Issue 2 (April 2010)

 

Public Education in California: What’s Next After March 4?

Adam Dylan Hefty



On March Fourth, we marched forth. Now what?

This is the question being asked across the state in activist meetings of all sorts and configurations. The situation is contradictory, in that March 4 was by almost all measures an impressive success, yet the answer to the question “now what?” is a lot murkier now than it was in February. March 4 represented a remarkable broadening, in quantity and quality, of the movement in defense of public education, particularly in California though also to some extent nationally and worldwide. Though it’s now part of a larger national process, the situation in California still has a certain density and specificity. Hundreds of rallies and other events in defense of public education took place on March 4 across the state. Large marches took place across the state: 20,000 in San Francisco, 6000 in Northridge, 4000 in downtown Los Angeles, 2000 in Berkeley, 2000 in San Diego, 2000 in Sacramento, 1000 in Santa Barbara, and 1000 in Riverside.(1)

On my campus at UC Santa Cruz, a student strike successfully shut down campus, stopping business as usual for an entire day. In Oakland and Davis, protesters took to the freeways. Police blocked Davis protesters from marching onto I-80, but in Oakland, 150-200 people successfully blocked traffic on the I-980/I-880; most of them were arrested. Brief sit-ins or occupations took place at UCLA, UC Irvine, and CSU Fresno.

This brief roundup covers many of the larger events and the more significant direct actions, but fails to convey the breadth of the events of March 4 in California. Walkouts and smaller rallies took place across the state, particularly at a wide range of community colleges and California State (CSU) campuses not represented during the Fall 2009 protests. Public school teachers participated in short walkouts and taught about the education crisis during the day in many districts around the state, and a number gathered for local rallies in the afternoon. March 4 in the Bay Area was probably the biggest and broadest day of action since the antiwar marches of 2003. In Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, it seemed as though nearly every school was “in motion” in some respect. School districts in Oakland and San Francisco had “disaster drills” which allowed teachers to demonstrate, even if only around their own schools. Marches connected UC Berkeley with a rally in downtown Oakland; many Oakland marchers also attended a very big regional rally in San Francisco.

While these actions were certainly more widespread in coastal and urban California than in the rural and inland parts of the state, March 4 did permeate well past the traditional left-liberal bastions of California protest politics. A colleague of mine, for example, was part of a discussion of the defense of public education in a group sponsored by her relatively conservative church in Silicon Valley. A school-based event took place in Brentwood, in eastern Contra Costa County. In Fall 2009, one could argue with some justification that the defense of public education movement was centered among relatively privileged students in California’s elite public university system, the UC. In addition to the quantitative broadening I have described above, March 4 also involved a qualitative broadening. Struggling public school teachers, parents and students, resource-starved community college students and traditionally underprivileged students, particularly students of color and immigrants, fighting to maintain access to higher education became a substantial part of the mix, and this has already transformed the character of the movement to some extent.

 

Contradictions: Movement at a Crossroads

Thus, March 4 in general represented a significant step forward for the defense of education movement. At the same time, it brought certain contradictions to the fore, and the movement now faces a crossroads of strategy and political complexity. There were certain limitations to March 4 itself. First, it ended up being confined more to the “day of action” model than were the events of fall 2009. In the fall, following the September 24 statewide UC walkout and a handful of occupations, a week of actions surrounding the November UC Regents’ meeting spilled over into almost two weeks of actions in which business as usual was suspended throughout much of the UC system as well as on a few CSU campuses. A series of occupations, library sit-ins and study-ins, and other actions served to make public the crisis we were already experiencing on our campuses. What had been a brewing crisis for us really for years, though coming to a head over the past several months, suddenly became a crisis for the administration as well. March 4 did not share this characteristic. Some organizers tried to get actions going before March 4 or keep them going afterwards, but compared to the March 4 events themselves, these events were inadequately organized, and they mostly fell flat. Relatedly, with the partial exception of the UC Santa Cruz student strike, direct actions around March 4 were generally less successful and impactful than was the case in the fall. The Oakland freeway action certainly attracted a lot of media attention during rush hour, but it was essentially short-lived.

It is fair to say in the fall that we were consumed, both by anger at the devastating losses we faced and by exuberant, sometimes irrational excitement about our own potential. At UC Santa Cruz, in the fall we could barely finish one action before a general assembly would be called to plan the next one. The exuberance may not have been completely grounded, but it created an audacity which made people dare to do big things and put political work at the center of their lives for a time.

Now, despite the remarkable success of our March 4 strike, it is fair to say that even at Santa Cruz that exuberance has given way to a more sober mentality. It is possible to miss those heady days of fall while still greeting this soberness as, possibly, a positive development, a moment in which we have to grasp to reorient ourselves towards a political maturity that we haven’t yet defined and for which we don’t necessarily share a common compass.

