demobilizing efforts into full gear, shutting down any and all possible debate regarding what had transpired. The crowd was urged to sit (ironically, while chanting that they were “fired up,” and that students should “stand up” for their rights), and self-appointed student leaders, most of whom had opposed the occupation plans from the very beginning, set about explaining that the day had been a “victory.”

Of course, in a sense it had been a victory of sorts, but not in the sense that it was presented to the crowd. It was no coincidence that all interruptions from the crowd, from those who wondered aloud, “What about the demands? What about the layoffs? What about the fees?” were quickly and summarily dismissed and silenced by self-appointed “mediators” whose only common feature was their previous opposition to occupations.

A recent statement from the UCLA occupation of Carter-Huggins Hall sets its sights on student body president Cinthia Flores, “a junior politician careerist bent on control,” and in so doing provides an acute diagnosis of the more general danger of political opportunism, a danger which must be fought tooth-and-nail if the movement is to move forward:

These people thrive on the status quo, it’s their realm, and they always want to drag back those who escape. There are CINTHIA’s everywhere who make up and direct the movement-police to be encountered at any site of struggle. Occupation takes power and immediately destroys its concentrated form. Beware of bureaucrats, occupy everything!

A “Peaceful” Ending?

And the claim that the occupiers had emerged victorious erased more than their unfulfilled demands. It also concealed the aggressively violent response that UCPD and its imported proxies had unleashed that day. As mentioned above, this violence began early on, as UCPD attempted to install metal barricades by wading into the growing crowds and attacking anyone standing their ground. As the day progressed, police from various forces were seen ruthlessly pounding any and all protestors who disobeyed the momentary absoluteness of their sovereignty, with one such protestor being shot in the chest with an unidentified projectile.

The pettiness of such sovereignty and the repulsiveness of its executors were in no case so clear as that of UC Berkeley graduate student Zhivka Valiavicharska. As this video shows, an unidentified member of (what appears to be) the UCPD suddenly found his authority called into question by the fact that Zhivka’s hands were on a police barrier, and found it necessary to threaten her and strike the barrier with his baton. What the video does not show occurred just a minute later, when the officer again approached the barrier and smashed Zhivka’s hand with full force, breaking two fingers and nearly reducing one to pulp so that it was hanging by threads.

As Zhivka herself describes the attack:

I was holding on to the barrier with one of my hands, and this cop came up and started rudely shouting at me, telling me to take my hand off and threatening me.  My hand remained there. The cop made me withdraw my hand by hitting the rail right next to it. When I leaned it again on the rail, he smashed it with full force. It was very deliberate, very skillful, and extremely excessive, since no one was challenging the barriers where I was at that moment.

Who was the officer that maliciously and intentionally attacked a member of the student population with the intention to do serious bodily harm? What of the witnessing officer, J. Williams, Badge #93, who is clearly identifiable in the video? Will UCPD and Chancellor Birgeneau immediately begin an investigation into the officer’s identity, suspend him immediately, and press criminal charges?

Former Berkeley undergraduate Yaman Salahi was present to witness the police violence, and immediately penned a thoughtful and necessary letter to the UC Berkeley community in which he heaps responsibility, quite rightly, onto the shoulders of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, for not only loosing these various police forces onto the campus community, but also for attempting to cover up the violence he himself had unleashed in an email dispatch later sent to the entire campus community. Despite the many instances of documented violence by police, the Chancellor nevertheless insisted that the situation “ended peacefully” and thanked the police for playing a positive role.

Salahi demands a “statement against the deployment of non-UCPD personnel against students on this campus in the future,” adding that “In addition to students’ limbs, something has been broken, and Chancellor Birgeneau’s cover-up will not fix it.” But while I agree with Salahi’s general concerns, it is worth noting that it was not OPD, BPD, or the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department that smashed Zhivka’s fingers. It was UCPD, a force which remains as alien to the university community as OPD is to East Oakland. When we challenge their privatizing efforts, they will meet us with whatever force is at their disposal and with whatever violence is deemed necessary. As I write this, however, it appears as though Salahi’s call is meeting some receptive ears, and a group of prominent faculty members have begun an investigation into the police brutality deployed against students all across the UC system.

Remembrance the Past, Realizing Our Power

Remembering and reinscribing the violence of this police response into our collective memory of the occupation is of more than historical interest, however, and consists of more than merely remembering the pain inflicted upon our comrades, however necessary this may be. It is in this violent police response that a strategically correct interpretation of events lies, and this fact makes efforts to conceal the conflict of the day more than merely an effort to prevent further violence. The police response showed precisely what was at stake in the occupation, and what remains at stake in the movement more generally. The police response showed exactly how far the UC Regents, President Yudof, and the local administrations are willing to go in order to drive the privatization of public education down our unwilling throats. It showed us, in short, that we were doing something right, and we can expect more of the same if we ever hope to win.

And that’s not all: the final police and administration response–that of opting to let the occupiers walk out of Wheeler of their own accord–tells even more of the story. It tells us just how powerful our collective presence was on that day. There can be no doubt that every single occupier would have been arrested, likely beaten and abused to some degree, and hit with the trumped-up felony charges, had the crowd not been assembled outside. And this was not merely because the crowd was bearing witness to injustice or expressing its verbal non-consent.

It was not moderation and negotiation that created and sustained this pivotal moment and generated its outcome: it was the unmistakable show of force that the students gathered represented, a force that was not merely symbolic. As the great revolutionary CLR James once put it: “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.” The same could be said of today’s privatizers of public education, and those running things more generally. Oakland’s Oscar Grant rebellions taught us this much in January, as it was only the threat of continued rioting that put BART officer Johannes Mehserle behind bars. The Berkeley occupation movement teaches us the same lesson today.

And we have late word of a library occupation at Cal State Fresno, and more are on the way, at Berkeley and elsewhere. Earlier today, marchers occupied the UC Office of the President in downtown Oakland to demand a face-to-face with Mark Yudof. Further, the contagion is international, as the students who have held Austria in a constant state of occupation for weeks on end descended en masse yesterday onto the US embassy in Vienna as a demonstration of solidarity with the California occupations and outrage at the images of police violence that have been broadcast across the globe. This is a force that is expanding as we speak, and will do so as the months pass and contradictions become more acute. The university struggle has turned a crucial corner on the UC Berkeley campus, and a qualitative leap in consciousness has occurred, by weight not of peaceful entreaties but of forceful demands.

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at U.C. Berkeley. He can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.

 

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George Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, also published by Duke University Press.

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