Standing outside the Ché Café, wedged in a hillside on the University of California San Diego campus, David Morales says “the radicals there terrified me” the first time he visited in 1987. Just 18 years old, he was bewildered by the political and music scene alien to his experience growing up in San Diego, a bastion of conservatism that’s a major port for the U.S. Navy and sandwiched between the massive Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to the north and the militarized border with Mexico to the south.
Morales quickly warmed to the “incredible mix of cultural expression from students and youth,” and fell in love with the Ché Café’s eclectic music shows that spanned reggae to punk rock. He met his future wife at the shed-like café, and years later he says “we buried our eldest son’s placenta in the eucalyptus grove” on the far reaches of the café grounds.
After graduating from UCSD in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in communication, the 45-year-old Morales’ focus shifted to his family, and he would only “show up now and then to an event” at the space. Now he’s a fixture once more at the Ché Café along with other old-timers and a slew of youth because the UCSD administration is on the verge of booting out the collective that’s been running the café for 34 years.
Claiming there are safety concerns about the condition of the buildings, the administration is close to securing a five-day notice to vacate after months of maneuvering to squeeze both funding and student support. Café supporters dispute the claims, pointing out that in April the university’s own facility inspector concluded that that the space “is looking good in terms of safety” other than “one minor item [of concern]” next to the main building.
Monty Kroopkin, who matriculated to UCSD in 1970, is the in-house expert on the collective’s decades-long battles with the administration. He says the three-building facility was established in 1966 and originally known as the Coffee House Express, or C.H.E. for short. In 1979, after the administration tried to turn it into a faculty club, the students gained control and established the Ché Café—changing the meaning of the acronym to “Cheap Healthy Eats.”
Since then the collective has been fending off attempts by the administration to shutter the cafe UCSD officials have invoked health and safety issues repeatedly, going so far as to change the café’s locks in 2000 before supporters occupied it, forcing the administration to back down. That’s why Kroopkin, Morales and others are concerned about the looming eviction order but are not yet hitting the panic button.
The threat of closure has generated an influx of supporters. Ché Café recently delivered a petition with 14,000 signatures asking the administration to halt the eviction and negotiate a new lease. While the administration claims the facility is used by many outsiders (which is also true of the high-profile and independently operated La Jolla Playhouse that’s on campus), students occupied an academic hall on November 24 in support of the Ché Café and to oppose planned tuition increases of 28 percent over the next five years in the entire University of California system.
The Ché collective is growing as well as members meet regularly to formulate responses to the administration’s moves. When I popped by on a warm Sunday afternoon in mid-November they were discussing a university decree that they halt programming, the cultural lifeblood and business model of the café. Before the meeting a handful of us gathered outside as Morales’ youngest daughter and two friends race around the patio, past a stenciled painting of an AK-47 emblazoned with the slogan, “No Gods No Masters.”
To those who’ve found a home in the Ché Café, it represents radical possibilities. In 2003 Trevor Stutzman found in the Ché an all-age venue steeped in San Diego’s “rich music history.” He says at age 15 he was “exposed to a real alternative, a non-hierarchical worker collective. It affects you the rest of your life and how you see the world.”
While Stutzman attended college elsewhere, he’s been a regular at the café that is “a bridge between the community and university.” The others nod in agreement. Kroopkin adds that the café’s existence raises the question, “Is the university’s role to serve its ‘clientele’ or is it to serve the broader community?”
The one-story wood buildings are splashed with radical-history murals by painters like Victor Ochoa and Mario Torero whose works are also found in San Diego’s famed (and contested) Chicano Park. Morales guides me through the eucalyptus grove, where he’s “watched owls make love,” to the organic vegetable garden in back. There I meet Jeanine Webb, who is studying toward a doctorate in poetics at UCSD and has been a collective member for three months.
Webb laments, “There are so few radical spaces left on University of California campuses.” She argues the administration’s plan is to remove “student spaces that provide a place where free thought and culture can exist because they don’t support the neoliberal profit motive and have ‘uncontrollable’ aspects inherent to them.”
Kroopkin says over the years the university has been hostile to the Ché Café and the three other student-run cooperatives on campus: the General Store Co-op, Groundwork Books, and the Food Co-op. He explains that they are the only student-run and cooperatively organized entities at the university with their own revenue streams, bank accounts, payroll and insurance. “They are legally autonomous,” Kroopkin says. “Not even the UCSD student government is autonomous, unlike the UCLA or Berkeley bodies.”
That is the heart of the conflict, says Webb. Spaces like Ché Café don’t fit into the corporate university, which is why she says the administration wants to “sanitize” them. It’s hard to disagree. What’s happening in the University of California system and Ché Café is a microcosm of U.S. society.
Over time, as the market has extended its tendrils into all parts of daily life, radical spaces have disappeared in much of U.S. society. In the late 19th century agrarian grange halls and entire utopian communities were commonplace. Decades later labor temples, radical coffeehouses, theaters, publishers, bars and bookstores had their heyday along with socialist and communist halls and camps. Radical spaces remain in many college campuses as do union halls and cultural spaces but they are all under siege, save perhaps those hosted by progressive religious outfits.
Radical spaces in workplaces, public squares, churches, schools, and neighborhoods are breeding grounds for social movements of every stripe. Factories have been a primary site of struggle since the industrial era began. Karl Marx argued capitalists would be their own undoing: bringing workers together under one roof would enable them to realize their common interests as a working class and overthrown the capitalist system. While that prediction of solely a worker-led revolution seems unlikely to come to pass in an era when production has been outsourced through technology and fragmented around the globe, movements are unmoored without space to incubate, grow and survive.
