The reassuring aspect of fighting a bureaucratic monster like the University of California is that they often make decisions that are blindly dangerous to their goals to operate smoothly and without public scrutiny or contestment. I offer up as evidence the decision to hold a meeting in San Francisco of the governing board of Regents on the anniversary of the war and invasion of Iraq. The streets that day promised to be full of protesters. But perhaps reality is one part social engineering mixed with one part crap shoot. By controlling the communication lines and economic outlets, one can hedge one’s luck with insurmountable odds. The Regents’ meeting at UCSF on March 19 saw a mere 12 protesters blocking the doors, hardly enough resistance to even make the meeting start late, and business went on as normal. But the potential was there – thousands of people dissatisfied with the war, corporate culture, and poverty, could have overwhelmed and disrupted the monster’s course of devouring all.
Are You Angry Yet ?
The Regents are a small group of wealthy, smug people who manage the ten public universities in California. The system of schools helps the state be one of the seven biggest economies in the world. The economy is strengthened by agriculture, entertainment, high-tech and bio-tech, war and weapon industry, and rich natural minerals. Much of these resources are largely brokered through corporations who would like nothing but the populace at large to ignore their operations. The Regents likewise are not popularly elected, 18 of the 26 are put into power by their partner in the State’s governor seat. The Regents incidentally seem most interested in the pursuit of land acquisition and development, and forming partnerships with mega-corporations. Tuition continues to rise, doubling every couple years, along with the salaries for those with Regents’ seats. One could see a parallel going on with higher education and the society at large. The access to information is restricted as the middle ground between extreme wealth and poverty is being clear-cut, but if more people got a glimpse into the complete picture, there would be a dramatic increase in the number of lock-downs before administrative meetings.
The Empire Dreams
In the weeks preceding the Regents’ big day in SF, a group of UC Berkeley activists held a meeting to organize a rebuttal. Many of them were with the newly formed student group “Free The UC.” The group came out of a collective of progressive organizations called the Phoenix Coalition. They held a gathering a few weeks before hand which included a daily free school that was mostly ignored by the 30,000 plus people going to classes. The meeting this night was also largely ignored. Scheduled to start after a showing of a documentary on Iraq in one of the student co-ops, the group seemed small and low energy, though the film demonstrated the gravity and life damaging forces operating while we sleep.
When the meeting commenced, it was obvious that only three or four people were really cognizant of the proposal to do a direct action. The dry erase board was filled with an agenda of mundane tasks to get through that ranged from outreach to civil disobedience training. The day of action was in two weeks. During the initial introductions one potential protester obliquely asked, “What does this have to do with the Olympic torch?” referring to the contested, news savvy Tibetan crisis with China. Yes Indeed what does it have to do with the Olympic torch.
But the organizers showed considerable patience in not getting derailed. It is not a safe assumption to see everyone having the same experience and values geared for protests. Their work was not eased by the staggering work load students of today keep up with, which also keeps them out of activism. The effect of having brain melting high tuition is not only fattening the coffers of the absurdly rich, but in the people who would desire to make trouble for the rich and powerful out of the universities. Instead of going to this meeting or others like it, students are shitting anxiety with not only making it through school, but landing a good job afterwards. One cannot help but think that this is by design.
What we see now with our schools dates back to the mid sixties when Ronnie Reagan (then Governor of California) put a fee on the privilege of higher education. Part of his motivation was to cool down the momentum of people power enigmatic of those times. The activism bursted through on until the 1980’s when poor people could still get into UC Berkeley. Students were engaged in such successful campaigns as divestment in South Africa, support for Central American autonomous movements, and in nuclear disarmament. The campus could hardly keep a ROTC from burning back then, much less open. Ten years ago, the gutting of Affirmative Action helped dwindle enrollment of African Americans and impoverished people who actually live near Berkeley. Now with a year of classes having a price tag of well over $20,000, its no wonder the place is a play ground for chain stores, christians and an influx of team spirit colors.
