"Solidarity" Beats Austerity

— Meleiza Figueroa and Julie Michelle Klinger

THE TUMULTUOUS MONTH of November 2011 marked the emergence of a powerful and widespread movement on public university campuses throughout California.

Brutal police repression of Occupy encampments at UC Berkeley and UC Davis gained national media attention and sparked massive solidarity actions among social justice movements around the nation and the world. Our experiences in the Bay Area — especially at Occupy Oakland and UC Berkeley — present a snapshot of recent events, which offer some insights and possibilities for the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and existing social justice struggles.

Taking on the now-familiar forms of the Occupy movement — including encampgents, general assemblies, and the “people’s mic” — the student struggle against crippling debt, budget cuts, and astronomical fee hikes has become synonymous with the larger Occupy movements in public squares. Yet the movement for public education, especially at UC campuses, is not quite the same as Occupy Wall Street; it has its own flavor, composition and objectives.

The public education movement and Occupy are materially and meaningfully intertwined, and, at least through our experiences at UC Berkeley, have co-evolved through the actions of students and the surrounding community. Occupy Wall Street has, in a sense, “occupied” our campuses, forging solidarities between students and the general public, pushing the struggle for public education to new heights.

At UC Berkeley, students have been organizing to fight the austerity agenda against the public university for many years. UC campuses have been in an uproar over layoffs, cuts to student services, decreasing access for students of color under Proposition 209’s affirmative action ban and a near-tripling of fees since 2000.

This semester, an 81% fee hike (which would have put the cost of attending UC over $20,000 per year in fees alone) was up for a vote by the UC Regents, and the campus began mobilizing almost immediately after classes began.

The Public Education Coalition — made up of students, faculty, and campus workers, including veterans of the 2009-2010 UC student protests — kicked off the season with a demonstration on September 22nd, which culminated in a brief occupation of Tolman Hall, the former education building. The event was a relative success, and organizing continued apace for planned actions on November 9th and 16th.

Then Occupy Wall Street swept the nation. — and on October 10th, Occupy Oakland launched its encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza (renamed Oscar Grant Plaza) in front of City Hall in downtown Oakland, just five miles from the Berkeley campus. UC Berkeley students, many of whom live in Oakland due to Berkeley’s prohibitively high rent prices, were involved in Occupy Oakland since the beginning.

Many of us camped in the space when we could, helped with various support structures (such as medical aid, translation, and food provision), attended general assemblies, and participated in caucuses, committees and workshops. Through participating in Occupy Oakland, many Berkeley students were able to break through the relative “bubble” of campus life and deeply engage with Oakland’s political community.

We got to know many community members, and through our encounters and discussions, forged relationships and a sense of solidarity that would carry through to future actions. Oakland’s encampment, in turn, was fertile ground for the cultivation of an especially radical and militant extension of Occupy Wall Street.

It reflected the city’s deep working-class and radical roots and steeped participants in Oakland’s rich history of political struggle, from the labor strikes of the 1930s and 1940s, to the emergence of the Black Panther Party and anti-Vietnam War protests, and more recent organizing around the police murder of Oscar Grant.

Our political education continued with the intensification of Occupy Oakland’s struggle. Many UC Berkeley students were present during the brutal morning raid on October 25th, and helped defend the occupation when the streets erupted in police violence that night. As police clad in riot gear fired concussion grenades and teargas into the crowd, we discovered our own courage and resilience as we repeatedly regrouped and reconverged around the heavily guarded Oscar Grant Plaza. Where police sought to create chaos and fear, we responded with resolute, yet defiant calm.

We were also there the next night, for Occupy Oakland’s triumphant return. As 3000 protestors flooded Oscar Grant Plaza, dismantled the fences, voted for a general strike, and took the streets in a massive, unpermitted march through downtown Oakland, many students experienced the kind of solidarity and militancy that would embolden us for the struggles ahead. And on November 2nd, as 30,000-50,000 people marched on the Port of Oakland, successfully shutting it down, many of us felt — some for the first time — the taste of victory.

On November 9th, the Public Education Coalition launched Occupy Cal, starting with a demonstration at Sproul Plaza, on the steps dedicated to the memory of Mario Savio, the student leader of the 1964 Free Speech Movement. After a successful rally of 3,000-5,000 students, workers, instructors, and professors, we marched on Bank of America and, upon returning to campus, convened a General Assembly that voted overwhelmingly to set up an encampment.

The police, operating under orders from the campus administration, responded immediately and violently. Many of us experienced police violence for a second time, as some of the same police forces brought Oakland’s repression onto our campus.

Berkeley’s solidarity with Oakland was not only experiential, but material as well. Before the Berkeley demonstrations, a solidarity resolution between Occupy Oakland and the movement to defend public education was presented and passed with a 99.5% vote at Oakland’s General Assembly.

After the beatings and repression of students on the 9th, a student strike was called for Tuesday, November 15th. We were joined by Occupy Oakland, who led a solidarity march from Oscar Grant Plaza to the campus, and helped us to run a General Assembly of several thousand people.

The strike culminated in a massive rally in Sproul Plaza, where former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich delivered the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture on the steps where the Free Speech movement was born.

