Photo: Matt Lambert

Issue 1 (December 2009)


UC Davis Occupations: Narrative of Events

Two Anonymous Protesters

The series of occupations that began on November 19th on the UC Davis campus was as shocking as it was unprecedented. Not least among the reasons was that it erupted from a leaderless undergraduate population which was considered until that morning, by many within activist circles, as a-political, largely apathetic, and practically un-organizable. The massive and spontaneous disruptions that started with a march the morning of November 19th and continued through the night of the 24th of November, resulted in three occupations, 52 arrests, and the mobilization of hundreds of students, faculty, and workers from UC Davis and beyond.

In these five November days, UC Davis catapulted itself onto the world stage of anti-privatization protests and student occupations. While the Regents met in UCLA, and thousands there, at UC Berkeley, and at UC Santa Cruz honored a system-wide strike, only one department at Davis (Chicano Studies) even closed. No events, rallies or pickets were planned. And still, on November 19th, the campus exploded in protest: by 9 pm, more students had been arrested at UC Davis than on all other UC campuses combined.

Here below, accounts by two occupiers:

Mrak Occupation

X: Although the place and time for a rally on the 19th had been set, nothing had been planned, and it was still unclear to us if even 5 people would show up.      

When we arrived at Mrak at 10am, there were at least 35-55 people, already gathering and talking. We all decided to start marching. After going to several buildings we went back to Mrak. In Mrak nothing was set in stone, no one knew what was going to happen, and there were no leaders, only instigators—those who wanted to speak up did so. That was the beauty of it. Our first intention was to find our Chancellor to speak her. 

The Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs appeared and suggested we choose some "student representatives" to have a discussion with her but this was an odd idea to us; we needed to represent ourselves as a whole. We demanded that she speak to all of us, that if she had a meeting it would be with all of us. This concept, of solidarity, and of all us speaking together for ourselves and one another, is what lead to the large number of arrests. Nothing swayed us but this concept of togetherness. We had to reclaim our space, our voice, our ability. We re-claimed our administrative building as that space of representation, because we should be our own administration.

This is why we began talking about the idea that we shouldn't think in terms of those willing to get arrested but in terms of no one being arrested at all; that we were participating in our own constitutional rights and we were peaceful. If one of us was to be arrested it was all of our responsibility. When the cops came in on us we locked arms and we kept chanting. Once they began their arresting we knew what we had to do, which was stay together. Then they kicked the bongo player out and it was clear things were ending: they invaded us, they closed the doors that we had tried to keep open.

Z: When I got to Mrak about 2pm on Thursday there were already about 60 students sitting-in. I went to get banners and find students/professors holding classes outdoors to invite them to come. When I got back around 4, the administration had already begun to try to talk the students out—there were a few cops positioned on the staircase, where we hung a "Ruck the Fegents" banner. Around 5pm, an administrator tried to talk the students out of the building from half way up the stair case. This move was shut down by Davis faculty and students, who, recognizing the power-play going on, intervened and stopped the patronizing attempt to control the protesters by repositioning us all as speakers on the same staircase.  At this point, the students decided to stay; the Mrak staff had already been escorted out and riot cops called in.

I left Mrak to try to get an outside crowd—a number of us went to the Student Union study space, KDVS, and outside of Freeborn Hall where a huge crowd was gathered waiting for tickets for a USOC event. We announced the sit-in and asked students to come witness, keeps riot cops away, and give outside support. By about 7pm, crowd outside Mrak had grown to about 200; news crews were everywhere, and cops had been called in from seven counties. Riot police showed up and divided the crowd outside—they plowed through the students and hit a number of us as they filed in toward the door to make an aisle—about that time they arrested an undergraduate from the crowd outside for assaulting an officer. They pinned her to a car, then brought her into the paddy-wagon.

Over the next two hours the crowd outside grew: the ASUCD brought their meeting to Mrak and tried to hold it inside—deterred by the officers, they generated a unanimous vote of 'no confidence' to UC President Mark Yudof; arrests from inside began, and 51 students and one UCD professor were led into the paddy-wagon. At this point a helicopter and police dog had been present for a while. Flood lights were set up, and press was everywhere. By 9pm the arrests were complete. As the last student was hauled into the wagon, the crowd outside sat down in solidarity with the arrested. The arrestees shook the wagon with stomping to show their support.

We followed our friends to the county jail, where we waited outside all night for them to be processed. At first, students were processed five at a time, from midnight on, about once an hour, until 4am, when the processing stopped. We knew the one student arrested for assaulting an officer was being held in solitary confinement. About 20 of us stayed all night outside, and were let in the waiting room only at 7am. At 9am the processing began again. News of a rally at UC Davis beginning at 11am Friday had been broadcast on CNN the night before. Around 11am the last 3 were processed, including the student arrested for assaulting an officer, who was held in a cell alone all night. Around 9am, when I called the Davis Police Department to find out if they were following the case, the Chief of Police claimed all the students were awaiting bail: at Mrak the administrators who approved the arrests had no idea where the students were—apparently they went home to bed and never bothered to inquire.

Around 11:15 the next morning, I returned to UC Davis with two of the last graduate students processed and released from jail. There was a driving rain coming down and high winds. As the three of us rounded the corner where their cars had been parked the day before, we spotted, not far in the distance, a rally of 200+ marching across campus through the pouring rain.

