March 4 Actions to Defend Public Education: a Partial Report and a Preliminary Rumination on Next Steps

Posted March 5, 2010

I’m writing this while recovering from a good, long, and successful day on the picket lines at UC Santa Cruz, where, over the course of the day, more than a thousand students, workers, and teachers successfully blocked the major entrances to campus, shutting down most university business for the day. Students gathered as early as 4 AM (with a larger infusion arriving at 5) in order to form picket lines before day shift workers arrived for work.

Report from UC Santa Cruz

Most union contracts with the UC require workers to come to work in the event of a strike; many workers wanted to honor the student strike and join the protest, but could not do so contractually. (Several campus unions endorsed the day of action and participated in the protest, though they could not legally strike.) A vibrant picket, solidified between 5:30 and 6 AM, was enough to interrupt business as usual, keeping most workers away. (Picketers allowed health center and childcare workers to cross their lines.)

Shortly after 6, campus administration began sending emails, text messages, and recorded phone messages to students, staff, and teachers encouraging them to stay away from the main entrances to campus. Administration and police gathered some workers in clusters and tried to drive them in vans or make them walk them onto campus.

While in a few cases this succeeded, mostly the strikers responded quickly to each rumor of a new entrance or path being used, sending flying squads of 10-25 people to throw up new pickets and reenforce others. By mid morning, the administration had given up on conducting any semblance of business as usual, telling workers at home to stay there and sending home most of those gathered at locations around the outside of campus. Around a thousand people, if not more, participated in the day of action.

A ubiquitous urban legend on campus says that UC Santa Cruz was specially designed to be resistant to effective student protest, lacking a central gathering place such as UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. Our university on a hill lacks a good location for mass symbolic action to become visible to the broader community, but its location is quite a boon for the direct action aspect of a strike. There are only two primary entrances to campus; a handful of additional entrances provide difficulties for administrators’ attempts to circumvent pickets.

Comprehensive reporting on March 4

Around the state (and, to some extent, around the country and around the world), the March 4 day of action brought attention to austerity programs in public education: budget cuts, fee increases, and declining accessibility especially for disadvantaged students. A few early writeups of the day’s events can be found around the web: Socialist Worker’s Day of Action Journal, an aggregated page from Occupy CA, and a wrapup from Angus Johnston’s Student Activism blog (this is fairly rudimentary, but I imagine Johnston will post a more detailed wrapup and evaluation sometime in the next few days), and a collection of links from thirdworldjournal.

Over the next few days and within the next couple of weeks, student and teacher activists will be evaluating the impact of March 4 and thinking about next steps for the movement. Therefore, my own comments here are rudimentary. I’m sure my ideas will change after I’ve heard more detailed and qualitative reports and after I’ve participated in some of those conversations. Nevertheless, it is the nature of blogging to offer preliminary, tentative views on a thing which is not yet fixed.

First, how does March 4 represent a development of this movement?

One dynamic appears to be a broadening of the movement, particularly outside of the University of California system. Actions took place throughout the state in public schools (K-12), community colleges, and on California State University campuses.

The September 24 protests and the actions around the November 16-18 UC Regents meeting last year were large and in many cases militant; they drew a great deal of media attention nationally and forced a response (albeit a tepid, problematic, and reversible one) from the state’s political leaders. However, last year’s actions were limited to a relatively small sector of public universities: the UC campuses and a few Cal State campuses, with a small handful of other, relatively isolated locations doing something. March 4 achieved an impressive level of social saturation throughout the state. A significant percentage of Californians with a family member in school had some level of contact with an action on March 4 – probably short of a majority, but not so far short of a majority that the question is not worth asking.

One anecdote: a lecturer with whom I’ve worked told me that a discussion about March 4 and educational equity was held in a reading group based in her church. The church is relatively conservative one, albeit in a mainstream, liberal denomination, in Redwood City, a Silicon Valley suburb which is hardly a hotbed of radicalism.

This breadth extends beyond mere numbers, as well. Students of color have been represented in this movement from the beginning, but last year’s actions did not, for the most part, engage large numbers of students for whom education itself is precarious. Last year’s actions also did not reflect the movement / mobilization culture that has characterized previous student of color organizing in California (perhaps most prominently in recent memory, the movement around Proposition 187, a series of high school walkouts, and student organizing around May 1 in 2006 and 2007).

With March 4, there are some signs that students of color organizing may intersect with the September 24 student movement, or, put another way, that a sector of the movement centered around students of color and educationally disadvantaged students may emerge. Many mobilizations at less-elite universities and colleges were student of color led, and reports I have heard from the gathering in Sacramento suggest both a diverse attendance and some of this movement culture.

