Issue 1 (December 2009)

 

Building Times: How Lines of Care Occupied Wheeler Hall

Amanda Armstrong and Paul Nadal

 

 

The time of the University is unhinged. The steady rhythms of campus life have been disrupted. Pulses accelerate to an exhilarating and terrifying beat, as masses of bodies come together and split apart in new configurations. The take-over of Wheeler Hall on November 20 was not simply a reclamation of a campus building. It was a seizing of time, a collective wielding of what is always prior to and in excess of the “here” and “now” of the status quo. Equilibrium on campus has been broken, and the ground upon which it operated has been displaced, opening up lines of care and solidarity that mark our political frontiers.  At a moment when the horizon of our future shudders, what times lie ahead?

On Thursday, November 19, acting in the service of Wall Street, the Regents made a claim on our futures. Overly tied to the inhuman calculations of the economy, they consigned many of us further into debt, while setting in place the foundations of a privatized university—a university that would reproduce, rather than reduce, social hierarchies of class and race. University buildings stood as though only to absorb into their walls the waves of dissenting voices, but the uproar of our protests grew so loud as to make even the tiniest screw heads inside tremble. The university administrators, deliberating behind closed doors, however, seemed unmoved by our calls for justice. Crisis begets difficult choices they say.  And through the screen of crisis, their fatal and fatalistic plans pass off as expert determinations of what must be done. “When you have no choice, you have no choice,” says U.C. President Mark Yudof, after his endorsement of the Regents' vote for a system-wide 32% tuition increase. His words, we note, do more than authorize hikes and cuts; they seek to suppress and flatten the seeds of change onto the deadening temporality of the inevitable.  

On Friday, we contested the Regents’ claim and refuted the idea that matters were so irreversible. We resisted the sedimentation of time that follows from and authorizes business as usual, and called attention to the precariousness of our and others’ lives and livelihoods. Forty-three of us barricaded ourselves inside Wheeler Hall before sunrise. We were undergraduates, graduate students, and post-docs from the humanities, social sciences and the professional schools; one reporter from Democracy Now also came to document the event. Our differences were surely many—age, political ideology, organizational and institutional affiliations—yet what united us was the conviction we believed our action would convey: the time of the University is ours and many, and we will struggle until the doors of a genuinely open University burst forth. 

 URGENT: Wheeler Hall (email received at 9:11am)

"The campus police are working to resolve a protest action that is occurring in Wheeler Hall. Staff, faculty and students who would normally be working in Wheeler Hall are asked to remain out of the building until further notice. Employees who can contact their supervisors should talk to them if possible to determine whether telecommuting or relocation to another work area is an option. Those in the building right now are advised to leave until the situation has been resolved." — Chancellor Robert Birgeneau

A little after 9 o’clock, we received Chancellor Birgeneau's email about Wheeler Hall. We knew at that moment our building take-over had made a dent in the University's schedule.  And what better way than a campus-wide email to get the word out about our action?  For once, the double bind of publicity was working in our favor. The chancellor couldn't direct his email only to those who were planning on working or attending class in Wheeler, because he didn't know who these people were. He had to tell everyone, even those who, upon reading his terse email, would be inclined to dash over to the building, if not to support us at least for the sake of witnessing some drama.   

In sending his first email, the chancellor indirectly helped us disrupt the time of the University, even as he claimed to be acting, through the arm of the UCPD, in defense of this time. From his first email on Friday morning to his wretched follow-up missive on Monday, the chancellor repeatedly invoked his role as defender of the University's schedule in order to justify his, and the UCPD's, actions:      

“118 classes were scheduled in Wheeler Hall that day. We have a responsibility to provide instruction to students who rightfully expect to attend their classes and decided that we needed to remove the protestors [sic] swiftly and safely in order that classes could proceed.”

How are we to understand the kind of responsibility to which Birgeneau appeals? He would no doubt like us to see it as a responsibility he has towards us; an ethical responsibility to act on behalf of our freedom and self-realization. Perhaps some will find this understanding of the chancellor’s obligations plausible. But the syntax of the preceding quote suggests a different story. It is not students but rather the provision of instruction that is the immediate object of responsibility in this passage. The express purpose for removing the protesters in an expedited way is enabling classes to proceed. The chancellor feels less ethically obligated to engage with the reality unfolding before him than to a pre-set schedule of classes and work. His functionary responsibility seems tied only to a particular order of time rather than to those of us caught up in that order, an interpretation supported by his preceding, introductory sentence: "118 classes were scheduled in Wheeler Hall that day." 