Occupy Wall Street would not have existed without seizing common space in dozens of cities, enabling everyday life to be reimagined. After Occupy took root in the fall of 2011, I would stand on the steps overlooking Zuccotti Park, just a stone’s throw from the New York Stock Exchange, and watch as hundreds of people clumped in knots exchanged ideas, food, books, technology, art, media, medical care, counseling, clothing, shelter, emotions and more. Not one exchange was mediated by money, which was in sharp contrast to the fevered consumption all around in Manhattan. Different political and social forms were fermenting, especially ones where the market held far less sway than is normal in daily life. However, it never recovered once it lost those spaces no matter how much activists told themselves, “You can’t evict an idea.”
As powerful and widespread as the recent protests have been against the failure to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed Black teen Michael Brown, outbursts in the street can’t replace spaces where community and trust is built, leadership and organization developed, and vision and strategy debated and implemented.
The reason so many radical spaces have closed down is the same reason Ché Café is imperiled: money. Recently one of the most storied alternative spaces in the country, New York City’s Brecht Forum, shut down. A popular education institute and theater, the Brecht cited financial difficulties as the reason for packing it in after nearly 40 years, but some sources within the organization indicated there was a political decision to turn down substantial funding that could have saved it because it would have likely meant shifting its organizational form or vision.
An activist space in Brooklyn known as The Commons is filling some of that role by providing classes in left history and politics. Its funding model is based on the investing savvy of its politically minded owner who purchased the building years ago in a depressed area that has gentrified, like much of the city. There’s nothing wrong with politically minded philanthropy as the radical left needs all the help it can get.
Another space taking shape elsewhere in Brooklyn is aiming to be a comprehensive community resource while adapting to market realities. Ana Nogueira and McNair Scott are the principals behind the Mayday Community Space. I worked with the two for years at the New York City Indymedia Center, which got off to a roaring start in 2000 when a left-leaning hactivist donated a midtown office space to the group of media makers.
Noguiera is a former producer at Democracy Now! and half of the team that made the award-winning film about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Roadmap to Apartheid. She says her inspiration for Mayday comes from “one of my formative experiences as a teenager: seeing a show at the Wetlands Preserve and discovering a whole world of environmental activism.” During its 12-year run, Wetlands was located in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan and fused live concerts with environmental activism, but was steamrollered by gentrification in 2001.
Nogueira says she hopes Mayday Space “plays a similar role, drawing people to music shows and introducing them to movements,” while facilitating “affordable space for people to use in a city where rents are super high.”
To do that they’ve formed two separate entities: a for-profit bar, “where you come in, put down money, and get a drink,” and a separate nonprofit community space. The bar has investors who will receive a share of profits. Nogueira says up to 25 percent of the profits will go “to front-line activist groups who need quick infusions of cash.” She explains it’s meant for groups that don’t have the time to apply for grants. They’ve batted around ideas like helping fund a protest called on short notice or support needed after a nonviolent direct action.
“Our investors support this vision and mission of sustaining a community space in Bushwick and a rapid-response activist fund,” Nogueira says. The bar will also subsidize the community space. It got a test run this summer before the People’s Climate March after Avaaz and 350.org paid Mayday’s landlord $20,000 for three months use of the space.
Nogeuira says, “It was amazing to see the place come to life. We couldn’t have picked a better inaugural event. People from across the city saw there was a space that could be a resource and it introduced us to the Bushwick community where we’re located. It introduced the space to movements we want to be connected to, and they got to see what the space could be. And it was a dry run on how to manage a dozen volunteers, create a safe space for everyone, and keep it open for 20 hours a day.”
They already have a well-known tenant in the form of Make The Road, an immigrant-focused workers center that has successfully agitated for workplace rights and against wage theft in many cases. Nogueira says, “Make The Road is going to host workshops on adult literacy, English classes, and citizenship education in the Mayday Space. We are going to complement that with Spanish classes, tenants’ rights workshops, and legal workshops such as workplace rights and know your rights workshops.”
The five-member Mayday collective is serious about serving the community, mainly comprised of low-income Puerto Rican and Mexican families. Tenants’ rights is one of the best tools to slow down the maelstrom of gentrification that’s been unleashed on Bushwick by the HBO show, Girls, which is set there. Nogeuira says local groups planning to do workshops in the space include Bushwick Copwatch and Families Against Police Violence. Other projects in the works include starting a rooftop farm with youth in the community and cooking classes
Nogueira says one important role the Mayday space will serve is nurturing movements and linkages they can’t yet envision. “We hope it will facilitate movement building across issues and be a neutral ground to meet where people can cross pollinate. We’ve seen that happen already through the climate organizing where people also ended up discussing police brutality, what’s happening in Ferguson, and NSA spying.”
That’s precisely the kind of role Ché Café has played through its history, says Monty Kroopkin. Its crowning achievement was serving as an organizing hub for the student campaign in the eighties that pressured the University of California to divest more than $3 billion of investments from companies doing business in South Africa. Nelson Mandela singled out the UC students’ role in helping topple apartheid when he visited Berkley, California, in 1990 after gaining freedom.
No one knows what the future holds for spaces like the Ché Café and Mayday, but their mere existence is a beacon of hope for movements and activists whether old or new.
Arun Gupta contributes to outlets including Al Jazeera America, Vice, The Progressive, The Guardian, and In These Times.
A version of this article was originally published by Telesur.