'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

We're Not Violent, How About You? 

If you watch this video, and many others available on YouTube and elsewhere, it becomes evident that UC students and UC police just barely avoided a violent incident during the occupation of of Wheeler Hall last Friday.

According to George Cicariello-Maher:

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.

But, in the end, the administration allowed the occupiers of Wheeler to walk out of the building under their own control. During the course of the protests, though, the students discovered the duplicity of some of the faculty:

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."

Of course, this isn't surprising. Participants within radical social movements always quickly discover that many of their purported allies are more interested in exploiting them for their own advantage than assisting them in the pursuit of their aspirations. The unctuous role of George Lakoff, as described by Cicariello-Maher, is entirely predictable. As someone who advocates for the notion of evolutionary change through the Democratic Party, he no doubt immediately recognized the threat presented by the occupation.

First, there was the possibility of mobilizing large numbers of students around the concept of confrontation not just with the university, but with the mainstream politics of accomodation practiced by the national Democratic Party, as personified by President Obama. Second, these students, as a politically non-aligned group in relation to electoral politics, would be able to more successfully reach broad sections of the general public disaffected by the bipartisan, neo-Reaganite policies pursued at the state and national level. Lakoff must have been especially alarmed at the appearance of unionized UC staff in support of the occupation.

Accordingly, it was essential that the ongoing protests and the spreading recognition that the fee increase was part of a larger, varied tapestry of neoliberal policies of austerity imposed by Obama, Schwarzenegger and a state legislature under Democratic control must be contained. Forced to choose between a vibrant, confrontational, personally empowering movement, willing to engage in numerous forms of creative direct action, and the defense of the existing social order, Lakoff, and other faculty members as well, naturally selected the latter. Strategies of containment and the declaration of false victories, designed to drain away the energy of movement participants and persuade those outside of it that the issues of contention have been resolved, have been effective over the last 30 years. It remains to be seen, though, whether they will remain effective during a period of economic crisis that is adversely affecting not just the poor, but much of the middle class.

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