In comparison with last fall, the direct action aspect of the movement was a bit quieter this time – though this statement must be qualified. The UCSC strike was successful enough to interrupt the operation of a university for an entire day; this is a kind of direct action. Activists in Berkeley and Davis took their protests to the freeways. One could argue about whether this form of action is “direct” or “symbolic,” but it was certainly militant and it aroused an immediate police response. There was a sit-in at UCLA, and there were occupations at UC Irvine and CSU Fresno.

What’s the next step?

One lone blogger can’t propose too much in advance of the conversations which need to happen. Some activists are talking about May 1 as the next target date for a big action of some kind. The spacing is probably about right for a May 1 action, but the details of it, and what happens outside of that big action – besides a lot of outreach – also need consideration.

We can’t just do the same things we’ve done before over again and expect them to be just as successful or more successful as they have been in the past; the slight tailing off of excitement around occupations probably shows this. If our goal is to build a movement which can actually challenge the social organization of education and the hierarchy of who receives it and what it looks like as a function of / producer of race and class strata – if we take our shared notion of free public education for all seriously, at least as a meaningful limit concept – then we are still at the very beginning.

Even at a seemingly more tangible level – reforms we could win that would reverse austerity programs such as budget cuts, fee hikes, and declining accessibility, this is a multi-pronged struggle, and we’re nowhere close to meaningful victories yet. UC administration still refuses to admit that a major aspect of the problem in the UC system lies within their priorities and decisions, not merely within the state funding system; we are a long way from getting them to accede to any major movement demands. At the state level, to address the long-term defunding of public education, as well as other public goods, we would need to overturn or at least overhaul Proposition 13, which limits the ability of the state to pay for anything. Most mainstream politicians, including the leaders of the state Democratic Party, don’t want to touch this. To achieve something of this magnitude, we would need to build a movement still much broader than the one we have now, one which could begin to articulate a new, movement-left pole of political attraction within California politics.

We need to think bigger than just the next day of action and how it might be larger, broader, or more militant than the last one. We need to think bigger to keep the movement growing. People will participate in an action or two because they are angry, but to keep going over the long term, they have to believe that there’s a plan to win, a way that collective action can lead to the changes we want. A big action or a series of successful, militant actions give people hope. However, if we just try to repeat them, active supporters will quickly become disenchanted. In the current historical moment, political hope tends to metastasize back into despair unless it is fueled with excitement.

Therefore, we need not just another big day of action or another series of occupations. We may well need both of those things, or something involving analogous levels of mass participation and militant direct action, but we also need something else: a blueprint for an effective campaign to force decision-makers to accede to meaningful demands and a vision for building a movement with the scale and power to make changes that are currently out of our scope.

Activists are already debating these questions. At meetings over the next week or two, they will plan next steps. I have heard that a statewide conference is in the works, to be held in Southern California sometime in April. General assemblies and large conferences – and, for opposite reasons, blogs – are imperfect tools for the collective honing and putting into practice of strategy. General assemblies and conferences tend to be exercises in compromise and avoiding the bombastic excess of an ego-driven few who like to hear themselves talk; they do not lend themselves to the development of a nuanced strategy. Movement theory and strategy have been developed and shared in this movement mainly via blogs and zines. For this movement, these media function as something like the 21st century equivalent of the 18th-century political pamphlet; ideas can be thrown up, discussed, and countered rapidly. The final product of a blog or a zine reflects the perspectives of an individual, in conversation with others, or a small collective; they are not by themselves a good vehicle for collectivizing strategic conversations across sectors.

We need to develop a movement apparatus capable of developing these conversations in a nuanced way, putting out a strategic vision including immediate campaigns and an audacious vision of how we get from here (a new, vibrant movement without the power to enact its vision) to there (a larger, broader movement, which would have the scope and militancy to enact aspects of its vision or to create conditions in which other aspects of that vision become “self-evidently necessary” to leading social groups).

I believe the movement needs, essentially, something like a movement-wide strategy committee. Such a thing could only be productive if it could coexist with the ethos and practice of autonomous action on the part of independent groupings and the reality of cross-sector diversity which constitute great strengths of the movement. A strategy committee would be in tension with the culture of the movement, but could this tension be productive, creative tension rather than a squelching which would lead to disunity and fragmentation? What do we dare risk – not only in the streets, but in ourselves?


One response to “March 4 Actions to Defend Public Education: a Partial Report and a Preliminary Rumination on Next Steps”

  1. Dianne Avatar

    What impressed me, as an outsider visiting my family, was the number of grammar, middle school and high school students and teachers involved in protesting the educational cutbacks March 4th. Both San Francisco and Oakland school districts had a “disaster drill” that morning, but I heard of students and teachers in far-flug areas who organized protests at their schools!