Issue 1 (December 2009)

 

On Some Lessons from the Protests: Report from UCLA’s Campbell Hall

Alexander Zevin

 

 

Something extraordinary happened during a week of November at UCLA. Students and workers from across the state came out in force to block the Regents from voting to raise student fees, risking the blows, electric shocks and scalding mace of campus and city police and the Regents’ personal bodyguards. North of the fog horns and press conferences at Covel Commons, however, another struggle was taking shape: the occupation of Campbell Hall by a group of students from across the UC system whose demands were not limited to halting fee hikes. Around the same time similar occupations occurred and, in many places, continued at Kerr Hall and Kresge Hall at Santa Cruz, Wheeler Hall at Berkeley and Mrak Hall at Davis, where 52 people were arrested. By Tuesday students were refusing to leave a study-in at USC Fresno’s Library, and the UC office of the President in Oakland was briefly shut down.

The diverse group of students at UCLA—from UC and CS campuses such as Fullerton, Riverside, Santa Cruz, San Diego, San Francisco and UCLA, among others—occupied Campbell Hall for almost twenty hours. Students inside issued a statement calling for the spread of the struggle and the occupation of spaces throughout the University—spaces which ought by right to belong to everyone and not just those able to afford them. The crisis, they acknowledged, reaches beyond a bloated administration or the Regents who treat the UC endowment like their private hedge fund, beyond a corrupt state legislature, beyond the current economic crisis, to the very foundations of our society and the way it distributes its vast wealth. While the enormity of the problem was no excuse for inaction, it made issuing finite demands at that early stage seem perfunctory, even naive. The occupiers nevertheless received the support of countless students, faculty and above all workers, who brought them food and drinks and demonstrated their solidarity in a thousand ways, both great and small. To Chancellor Block’s press release advising students to avoid the building, which he pronounced closed, the occupiers replied, invoking the Black Panthers killed on its steps in 1969: “Campbell Hall is closed but Carter-Huggins Hall is now open…Join us!" 

But the week was extraordinary in unsettling ways as well. For at every turn students, radicalized not only by an education whose costs have tripled in a decade but also by degrees fast losing their value in a jobless economy, confronted daunting obstacles. They girded themselves for a confrontation with the police. In the event, however, that role was played by some of their fellow students. On the morning of 18 November the self-appointed leaders of the movement (mainly, but not only, from USAC) cajoled a group of over 500 energized students to abandon their peaceful protest and move to a spot chosen by the police—or risk, in words borrowed from the cops, ‘getting beaten’. Having so successfully policed their fellows it is little wonder their stated goal to halt the vote failed. On the following day, one of the same courageous leaders, Susan Li, external vice president of USAC, marched with perhaps a thousand others to North Campus where Campbell Hall is located. Instead of encouraging the convergence of the two movements, as those inside Campbell had advocated, she did her utmost to divert the students to another building, and even ripped down the banners flying proudly from the occupied hall. The leadership provided by such students bristled at any action taken without their consent, or that escaped their control.

The final provocation was as demoralizing as it was consistent. It came on the evening of 19 November when yet another student government leader, this time President Cinthia Flores, responded to calls from Campbell for student solidarity by arriving to accuse students already there of “elitism,” “disrespect,” “privilege,” “violence,” “ignorance,” and “playing cute” with the lives of the minority students who depend on the services provided to them at Campbell. She did not imply but directly accused the students in the building of racism. Instead of adding her own voice to the occupation, she did her best to quash it. 