I went home and fell asleep for the first time since Tuesday night. At 2pm, I got a text message from X, which I could barely distinguish from a dream. It read: "Dutton Hall is Ours!"

Dutton Hall Occupation

By 2pm Friday—just hours after the last students and faculty left the Yolo County Detention Center—200 students, faculty and staff had marched into Dutton Hall, home of Financial Aid and Student Judicial Affairs, and staged a second sit-in. Near 4pm, we were making posters, dancing, and discussing how much longer to stay. And by 5:30, riot police pulled up around back of the building. The crowd filled up the front lobby and spilled outside where students were drumming and keeping doors open by moving from inside to out. As we talked through whether or not to stay, we began getting texts from our friends at Berkeley engaged in violent confrontations with riot police. It seemed clear by the immediate presence of riot cops at Dutton that the administration was taking our actions as an escalation—not as a discrete disruption, but as part of a UC-wide escalation of actions. Comrades arrested the previous night, now at Berkeley supporting the occupiers at Wheeler, texted us about beatings at Berkeley and police violence against the crowd: one of our friends, a UCB grad student, had been beaten, and another was undergoing surgery after having her hand crushed against a barricade by a cop's baton. We reported the violence going on to the group, and decided, after holding the doors open dancing for another hour, to leave and march. We had held Dutton open 2 1/2 hours past closing.

On Monday at 7pm, 300+ students, faculty, and community members from UC Davis, Sac State, Napa, Sonoma, Sac City College, and numerous high-schools crowded into a UCD auditorium—standing room only—for the first General Assembly. The crowd reported on occupations currently taking place throughout the state, the country, and the world. The Assembly continued for two hours—roughly in the way Assemblies do—and at 9pm there was a 'Know Your Rights' training for students who thought they might be arrested in the protests. About 70 percent of the crowd got up and went to the training—a sure sign of a desire, at Davis and surrounding schools, for continued action.

Back To Mrak: or Mrak II

On Tuesday, November 23rd, Davis students returned to the sight of the arrests for a “Back to Mrak” study-in planned from 2pm-5pm. At 3pm, in Mrak, the crowd dwarfed the one amassed the previous Tuesday. The entry-way was full of students, and more continued to pile in and fill the staircases. Outdoors, professors were holding classes on the steps and lawn, and near 5pm, when we were expected to leave, more students were arriving with pizzas, vegetarian food, and instruments. Nearly all of the 52 arrested on Tuesday were back, but there were plenty of new undergraduates, students, staff, union workers and community members. Drumming and chants began, and protesters hugged each other, danced and sang.

As the sit-in turned to occupation, the administrators still present adopted the roles of either “concerned grandmotherly type” or “bound-by-the-rulebook good guy who just wants what's best for everyone,in alternating attempts to bargain us out of the building. They proposed we elect student representatives who would meet in private with them over the group's concerns and demands. But the occupiers wouldn't be talked down to, and insisted the administration speak with us as a group, and from the same floor, opposed to the staircase, where last week they had staged their royalty-on-the-balcony appearances. We held the space together for hours, as Vice Chancellor Janet Gong and Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza appeared, spoke, and withdrew for consultation repeatedly. In an act of bad faith that the administration would repeat later at Berkeley's Wheeler Hall "Live Week" arrests, they proposed to "negotiate" with protesters, and hid the fact that riot cops, already acting on orders to arrest students, were filing into the basement and locking down doors to hallways and bathrooms. During the interim between the start of "negotiations" and what they imagined would be the cops' announcement that the building was locked, Vice Chancellor Gong and Police Chief Spiccuza offered a number of banal but revealing justifications for refusing to let students stay in the building without arrest--among these: 

-It's five o'clock and the building needs to close;
-This is a public building until 5pm, and then it becomes private;
-There are certain rules and regulations we have to uphold;
-I'm just doing my job: my job is to protect this building, your job is to be the consumer of our educational product.

These excuses tellingly linked the performance of their power to the maintenance of private property, and disclosed the looming anxiety around occupation: its ability to reveal the supposed public (whether education, self-expression, space or buildings) as entirely private--controlled, policed, and meant to be reserved, for the privileged, the rich, the few.

While the administration continued its mind-numbing, circular attempts at "negotiation," students walked away and secured Mrak's main doors open with bike locks. We overturned trash cans and wedged them in doorjambs, then sat ourselves in the open doorways, making it impossible for the cops to lock the building down. And this was the night's most resonant lesson: that it could not be negotiations that stopped the administration from isolating, controlling, or arresting us. Our power was not in talking, but in walking away from conversation—which was never actual conversation anyway, but a diversionary tactic—and in using our bodies to occupy and open space up for ourselves.

Mrak II ended not with a police lock-down, then, but with a written agreement, by the Vice Chancellor, to attend to a list of student demands generated in the hours that followed. The set of demands was recognized, even then, by protesters, as woefully focused on treating the needless violence already endured in the previous week's arrests. The demands included: an investigation into the charge of "assault" on an officer by a Davis undergraduate (no investigation was yet underway, and the chief of police had only "heard about it" from videos of the incident on TV); administrative encouragement of the DA to drop charges in all 52 Mrak arrests; freedom from punishment by student judicial affairs for students arrested; and reconsideration of the closing of a campus housing co-operative. At 11pm, the occupiers settled on a written agreement produced by the Vice Provost to address their demands, and as a group, peacefully ceded the building.