A CLOSER LOOK
The actions and attitudes of UC Berkeley can be a localized example of the larger doings of UC Regents, and the unchecked power divining the world. The frenzy at which UC Berkeley is going for broke must be quite intoxicating for those who sit in plush board rooms making plans. Those plans may find a couple critics who cry out, but often those cries are isolated and ineffectual.
Native Americans have been making a stink wanting return of over 13,000 Ancestral remains. The University has not relented for it would damage their status of having the largest collection of Native American artifacts outside the Smithsonian.
It would seem lately that the University has no regard for undeveloped open space. A little off campus the proposal to build on the Memorial Oak Grove seems insane as buildings lie empty on nearby Telegraph Ave. The UC has already built a Nano technology building in the beautiful hills of Strawberry Canyon. They also have plans to fill those hills with several other large buildings, like a computational building and a 70 person guest house. Building plans are in the works to bring high rises in the downtown of Berkeley and to develop on the Gill Tract, a large urban garden in nearby Albany.
The most controversial proposal is in building a research lab for biofuel. This will put UC Berkeley into a financial bond with the mega-petroleum corporation BP, as well give it the distinction of making the largest known pact between corporation and University. This brings up the concern that a corporation will influence what is studied and why. But the University has a tainted and controversial history of partnerships with other giants of big money. Most easy to note are bio-tech industries, who are in the middle of their genetically modified food experiment on the public, and in developing nuclear weapons.
For every self congratulation the UC gives itself for being Green or the birth of the Free Speech Movement, there is the ugly reality. Take for example the interactions with the hotly contested People’s Park. The Stage at the park was painted over three times by the UC to cover up the simple message “Democratize the Regents”. Instead of entertaining a discussion of the notions of Free Speech the university passed a new decree– Any messages painted on the park’s stage will have to be approved by them, the self appointed owner.
The collective energies of UC Berkeley would reveal an insane élan behind their numerous atrocious acts. One can’t help but wonder if they are taking cue from the Bush Administration’s attitude of free plunder of our commons. In the sixties, activists in cities all across the U.S. uncovered a direct connection between the colleges they attended and toxic producing corporations, and the war machine. They soon learned that the research and work they did was bei
ng used in ways they found to be nefarious. There is little to suggest this funneling of resources ever stopped.
The Empire’s Nightmare
Sometimes when small breaks in our landscape of social control appear an angry and determined people get together and plan. The Anarchist book fair in S.F. on March 22 provided a space for such an event. It was days after the action at the Regents’ meeting and the largely ineffectual war protest. A discussion was held in a side room away from book sellers and speakers. The room of folks largely talked on the treesits happening in both UC Berkeley’s and UC Santa Cruz’s campuses, as well as issues of other California campuses like the growing unrest at DQ University in Davis, and problems at SF State. Toward the end of the hour people started to universally voice that it was time to expand this movement–for alliances to be made with protesters from all of the college campuses.
Treesit supporter Ayr said, “I would like to see opposition to the Regents be on the scale of what we see with the WTO, one where they can’t meet anywhere without disruption.” An idea whose time has come. The room was largely comprised of people who live on the fringes, so it will be hard to see what will come of this. What is needed is a unified opposition to unchecked power, but one that is not just comprised of students and counter culture types, but of the communities of people who live among the campuses and see their world transformed without their input.
The action to shut down the Regents’ meeting on March 19 didn’t go in the wind. The organizers kept the pressure on but sought another approach. This time, on April 13th it was a conference to bring into coalition all the progressive organizations on Berkeley campus. The list was heartening; gay/lesbian coalition, affirmative action, students for Palestine, etc. Time will show what actions they take. When The Phoenix Coalition held a similar conference, it gave birth to “Free The UC”. This then inspired a two week treesit on campus that challenged UC on multiple issues. The “Democratize the Regents” idea is catching. The force of people willing to lay aside the promise of a career or security within the system can threaten the smooth runnings of a monolith power such as UC, especially if the determination spreads exponentially throughout the general population to include youth, business people, retired folk, etc. It is such a direly needed exponent that will lay to wreck the plans of those who seek to shape our environment against our will, and gamble with our lives. This summer we could send a clear message to the next Regents’ Meetings; May 14-15 at UCLA and July 16-17 at UC Santa Barbara.