Co-op(ted) What can we learn about threats to democracy from the closure of CLoyne student co-op at UC Berkeley?

By Three Former Clones

“You may have noticed some campus buildings with two adjacent doors only have one door handle,” the University of California Berkeley tour guide cooed through her strangely unsettling smile. Not until she mentioned it did I notice. “That’s to prevent people from blockading a door and taking over a building,” she explained. The crowd of new students nodded in unison, seemingly unfazed. In the 1960s protesters had chained themselves to the doors of the Chancellor’s office in protest of the Vietnam War. The response? No policy changes in regards to the war. But they did make sure to remove the knobs on the Chancellor’s door.

The tour ended in Cesar Chavez plaza. This space was designed in the wake of the 1964 Free Speech Movement, in such a way that it would concentrate protests and mass mobilizations, and facilitate a quick and efficient police response. Notice it or not, social spaces are often designed to isolate and separate people. Once I began to notice this architecture of separation at Berkeley, I couldn’t stop. The architecture of separation is not just a phenomenon found in design or city planning. It is deeply ingrained in our legal, justice and social system. It is everywhere, all the way from our zoning laws down to our door handles.

Which is why, when I encounter those rare but beautiful spaces that do not serve to isolate, but instead facilitate human interaction and transformation, I recognize them as spaces worth fighting for. Unfortunately, these spaces are often singled out and challenged, with some arbitrary justification or another, pulled into the mainstream or pushed out of existence.

I think this is what many people found in Occupy. Occupy was a reclamation of public space. Spaces where we normally hurried past one another were temporarily transformed into places where we slowed down, smiled, conversed, argued, debated, dreamed, and transformed strangers into friends, companions and comrades. What many found in Occupy, I found in Cloyne Court.

Cloyne Court, one block north of the Berkeley campus, was the largest student-housing cooperative in North America – housing 149 students – under the umbrella organization of the Berkeley Student Cooperatives (BSC). But it was much more than that. It was the place I came home to after getting beaten by police on the lawn next to the Mario Savio steps, and blinded by tear gas in Oakland. It was a music venue, a community center, and an art gallery. A yoga studio. A darkroom. A place where we ate meals together. It was a place to celebrate our friends’ victories, and in tragic times, a place to mourn those taken from us.

Through everything, it was always my home, my sanctuary and my rock. It gave me hope in the power of humanity as I watched Occupy lose steam and the world around me seemingly dig deeper its trenches of social stratification, environmental degradation, hopelessness and despair.

Perhaps it should have come as no surprise that Cloyne was a contested space that was destroyed purposefully by those in positions of power. Cloyne was shut down allegedly because of “liability” stemming from “a culture perceived to be tolerant of drugs.” Contrary to popular belief, you can polish bullshit. But whatever pretty excuses you may have, at the end of the day, what happened to Occupy, Albany Bulb, and Cloyne – while each unique and distinct – was eviction.

The BSC which operated Cloyne was founded in 1933 to provide cooperative student housing. It operates 17 coop houses and 3 apartments which house 1,300 students. Residents elect a board of directors and although individual houses have some autonomy, the board with heavy influence from paid professional management staff ultimately calls the shots.

The details of our ordeal are convoluted; our story is only one of many radical organizations that are bent into conformity by scare tactics. The impetus behind the ultimate decision to prevent all Cloyne residents from renewing their contracts, forcing all of us to move at the end of the spring 2014 semester, was the out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit regarding the drug overdose of John Gibson, a Cloyne resident in 2010. Gibson’s mother sued the BSC, claiming the BSC was aware of a drug tolerant culture in Cloyne and had done nothing to stop it. In December 2013, the BSC’s insurance carrier settled the lawsuit, and with the start of Spring semester, the BSC Cabinet (a sub-set of the Board of Directors) entered into weeks of closed executive sessions, crafting their “Cloyne Plan.” Cloyne was targeted as a space that fostered substance abuse, with the “solution” being the destruction of a community, rather than any attempt to address the mental health issues that plague, and are systematically ignored by, society at large.

Those weeks Cabinet spent in private executive sessions were weeks the entire community of BSC could have spent having a discussion about the future of Cloyne and the BSC as a whole. Members of Cloyne, and the other student members of BSC, were only given the opportunity to discuss the situation once Cabinet had already decided on a plan. By identifying us as the problem – rather than the solution we could have been – they disenfranchised us as members and ignored the transformation that had already been happening in the house for years.

It’s easy for co-ops to be co-opted. People get tired of the structure and the decision-making process. They forget that the structure and process are the foundation of what is distinct about a cooperative. It is, after all, what defines a co-op. Power structures are created to help the organization grow, or be more efficient, but if they are not consistently critiqued and put under scrutiny, they may co-opt the very democratic process they were supposed to support. Often, when decision-making is opened up to a larger group, while it may be less efficient, the airing of many ideas in an open, collaborative environment can allow the best ideas to float to the top.

BSC Board members, Cabinet and the paid executive staff resisted and ignored bylaws. While the BSC technically has direct democratic safeguards – an annual General Membership Meeting (GMM), a referendum process, and the ability to pull votes from your Board representative – each of these processes were made ineffectual. The GMM was cancelled just before the Cloyne Plan was announced, a petition for a referendum signed by the required number of members was rejected due to “timeline issues” as well as the membership being “ill-informed,” and in order for members to pull their vote from the Cloyne Plan, they had to stay at the Board meeting until five o’clock in the morning, when votes were cast.

Supporters of the “Cloyne Plan” repeatedly emphasized that in order to defend themselves in court and limit their liability, they needed to prove that there had been a genuine cultural shift. They argued that it was necessary for all members to be kicked out in order for a culture shift to occur. They ignored the fact that there was an influx of new membership all the time, and that none of the current membership had lived in the house at the time of the overdose. As an alternative, members of Cloyne proposed a plan that aimed to create a space that would promote healthy living, allowing for open dialogue about substance-use, instead of one that pretended, unrealistically, that all members would commit to the substance-free lifestyle.

When we realized that our community was in jeopardy, we reached out to professionals and organizations with decades of experience in substance-use problems, specifically those aimed towards restorative justice practices. Weeks after Cabinet presented their plan, they still had no comment to how restorative justice practices would be implemented in the New Cloyne Court. In the end, we were the doorknob that got removed, and the issue of substance abuse and mental health was left untouched.

Radical spaces and cooperative organizations stay radical only when people are willing to commit wholeheartedly to things that are not easy. These spaces have helped us grow as individuals, and have facilitated communities that embrace the innumerable potentialities of humanity. Their structures must constantly be questioned, critiqued, and challenged in order to ensure that the membership retains complete autonomy over decision-making processes. Without this dedication, these beautiful, transformative, autonomous spaces will be gone and forgotten.