But, some might ask, is not the University's schedule simply the expression of students' and workers' desires and interests, the objective form through which we realize ourselves? If so, the chancellor could plausibly claim to be acting with responsibility towards us when he calls the police on us.  He would, according to this logic, be defending us (or a segment of us) from ourselves (or a fraction of ourselves). Thus, a consequential question raised by the events of Friday, November 20, is whether and how the time of the University is, or could be, our own. 

They have riot handcuffs. Staging on first floor. (text message received at 9:50am)

To begin thinking through this question, we might consider the effect that the financial crisis, and the austerity measures proposed by the Regents, promise to have on our course schedules. Already, students are feeling the effects of reduced course offerings, in the form of canceled and overbooked classes. Students desiring to take classes in the arts and languages are being hit particularly hard; and instructors who had planned on teaching these classes are facing imminent pay cuts, if not layoffs. Filipino, the national language of the Philippines, may not be taught next year; and Philippine studies as a whole is on the verge of being entirely erased at Berkeley. The loss of Philippine studies would spell an end to university-supported critical engagement with the legacy of America's first overseas colonial occupation, and would prevent Filipina/o students from taking classes concerning their language and country of origin. This would signal a sharp retreat from the University’s commitment to postcolonial, race and ethnic studies—a commitment only grudgingly offered after decades of militant student activism. And this is just one particularly egregious example of how the University's schedule of courses is being remolded in a reactionary fashion.

The November 18-20 student strike, and the concomitant interruption of courses, can be understood as an act that renders visible what promises to be a massive and unevenly distributed reduction in course offerings over the coming semesters. This reduction otherwise would remain largely unseen—each of us would variously feel its effects, but might not have words or public fora through which to express our experiences or call for an end to these cuts. The time of our University is being transformed in ways that cut against our desires, and the chancellor stands prepared to defend whatever eviscerated schedule of courses we find ourselves enduring in the coming months.

There are other ways in which the time of the University is being turned against us.

Earlier this semester, thirty-eight custodial workers received notifications that they were being laid off. Each one of these individuals was thrown by the University into a precarious state of unemployment.  In firing these individuals, the University also effectively forced all remaining custodians to do more work in the same amount of time, to endure an accelerated pace of labor. A similar process is underway in academic offices across the University, in which staff members have been laid off or have had their hours reduced, thus rendering all currently employed workers overburdened and overstressed. In laying off our coworkers and cutting their hours, the administration has aggressively reasserted its power to carve up the time of all those who "make a living" on campus.

They're staging at all four corners. (text message received at 10:10am)

In raising student fees by thirty-two percent, the Regents have forced many of us to take out larger student loans, have made attendance at the University unthinkable for some working class and minority students, and have set in place a fee schedule that would force incoming students to accept substantial debts in exchange for their attendance at the University. Carrying student loans means that we, as well as our caretakers, are compelled to sell our labor, day in and day out for an indefinite period, to those who hold capital.  By accepting student loans, we accept an obligation to work, even if all available jobs are ethically or politically repugnant, or if we would otherwise want to take time to care for a sick relative or pour ourselves into a collective project that is not productive of shareholder profit. Debt forces us to participate in an economic and social system that renders unstable the living conditions of most people on the planet, and that threatens the ecological systems upon which we all rely for our survival. Debt alienates us from the temporal substance of our lives. It becomes the privation of our present and future being.

ppl here think the end is near (text message sent at 10:30am)

The event does not belong only to itself. Its meaning cannot be confined to the rupture and disruptions immediately entailed in the struggle for Wheeler Hall. One of the conditions of possibility for the event, we believe, came in the lines of care and interdependency that stitch our campus together but that are often disavowed or allowed to atrophy.  The meaning of Friday’s event may be gleaned less from its mediatized spectacularity of force and violence than the bonds of trust activated and achieved through our work of care and acts of courage.  If we believe these bonds do not endure beyond the event, and if we do not stay long enough with the questions they bring to our present juncture, we shall fail the collective future we claim to imagine and put into practice.

