Carter-Huggins Hall and the alternative you can seize

November 23, 2009

I am a student representing no-one.

These words are as true for me as they were for the student who read our first statement over the phone to the L.A. Times.

They are also the very foundation of the occupation’s politics. Even the statement itself was originally written as a manifesto by an informal subcommittee within the occupied space, intended to represent no-one but themselves. It became the official statement of the occupation only after an informal consensus of the larger group decided that we all happened to agree with it, after a few small tweaks.

Those who would claim to support our cause while criticizing our politics for failing to provide concrete examples of alternative systems, fail to understand this central point. There were no Obamas and no Reids in Campbell Hall when we turned it into Carter-Huggins Hall. Our goal was never to decide somebody else’s alternative for them, nor to represent any broader movement than our own. The entire politics of the occupation was about taking today what tomorrow never brings–not about kicking convoluted theories about. Personally, I have my own vision of the future, which I may elaborate later as I continue to develop it. Everybody else in there had their own vision, too, probably at varying stages of development. So why didn’t we propose a concrete alternative?

Keeping in mind that I represent no-one but myself, I have decided that this question deserves a serious and well-reasoned answer. I only hope that I can help provide it. Again, I cannot stress enough that this is my perspective only and that I have no license to speak for the rest of the occupiers or the rest of “the” movement as a whole; and that anyone who claims otherwise, or tries to call this post “the occupation’s answer” to the criticism in question, is a liar and should be pied in the face.

So: why didn’t we propose concrete alternatives to the current system? From my perspective, we didn’t propose a concrete alternative because it wasn’t our job. As far as I can remember from the lengthy general meeting that accidentally spawned our original statement, the question of proposing the alternative didn’t even come up.

But that’s crazy! What was the point, if not to propose an alternative?

The point was to build our own alternative, spontaneously, collectively, through informal consensus of everyone who was willing to be there and have a say. That was our movement’s greatest strength and perhaps its greatest weakness, too: in the face of the bullshit politics that have dominated mainstream UC protesting this fall, refusing to hold a position can leave your latecomers open to co-optation by the careerists. (As if the careerists haven’t fucked up college enough!)

In practice, it did prove challenging that we had to act collectively without a formal group structure or plan. It meant that we were less than efficient at kicking out Diedre the snitch. It also, eventually, led to our downfall, when the careerists took advantage of the lack of structure to derail the whole thing at the end, later claiming to speak for the occupation as a whole with its bullshit agreement with the police. [Here’s something that tells you all you need to know: these careerists, despite claiming to care about racial justice, consistently called the building Campbell Hall long after we renamed it in solemn remembrance of the slain Black Panthers. Oops! Hey, guess who else called it Campbell Hall that day? The pigs and the administration.] It led to the two most important general meetings being a little too formless and inefficient. These are very real problems which future occupations should address.

But it was also our greatest source of strength. Our trust in each other as students was our structure: nobody had to tell anyone what to do or abide by any overarching set of rules. As an implicit system, this proved its merit continuously throughout the occupation. We were able to determine what had to be done autonomously and it all got done. I’ll never forget the look in three fellow students’ eyes when we were holding the basement door steady against a raging professor who hit the door so hard he broke a pair of handcuffs that helped hold the double doors together on our side. When the prof tried to provoke us with his words after failing to break through with his shoulder, the four of us looked from one to the other and all saw the same thing: “Be silent! He’ll go away!” I don’t know how we all knew it, but we did. And it worked. But we didn’t just see agreement in each others’ eyes: we saw total trust, total security, and above all, we saw three comrades who would rather work with us than argue politics.

At the end of the day, that was what mattered for us. UC Santa Cruz has a list of very specific things they want from the administration, and I have no beef with that: that’s their decision and they have good reasons for it. For one thing, Santa Cruz has been doing this stuff for decades and has three occupations to draw on just this quarter; for another, their local occupation is made of UCSC students worried about UCSC stuff. For us, with all the inexperience in the building, and the broad diversity of students from UCs, CSUs and community colleges and from all backgrounds and walks of life (every Californian had a stake in the Regents meeting), came the danger that disagreements could tear us apart. We circumvented that danger by removing agreement from the equation: you didn’t have to agree on our demands to work with us, you just had to agree that we had the right idea and be willing to determine your own level of involvement. This was how we could accommodate the massive march that broke off from the main stream to support us at Carter-Huggins in the afternoon, and hold off the LAPD raid they brought with them.

As our first statement said:

For those students who work two or three jobs while going to school, to those parents for whom the violation of the UC charter means the prospect of affordable education remains out of reach, to laid off teachers, lecturers, to students turned away, to workers who’ve seen the value of their diplomas evaporate in an economy that ‘grows’ without producing jobs – to all these people and more besides, we say that our struggle is your struggle, that an alternative is possible if you have the courage to seize it.

As far as I’m concerned, the courage to seize it is the alternative. The rest is academic.