Events in UCD’s Mrak Hall Thursday evening unfolded according to a familiar pattern: fees tuition goes up, so students get angry and march on the admin building. A sit-in is staged, demands are made, administrators pretend to dialogue while mobilizing police. Speakers speak, drums drum, and catharsis is reached. Or not. In the end we either stay or we go.
What is the purpose of a sit-in? Is it to force the administration to negotiate? If so, it’s a poor tactic, in itself, because it rarely works. Last November, after the Mrak arrests, the administration was reluctant to send in police during the second building occupation because, well, arresting another 50 students would have made them look even worse. So they “negotiated.” We all remember Janet Gong’s list of empty promises. Negotiation with the administration is futile because it allows them to retain the appearance of reasonableness and because students have no way to force them to keep their word.
When a sit-in refuses to disband itself, the dynamic changes. A minor nuisance becomes a threat to authority and productivity. The riot cops must be called, with them come the media, and the UC receives another black eye. It no longer seems quite so reasonable to raise students’ tuition and then arrest, club, pepper spray and, quite possibly, shoot them into submission. Administrators are nothing if not aware of status and public relations. Still, demands are unlikely to be met–so why bother making them? Public opinion begins to shift, though, in the wake of stubborn student resistance. More scrutiny is brought to bear on administrator salaries, the regents’ dirty investments, the capital building projects, the bond ratings, and the worsening conditions under which we work, teach and learn.
While the tactical value of a sit-in is rather limited, there is much we can learn from the dynamics of these actions. We either stay or we go, but our choice depends on our level of commitment and solidarity. Commitment, to let the situation play itself out; solidarity, with the community of the event.
There is a sense of empowerment that comes with declaring one’s identity, with saying where one is from, as a response to institutionalized racism and the alienation of modern university life. To belong to a community is a basic human need, ignored only by the most damaged and reified libertarian consciousness. But a community based on identity formations always draws limits around itself, even as it ignores its internal discrepancies and fractures, leaving them unresolved. When appeals to this abstract notion of community are made, solidarity evaporates and the actually existing community of the sit-in acquires a half-life measurable in minutes. It happened in Mrak a year ago, when self-styled leaders repeatedly made attempts to divide protesters into “arrestables” and “non-arrestables.” It happened again Thursday in Mrak, when one student decided that “his community” would negotiate with the administration.
In these cases, the self-appointed “community leader” appears as what he always was, an individual committed to his own self-aggrandizement and to no position other than the one that guarantees that his voice will be heard at the rally, the sit-in, and the bargaining table. Traditional politics thus disguises itself within the real movement, which is slowly learning to mistrust such leaders and abstract community formations. What does it mean when someone stands up, claiming solidarity with a community of all those present, affirming his commitment to stay all night, until demands are met, only to declare that his community has decided to leave after the administration agrees to a mock negotiation at some future date? What of the others present? When they disagree, they are declared to be “outside the circle” or blamed for disrupting the (false) consensus. The leader thus simultaneously engineers his constituency and the failure of the concrete action in progress.
A community based on identity formations is only ever a constituency, whose political energies can be focused through the prism of the community activist, the labor leader or traditional politician, and be easily manipulated by the ruling class and its media or, in our context, by the administrators. We need a different vision of community as shared praxis, as absolute solidarity toward a concrete goal.
What are some goals worthy of a movement that has persisted now for well over a year despite police beatings, the injustice system, arbitrary student conduct proceedings, and its own internal contradictions?
We have only a few suggestions:
Cops off campus as a necessary condition for our own safety and ability to organize toward student and worker self-determination.