In defense of public education, many students and workers stood ground, our friends, our colleagues, our teachers, our students, but so many more were strangers, and people from surrounding communities, who were compelled enough to respond to what was unfolding.  Solidarity came through most powerfully in these unexpected alliances that were made from the convergence of varied personal networks; new lines of communication surfaced through our actions, and a sense of mutual responsibility suffused our efforts of building times for each other.

Shortly after 6 o’clock, I found myself in the classroom I normally teach in on Wednesday afternoons, sending an email to my students informing them about Wheeler Hall. We were all with our mobile phones and laptops, sending messages in haste urging all to help spread the news and to join the struggle on campus. By 7 o’clock, as police continued their attempts to break down our barricades, a group of students were already forming outside. As I ran in response to a call for help with one of the doors being forced open, I passed by someone on the phone with local news media, and another hurriedly instructing a friend on the other line to wake everyone in their co-ops and dormitories to come to campus. I did not get the chance to learn their names.

We knew that we needed time—that we needed to secure the doors until at least 8 o’clock, when classes would begin officially. Minutes could not move fast enough as the doors shook violently by the physical force of bodies we could not see. I looked next to me and saw arms stretched high and eyes unwavering to the tumult of the door. Almost involuntarily, my grip became tighter, undecided whether the brass handle was my ally or enemy. 

Stay strong guys We're here! (text message received at approximately 10:30am)

When someone yelled, “It’s 8 o’clock!” we felt a small victory had been won. Every hour after, someone would mark time. As hours passed over themselves, the group of supporters outside swelled in numbers, changing the landscape of our campus into an embattled zone.

"My wager is that the walls of the university will shake again – and again – until the message is received: This fiscal crisis is also a crisis in governance." — Judith Butler, October 4, "Save California's Universities"

We knew that, barring a large-scale mobilization outside of Wheeler Hall, our barricaded position was untenable. At any time, the cops could have come in through windows, by unhinging the doors or by battering them down. But as the day wore on, and the campus became more militarized, the cops were increasingly occupied by mass demonstrations around the building, by students blockading police cars and pressuring barricades. Reports of bodies dragged by police and fingers crushed by batons made their way down our halls. Inside, a back exposed a red welt, reminding everyone of the real threat of police violence. Not only were the cops taken up with the demonstration outside, they also surely must have wondered whether, having arrested us, they would have been able to get us off campus without having their route blocked. Those who gathered not only ensured that our presence and force would not be splintered, but also gave body to a constellation of unanticipated forces.

still here. dont know bout dinner (text message sent at 1:19pm)

Door may be giving (text message sent at 2:06pm)

Sometime around mid-day I made a joke about how attached I had become to the door whose handle I had been gripping since sunrise. “I’ll never look at this door the same way again.” The massive, dark wooden slab was starting to get scratched from the legs of chairs we had jammed into its handles. Taken from classrooms, these elegant wooden chairs, with their slight desks attached, seemed to float a few feet off the floor. They faced forward, legs bound to the door’s horizontal bars, which were themselves held fast with wide yellow truck ties. Despite these fortifications, had our palms not been gripping the handles at all times, the cops would have been able to crack open the doors enough to cut the ties and enter the occupied area.

I found the most leverage sitting on the floor, reaching up to the bar and bracing my feet against the door frame. When the police pulled the door, I would come off the ground a few inches, only to fall back to the floor when they gave in. This repetitive, rocking motion grew familiar after some time.

Our first encounter with the cops, at least on the second floor, happened at the door that I and six or so other students were holding.  It was after six in the morning. At first, he seemed surprised to find the door tied shut. He said we were under arrest and needed to come out.  We gripped the door harder. “We have demands! We won’t leave until the University rehires the thirty-eight laid-off janitors!” 

After a pause, he began to utter an eerily familiar phrase, before catching himself at the last moment: “We don’t negotiate with….”

“With what,” we asked, “students taking back an academic building?”

The doors then shook for at least half an hour.  As we yanked back, we chanted: “Whose University? Our University!” The shouts echoed in the hallway, making it sound like hundreds of us were present. At one point, the cops jammed something between two of the doors; a stick of some sort. A hard kick was enough to dislodge it. Later, they started shoving wedges under the doors. We used a clipboard to push them back. At another moment, it sounded like they were trying to nail something into the wood, so we started shaking the doors until the banging stopped. We could only guess what they were trying to do.