To these charges an answer must be given. Not only because they are unfair and divisive, based on the most limiting kind of identity politics, but also because they played a direct role in ending the occupation. And this was their intent. The occupiers hadn’t consulted the appropriate groups. They hadn’t formulated specific demands. They were disorganized and without leadership. The usual litany of complaints behind which a garbled radicalism based on racial or gender difference hides its true face: a defense of the existing order. The interruption of even a single day’s business, she argued, spelt certain catastrophe for disadvantaged students. Never mind that many classes were rescheduled to other buildings, or occurred in special sessions on the steps outside Campbell Hall, that the occupiers invited students into the space to conduct their work, classes or tutoring, or that the highly democratic form of decision making had up until that point ensured a strong and committed occupation. Are the future prospects of the minority students for whom Flores claimed to speak really served by the more or less plodding acceptance of the dismantlement of public education? Are they, conversely, really harmed by an exceptional event meant to fight against a menace faced by all students, regardless of their backgrounds, and to which underprivileged students are especially exposed? Her claims to distinction are all the more dubious in light of a conceptual apparatus so meager it would preclude any kind of large scale social movement. 

This conflict between students was, in some sense, inevitable, and it has gone on at many other UC campuses during a remarkable week of protests, occupations, marches, sit-ins, teach-ins and strikes. The students and their student officials are speaking two different languages. Saying so does not amount to a personal attack on anyone in particular. The point is to recognize the elements that constrain the student movement from growing and that act, in decisive moments, to recall it to order. From an occupation filled with many beautiful moments of shared work and shared fun we can at least draw some preliminary conclusions about the limits that brought an end to the Campbell Hall occupation at about 7 PM on 19 November.

The literary scholar (and UC Santa Barbara alumnus) Walter Benn Michaels gives us one possible way of understanding the hostility felt by certain students for the occupation. It is enough to note, he writes in his recent book The Trouble with Diversity, that neo-liberal ideology is perfectly compatible with increasing intolerance of racism, sexism or homophobia, on the one hand, and increasing tolerance of economic inequality on the other. The anger expressed by Flores and others holding institutional roles at the UC usually dwells only on the former. No doubt because in some small way they have been rewarded by the latter. “The neoliberal heart leaps up,” Michaels writes in a recent book review, “at the sound of glass ceilings shattering and at the sight of doctors, lawyers and professors of colour taking their place in the upper middle class.” But a diverse elite is no less elite for its diversity, and the increased inequalities of neo-liberalism, which is, in some sense, at the heart of the crisis brewing in the UC system since the 1980s when cuts were made and student fees were first introduced, “were not caused by racism and sexism and won't be cured by—they aren’t even addressed by—anti-racism or anti-sexism.”(1)

The struggle for diversity has done more to fulfill the promise of the 1960 UC Master Plan than any other. And in a state where latinos, in particular, are well-organized and articulate advocates for their own interests, the struggle for greater diversity in higher education remains a cry with the power to rally vast numbers to its banner. But it is one that by its nature is self-limiting, and with the repeal of Proposition 209, can no longer be advanced without also attacking the basis of economic inequality itself.

Here is the fundamental difference between two possible sets of demands—whatever other distinctions there may be in style, temperament or models of organization among students. Against the self-righteous defense of a corrosive diversity, the students who occupied Campbell Hall sought to extend the struggle to all students in a way that sees racism as one wrung in the ladder of economic and political exploitation. The so-called leaders who arrived later knew precisely when to end the occupation: in the moments before its victory.

But, without exaggerating, we can say that this end really was a beginning. This was the very first act of peaceful—but no less illicit—civil disobedience for many students. From it they have gained confidence and glimpsed an organization of space through which they do not merely pass on the way to collecting their degrees. Changing this perception would allow students to more clearly define the nature of their demands. The pressure to view UCLA as a way station to economic success that rewards good behavior is all the more intense for students who are the first in their families to be able to attend college. These and other students whose hopes were disappointed by the tactics used during the Regents meeting have also learned something. In the course of a radical shift in the attitudes of a large group sometimes the old leadership is shaken off with as little ceremony as a sheath of dead skin. In this recomposition the Campbell Hall occupiers hope to play their part. May they never become student leaders—the continued existence of more than just public education may depend on it.

 

Alexander Zevin is a graduate student in History at UCLA. He was one of the occupiers of Campbell Hall.

 

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1. Walter Benn Michaels, "What Matters," London Review of Books, 27 August, 2009, 11.