I do not believe it is ridiculous to state that the defense of public education movement now faces a crisis of big-picture strategy. Of course, this crisis can still coexist with a fairly vibrant movement. If the movement is going through a lull after March 4, perhaps it is just catching its breath; March 4 was an incredible amount of work in many places; the rhythm of the school year can push towards a momentary diminution of student organizing, etc. Perhaps all that is missing is the right catalyst to ignite things again. After all, the movement has now pulled off several successful, impactful periods of action in a row; it counts a substantial number of committed organizers and a broad milieu that has become convinced that collective action works; and of course the objective crisis that prompted the movement promises to be with us for years to come. Nevertheless, strategic thinking now becomes essential if we are to broaden the movement further and develop it as a real force, rather than something capable of being bluntly impactful on state and administrative policies but incapable of determining the parameters of those policies along genuinely more favorable lines. We need a plan that goes beyond calling the next day of action or getting together another hopeful wave of occupations.

For that matter, we need to get beyond the common-sense critique that campus-based protest represents the political immaturity of the movement while lobbying should represent its maturity. We need a plan that can synthesize all of these various elements into something on a greater scale, to alter the balance of power in the state and in our schools.

It is difficult, of course, to actually create or enact such a strategy in an ideologically disparate movement based in very different sectors, particularly when the movement lacks real coordination. Developing that coordination may now be necessary, but it will be a difficult issue around which to forge consensus, since a substantial slice of the movement is politically suspicious of anything close to a central body.

Strategy and Analysis

Strategy of course doesn’t exist in a vacuum but also depends on our assumptions about the world. Some leaders of student government (as well as many school administrators) stress the notion that public education in California would be fine if we could just get more state funding for education. More state funding, of course, would be beneficial, but this analysis downplays the structural factors which have created a nearly impossible situation for the state to pay for nearly any public goods, including education.

Conversely, some union leaders within the UC system sometimes talk as if the UC system would be fine if it were governed by democratic, pro-worker and pro-student priorities rather than the pro-corporate priorities of the current administration. Establishing democratic oversight of and transparency within the UC system and shifting institutional priorities could certainly go a long way towards reversing the austerity measures of the past two years. Over the long term, however, having a vibrant public education system requires a vibrant public sphere—but the public sphere itself has been systematically crippled.

On the other end of the spectrum, many involved in the occupation wing of the movement, particularly the self-described “ultra left,” are committed to a version of crisis theory which suggests that we can’t win meaningful reforms in the near future because capitalism is in such crisis or a state of decline such that even if the money is there now to cancel austerity measures (assuming a different set of priorities), it won’t be in the near future. Therefore, certain approaches towards reform might be fruitless as best and an ideological distraction at worst that merely prop up faith in a deteriorating system.

This is not the place to examine these theories in detail. My own view, in extremely brief terms, is that the robust, accumulative neoliberalism of the past 30 years has been largely discredited, but as of yet no new, broad system of economic management has emerged to take its place; a kind of austerity-based neoliberalism lives on. There is a range of plausible scenarios for the development of capitalism over the medium term, from a series of medium-sized shocks to a speculative recovery (of capital’s profitability, if not for working people).

I think we have to assume that the state will remain an important domain of struggle over the distribution of resources for some time to come; in fact, as capital’s ability to expand in absolute terms declines, its need to staunch its losses by extracting more from workers and from the natural and public commons will only grow. Indeed, to the extent that environmental crisis makes capitalism’s traditional model of growth impossible, over the medium term a struggle over the distribution of resources may become a primary arena of social conflict. Whether we can win gains in these sorts of struggles or merely struggle mightily against losses is a question of force, to be determined in practice.

A Multi-Pronged Struggle

We need to construct a movement that is capable of intervening in these debates at the state level, and we also need to keep developing our base where we are strongest, where we can win some more immediate fights at least over priorities, on the campuses.

California’s Proposition 13, which caps state property taxes, guarantees that the state will always be too resource-starved to do anything that requires a large infusion of public funding. Without overturning or at least radically revising it, the larger goals of this movement are not achievable. Radicals in the movement have tended to treat any focus on state politics or “Sacramento” as reformist, tantamount to lobbying. However, there is a second statewide question: building a movement that could alter the statewide balance of forces, radically revising or overturning Prop 13, ensuring greater democratic accountability for the UC Regents, etc.

There exists no statewide political force capable of articulating this agenda. Certainly the leadership of the Democratic Party doesn’t want to touch the main part of Proposition 13, and even if they did, they aren’t politically capable of it; they don’t have a political vision of how the state could be different, and the leading social groups most closely linked with the Democratic Party leadership—Silicon Valley and Hollywood business leaders—do not want radical change. If our movement wants to fight for that kind of agenda, we would have to be the spark that could ignite a statewide political force capable of articulating it. The student movement is not broad enough or large enough to do that ourselves. But we might be exciting enough to instigate something along those lines if we keep the momentum going. In subtle ways we have already changed the equation of what is politically possible in California.