Before noon, some of those beside me got into a conversation with a cop on the other side of the door. She informed us that we were sure to spend the weekend in jail. In Oakland, she stressed. "Ask your mommies about the blue meanies.” “Get ready for the beat down."

In the early afternoon, we heard from those on other doors that the cops were coming hard. Supposedly, one of the doors was cracking ...

How is the door? (text message received at 2:37pm)

Holding, apparently:) i cant see that part (text message sent at 2:39pm)

Crouching below suspended chairs, rumors variously found their way to me. 

A soft-spoken boy from another door approached: “A cop just slipped a note to us; it says he wants to go home.” A woman with a cell phone returned sporadically: “They want to negotiate; send in a delegation. They want the chief of police to come inside. What do you think?” “We are trying to get them to agree to hold the negotiation through the window, with bullhorns; to have the crowd involved in the process. We want the cops to agree not to come at the doors for some time, so we can gather and make this decision together.” A call came through to my phone: “I just saw on twitter that cops are coming in with battering rams. Be careful.” A text: “What is happening inside?”

I don’t know; I’m just trying to hold this door. 

Our sustained dispersal across the second floor of Wheeler Hall ensured that communication between the forty of us was necessarily beset by delays and distortions, gaps and uneven distributions. Certain lacunae were not, however, determined by our distribution in physical space. Some of us knew more about what was happening than others; some were informed more quickly than others. Much that happened inside we did not see; and when we ultimately decided not to open the doors for the delegation, some of us did not know how or why this decision had been made. The rapidity of these developments and the pressure they exerted on us seemed to constrict the moment of decision to a point of unrecognizability. Were we being put in danger of police aggression without our input? Others of us were outraged that the group was even seriously considering allowing the police chief inside. Feelings were raw as we turned together to the doors in anticipation of the cops’ final assault. In this frightful moment, our contrary bearings were indifferently reshaped according to the drumbeat of police batons, steadily striking the doors above our heads.

How r ppl feeling out there
(text message sent at 4:42pm)

Out here, days later, memory traces
jagged lines. 
A pulsing beat shocks him back to an echoing chant, cries. She holds
hard rhythms.

Inside,
Metal bars bent like a broken
back, a voice splits.
Chairs turn away from windows.

getting arrested will get in touch after. thanks for the support keep fighting the good fight. (text message sent at 5:24pm)

Forty of us were lined up along the wall of Wheeler Hall, sitting with our arms cuffed behind our backs. The mood was strangely positive. Manic, perhaps. Looking around I could barely recognize the halls as those down which I had recently run. The classroom doors framing recently arrived cops looked fictive, like something out of a TV show set in a locked-down American high school. It was strange to finally put a face to the force and threat we struggled with all day. I wonder, too, if ours were the faces they had imagined behind the doors. I had literally lost my bearings; I couldn't remember which direction led to my door—indeed, the wooden panels that had protected us were now, once more, merely fire doors. The ceilings looked twice as high as they had two hours before. The building had changed; back to normal, some might say. Perhaps so, but a normality newly estranged.

We were made to sit for quite some time. How long were we inside?

Leaving, the klieg lights burst forth over crowded shouts, applause. Exhaustion setting in, we were guided by gentle hands and hugs through an ensemble of bodies that had, until then, been compelled to care for us from a distance. Our spatial separation—mediated by phones, rain-saturated air, electronic cables, and the hum of bull-horns —was momentarily overcome, only to give way to a general dispersal, as those who had come together that day crossed out of campus.

What bonds had been forged across those invisible, mediating lines? When thousands of friends, classmates, teachers, partners, co-workers, rivals and strangers responded to our muffled requests for support, enduring the downpour and exposing their bodies to rampaging police, huge metal barricades and rubber bullets, what happened? What mutual responsibilities, political and otherwise, were undertaken that day? What configurations of time and practices of timing can we collectively build as we work to open our universities? In times to come, as we are pulled beyond ourselves and our presumed camps into novel configurations and expanded alliances, will we do right by these responsibilities, and respond openly to the invitations, questions and calls giving shape to our new, shared life of struggle?

 

Amanda Armstrong and Paul Nadal are graduate students in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley. They were among the 43 arrested inside Wheeler Hall.