Tents once again went up amidst a crowd of 10,000. Since then, the steps at Sproul Plaza have continued to be ground zero for student organizing; “Open University” lectures and seminars take place daily, and General Assemblies for Occupy Cal take place in the evenings.

The brutal police repression of Occupy Cal and Occupy UC Davis, as well as crackdowns on Occupy movements throughout the nation, served to galvanize activists and deliver several victories to the students. Several actions across the UC and CSU systems in November have reflected this.

The November 16th meeting of the UC Regents at UCSF Mission Bay was cancelled due to fears that “rogue elements” could incite violent disruption. The planned protest quickly reorganized in response. Demonstrators marched on the State Building after occupying a Bank of America in San Francisco’s Financial District.

Students occupying the bank were able to speak to UC Regent Monica Lozano, who sits on the board of Bank of America, by phone, and demanded that she sign a pledge to make the 1% pay their fair share for public education.(1) Regents also postponed the vote on the controversial 81% fee hike.

On the same day, demonstrations at CSU Long Beach were repressed by police with pepper spray; the CSU Trustees later voted on a 9% fee hike behind closed doors, which was ruled to be illegal.  They re-scheduled the vote for December 5th.

The UC Regents’ meeting was re-scheduled for Monday, November 28th, and teleconferenced across four different campus locations (UCSF, UC Merced, UC Davis, and UCLA). After an unprecedented one-and-a-half-hour-long public comment period, students at all four locations used the “people’s mic” to successfully transform the meetings into “People’s Regents Meetings.”

Some Regents, including Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, agreed to sit down and speak with students and workers on their own terms.

On the same day, the UC Berkeley Academic Senate passed a resolution condemning top administrators, including Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, for their use of police force on November 9th. The resolution passed by a 10-1 margin.

Most recently, students and outraged community members took control of the December 1st Police Review Board meeting at UC Berkeley. After the Board made clear that it would not discuss the events of November 9th, the students used a combination of public comment, “mic checks” and the General Assembly format of the Occupy movement to transform the meeting into a “People’s Police Review Board Meeting.”

The People’s Meeting convened after the Police Review Board, which included former Boalt Law School Dean Jesse Choper, and current UCPD captain Margo Bennett, was forced to expose its procedural inadequacies and multiple conflicts of interest. Students and community members called for a truly independent review and accountability structure for UCPD.

ReFund California

While the student and Occupy Wall Street struggles are complementary, it is important to note that they are not one and the same. The movement for public education in California, unlike Occupy Wall Street, is in many ways a more “traditional” movement, with very specific demands, objectives, and political actors.

ReFund California, a statewide coalition of students, workers, homeowners, and community members, spearheaded mostly by the UC graduate student union, other labor unions and community groups, has played a major role in organizing and supporting the student actions.

The coalition’s “ReFund California Pledge” presents education officials and legislators with five specific demands: to increase income taxes on California’s wealthiest; to close Proposition 13’s corporate property tax loophole; to implement a tax on financial transactions; to reduce underwater mortgage debt; and reverse tuition increases, layoffs, and cuts to public education and essential services.(2)

Similarly, the “Open Letter” adopted by Occupy Cal’s General Assembly calls for statewide organizing across all sectors of public education in California around four specific demands: to reverse fee hikes, layoffs, and budget cuts to at least 2009 levels; to refund education and public services by taxing the rich and corporations; to overturn Proposition 209 and fully implement affirmative action to stop the re-segregation of public education; and to respect free speech and assembly, and stop the use of force against protestors on school sites.(3)

Occupy Cal has called for a February 1st, 2012 deadline for administrators and lawmakers to make concrete moves towards these objectives, or “we will begin a wave of actions, up to and including striking….to ensure that our demands are met.” Organizing has begun on regional and statewide levels, and across all sectors of public education, to mobilize around the demands and timelines called for in the open letter.

Our experience in the Occupy and public education movements so far has shown that it is possible to link the energies, talents, and resources of Occupy’s generalized revolt against austerity and inequality to focused struggles for concrete objectives, without requiring Occupy to adopt them as goals of “the movement” as a whole.

The issues faced by students reflect the same conditions as those faced by underwater mortgage holders, the unemployed, and the disenfranchised; and the people who are responsible for budget cuts in public education and fee hikes at the universities are among the same people who control the banks and corporations that profit at the expense of homeowners and workers. We are all casualties of the class war being waged on the 99%.

From shared experience comes understanding, solidarity, and strength. From these, new forms of collective action are emerging that could make next spring a powerful and inspiring season for the movement to defend public education in California.

Notes

  • The phrase “Solidarity Beats Austerity” is from the Public Education Coalition website: http://www.berkeleycuts.org. Current UC Regents represent the interests of the 1% in California; other ties of UC Regents to the state’s wealthy and financial institutions can be found at http://www.makebankspaycalifornia.com.
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  • The ReFund California Pledge can be found at: http://www.makebankspaycalifornia.com/the_refund_california_pledge.
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  • The Open Letter to Defend California Public Education can be found at: http://www.change.org/petitions/open-letter-defend-ca-public-education.
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  • January/February 2012, ATC 156

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