In order to keep the momentum going, we need to implement an array of tactics as part of an overall strategic vision. This vision should include building a much bigger movement that can take on fights like Prop 13 over the medium to long-term, as well as targeting decision makers who have an immediate ability to change spending priorities, such as the UC Regents. A   corporate campaign, modeled after the kinds of campaigns aggressive unions have used to fight intransigent groups of employers, could be an important tool in targeting these decision makers, who are working hard to deflect the blame towards the state. We should look at the UC Regents as a corporate board, developing an understanding of their business interests and the relationships in the community that matter most to them.

From the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott to Justice for Janitors and campaigns against multinational hotel chains, corporate campaigns have been successful at turning up the heat on intransigent corporate boards. This kind of a campaign could give the movement a focus in between major days and weeks of action, utilizing tactics from media-savvy street theater and flash mobs to small leafleting actions to targeted sit-ins and occupations.

The direct action wing of the movement has suffered some setbacks. Many of its leaders, particularly at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, two of the most active campuses during the fall, are now facing administrative action for the fall occupations. Other leaders have gotten tired and disengaged, leaving an increasingly young and inexperienced cohort at the center. Furthermore, campus administrations and police have become much more savvy about responding to possible direct actions.
 
Organizing actions openly online is fairly sure to bring out a large number of police; the only way to overcome that problem is truly massive numbers. Secretly organized occupations at the beginning of the year were extremely controversial within the movement. In most places, the level of trust and overall radicalization doesn’t exist for clandestine planning to be successful.
Nevertheless, this movement needs a strong direct action wing to continue thriving. Direct action can create a sense of momentum and excitement even when mass-based interruptions of business as usual are not possible; it can also dramatize the crisis we are experiencing for the media. It is also important not to fetishize what is or isn’t direct action; rather, we should recognize that occupations and sit-ins, as well as strikes and rallies, have been critical tactics in putting this movement on the map, and these tactics and others will continue to be essential going forward.

Next Steps in a Long Battle

Symptomatic of the difficulty we are having in charting the course of this movement has been a confusing process for determining a date and location for a statewide organizing conference after March 4. As I am putting the finishing touches on this article, it looks as though the meeting will happen April 24 in Fresno, although it’s possible this could change yet again.

The statewide conference is an important space to chart a course for this movement between now and the early part of fall semester. Undoubtedly we will lose some momentum with the end of the school year, so it is important to maintain some level of activity, find smaller actions we can do over the summer, and hit the ground running in the fall. A corporate campaign and a series of actions targeting political hopefuls have been suggested as good summer campaigns.

The current structure of the movement is somewhat lacking. Decisions are made through a rather byzantine network of regional and local coordinating committees, a statewide coordinating committee, and email lists that correspond to each of these bodies. The existence of coordinating committees is a good thing, but their mandate is so limited that instead of focusing political discussions and developing strategic alternatives, they often end up focusing on logistical details for yet more upcoming meetings. The email lists have frequently gotten bogged down in flame wars, masculinism, and sectarian modes of discussion.

We need to revise these structures, especially at the state and school or local levels, if we want to develop new people coming into the movement as activist-organizers. Coordinating committees or strategy committees should never substitute for broad, democratic decision making, but they should enable that decision making. They should promote healthy political debate, analytic as well as strategic and tactical, and should aid the development of well-thought-through, collectively discussed, possibly counterpoised proposals for action.

At Santa Cruz, running proposals through a strategy committee allowed us to move from meetings where people would throw out half-formulated ideas to better articulated, multifaceted strategic discussions. Initially the idea of a strategy committee was somewhat controversial, since there was a fear that some political tendencies would use the strategy committee to impose their agenda on the movement. The result of this controversy was that different political currents in the movement worked explicitly to turn out their sympathizers for the initial meeting of the strategy committee. In my view this was positive, in that it allowed for a sharper discussion.

This particular model will not work everywhere, and it is too soon to say for how long it will work moving forward even at Santa Cruz. This movement has tended to generate new forms of organization on campus every couple of months: We have seen general assemblies, solidarity forums, action assemblies, dance parties that lead into immediate action, a strike committee, a strategy committee, and a solidarity forum.

At a statewide level, we need to be prepared to experiment with these forms as well, in order to find structures that will minimize infighting for its own sake and logistics-driven discussions, and maximize meaningful political debates and strategic development.

 

 

Adam Dylan Hefty is a Doctoral Candidate in History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz. He is active in several groups in the struggle to defend public education. Hefty's essay originally appeared in Against The Current 145, March-April 2010.

 

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1. These figures are taken from reports by Socialist Worker, http://socialistworker.org/2010/03/04/live-from-the-day-of-action; OccupyCA, http://occupyca.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/march-4/; and Indybay http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/02/27/18639000.php.