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UC Berkeley and the Myth of the Activist Life

On February 13th, 2014, I attended a UC Berkeley protest against the appointment of Janet Napolitano as President of the UC system.* The qualms against her appointment fall outside of my purview to describe here. This piece is much larger than Napolitano, or the protest itself. Instead, lets look at how systemic economic inequality has affected the mentality (and thereby the capability for action) of my generation.

Organized by the Associated Students of the University of California, the protest attracted upward of 500 people, purported thousands if you count onlookers and those who bore witness momentarily. With protest signs, cloth banners, megaphones and fists of solidarity, this crowd of young students had been protesting since 10 am. I started asking onlookers what their motivations were for being there and what they thought of the movement until I realized, this was no real protest.

Napolitano was in Sutardja Dai Hall. Protesters had taken the nearby Blum Center For Developing Economies. We stood, fists held high and shouting into a megaphone, all pointed in the opposite direction from our supposed target. Sutardja Dai Hall was inconveniently guarded, with five large men guarding the bottom entrance, doors locked on the second floor, three cops with shiny sunglasses glaring down at us from the top floor and two cops on bikes circling the building. News reporters stood aside, pointing their video camera into the disjointed group, many of whom were unaware of what our strategy was, or what our demands were.

Why aren’t we occupying Sutardja Dai Hall?

I began to ask those around me. The ASUC had emphasized that they were “not going to negotiate with Napolitano on the issue of her resignation.” But how would occupying a nearby building do anything at all? Why are we not engaging in constructive dialogue? “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!” But how will chanting together do anything but stroke our own egos? “But this is Berkeley, radicals. All of us!” Pure ideological masturbation unless you do something provocative to cause change.

I am frustrated that Berkeley continues to perpetuate the myth of its activist lifestyle for economic gain. It sells an image of the rebel protester, the ideological martyr, to a generation of youth that cannot find their way four blocks north without GPS, never mind find their way past the bureaucratic labyrinth to create substantial change. With their tuition and the gradual privatization of education (see: millions of dollars from ecologically destructive corporations like BP), they perpetuate the inequality of wealth and even endorse human rights abusers, as they have by allowing Napolitano to be their system president.

If Mario Savio were amongst us, he would hang his head in absolute shame. Not just at the cafe on campus toting his name as a publicity stunt, but at our failure to question the status quo. To disturb the system, you don’t occupy a building which poses no strategical advantage, you don’t chant just to make yourself feel good, and you do not boast that you are creating community when really all you’re doing is attracting people who want to update their facebooks with a new “rebel” profile picture.

This frustration is also fueled by great hope that I once had in the Occupy movement. Surrounded by well-intentioned, intelligent people, I was sure that change was in our grasp, but we were outlasted in our patience, overcome by our fragmentation, and overconfident in our abilities. Now, I was ready to rush the police to occupy a space of power for those who couldn’t. To represent those who had been deported from their country because of Napolitano’s discriminatory policies. To recognize our own humanity in a space where we would not be welcome. To demand recognition and respect as a human being rather than an authorized citizen.

But doing so would require facing down strongmen of the establishment. To do so would put in jeopardy our clean police records with some nonsense charge of non-compliance. As a fellow protester said, she worried that if we actually tried to change something, she wouldn’t be able to get a job because it would show up on her record. She didn’t actually think anything would change.

Bulls eye. Compliance to capitalism fueled by fear. The threat of economic punishment if we are labeled as radical. The revolution will not come through those who are merely surviving. To squash the potential for social change, create a climate of such drastic inequality that people become self-paralyzed by their own fear. Render them helpless with the threat of poverty, entertain them with mindless content to distract them from critically thinking about changing society and you have a population you can manipulate and control into governable, well-behaved, self-regulated, obedient proletariat (even if they buy into the myth that they are in the well-off middle class).

To have successfully sent a message to the establishment that we were serious about this change would have required taking Satardja Dai Hall. By not doing so, it was as if the protest was sending the message, “We are here to work within the parameters of our permitted protest, structurally delegitimizing any possibility for actual change. Take your radical theory elsewhere.”

This is not radical. Berkeley students are sold on the idea they will be challenging the inequalities of our generation, but are I have never met people such rigid thought patterns, a lack of critical theory or action. To see such conformity, docility, and fear in my fellow students was enraging.

From the persons taking selfies, from others like me with their head low, and from smirking police men, I walked away with one thought in my mind. The system in place sublimely manipulates our social reality in ways obvious only when we realize that there is nothing between us and the police but fear, air, and opportunity. Why do we hesitate? Why have we grown so fearful? Are we just scared that we will ruin our economic chances of success if we take a social stand? Have we sacrificed the potential for community and solidarity to the gods of hyper-individualistic profit?

I am just as bad as they are. I left to write. How will these words demand to be recognized, demand the power they deserve in order to chip away at the inequalities of our modern world system?

I’m not sure. I’m just as bad as they are.

*This issue is larger than just the protest or Napolitano. I don’t intend to demean the protesters who are still in Blum, risking their careers and deportation, but rather point to a larger issue of fear, inequality, and the conformity of all involved in the systemic manipulation of the capitalist system.

Alexandra McGee is a graduate student of the University of California, Berkeley.

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