Free University Coalition

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This week was the 50th anniversary of the largest campus sit-in and mass arrest in US history on December 2-3, 1964 in Sproul Hall. UC Berkeley planned to hold an official event in Sproul Hall to commemorate the sit-in; but at the last moment, administration changed its location and locked down Sproul, apparently for fear that students would try and apply the school-sanctioned history lesson. The point is worth repeating: UC Berkeley admin went so far as to exclude current students from campus space while commemorating past students’ struggle to make that very space their own.

In September, UC Berkeley’s own Nicholas Dirks marked the anniversary of the Free Speech movement that came to a head in December 1964. His primary purpose was corral free speech in under the guise of celebrating it, by highlighting the importance of what he called “civility.” Also in September, UCLA launched a rebranding campaign introducing the tagline, “We, the Optimists”; probably needless to say, this campaign views aspects of UCLA’s past and present through impossibly rose-tinted glasses. The politically motivated firing and long-overdue return of Angela Davis to UCLA, for instance, are celebrated under an expanded form of the tagline: “We, the Optimists—We question.”

In short, this year more than ever, UC management has aggressively appropriated and expropriated the last few decades’ worth of UC history. Their marking and rose-tinting erase the experiences of those who had to live beneath the shadow of a milestone. They give open lectures but lock down doors, blocking attempts to replicate traditions of resistance. Under such circumstances, the accepted meanings of the words “history” and “tradition” must themselves be undermined, as they typically signify only those forms of continuity that management has an interest in highlighting.

In light of all this, we thought now would be a good time to reexamine the significance of reclaiming space around the Beat ‘SC Bonfire. We know that many students were incensed by our move to make the Beat ‘SC Bonfire a “non-fire.” During the course of the night and in subsequent posts, we saw and heard many characterize sabotaging a “UCLA tradition” as “unfair,” “rude,” or at the very least “inconsiderate.” We were not always sure why the words “UCLA tradition” were invoked in place of an argument, but we supposed it reflected an assumption that all student-workers, like the Alumni Association, regard tradition with a potent mix of “nostalgia and excitement.”

If that’s the case, we do have one agreement: the phrase “UCLA tradition” should absolutely evoke a deep emotional response.  We differ on which emotions we find most appropriate, though. You see, for us, talk of “UCLA tradition” brings to mind assaults—physical and otherwise—upon ethnic minorities and political dissenters, including the relentless introduction of new fee hikes. There is no more time-honored UCLA tradition than finding ways to exclude those whom the university had already marginalized.

The interrelated forms of violence with which we are most familiar date back to at least the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. By 1970, the year after the murder of two Black Panthers in UCLA’s Campbell Hall and the Regents’ vote to fire Angela Davis from her post for daring to “incite trouble” at UCLA, Ronald Reagan began to make good on his campaign promise to introduce tuition as a mechanism to “get rid of undesirables.” All of this happened in the statewide context of a push to cut bilingual education programs so that, as one Reagan ally put it, “the Seventies will NOT bring Black or Brown or Yellow Power schools supported by public tax money but run by various minority groups.”

Unsurprisingly, Reagan and the Regents were simultaneously stifling political dissent among students, most famously in the form of the Free Speech Movement. Reagan persuaded the Regents to order further punitive measures against UC Berkeley protesters even after the mass arrest of 800 people. Police violence in response to political dissent later escalated to include fatal shootings during protests at Berkeley’s “People’s Park” in 1969. Angela Davis spoke out against these shootings and the police, or “pigs,” who perpetrated them; the Regents cited those comments to rationalize her dismissal from UCLA.

Angela Davis is back at UCLA; Berkeley’s Chancellor did issue that seemingly celebratory (albeit highlyproblematic) statement to mark the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. But the Regents and allied authorities have otherwise stayed true to their traditions. We need only mention former UCLA Chancellor  Charles E. Young’s opposition to the creation of Chicano Studies department, leading to mass arrests and a hunger strike in 1993; the elimination of affirmative action at the UCs in 1996; attempts to massively downsize foreign language programs at UCLA, e.g. in 2010; the increase of tuition in fits and spurts, alwaysdisproportionately affecting already underrepresented communities; the ordering of violent police responses to on-campus protests against  tuition increases in 2009-14. The struggle for survival that newspapers like La Gente and Nommo—both founded during Ronald Reagan’s governorship—wage to this day is itself symptomatic of the university’s continued hostility to the self-empowerment of marginalized communities.

If this past November 20 had only been the day on which the Regents voted to approve a five-year plan to increase tuition by nearly 28 percent, we still would have been reminded of the strange fruit of “UCLA tradition.” But November 17-20 signify much more than that for students and workers at UCLA. On November 18-19th, 2009, riot police brutalized and arrested  protesters at UCLA.  Just last year on November 20, workers on campus (including TAs) staged a strike in response to management’s practice of dragging employees into closets and interrogating them. The day before the “non-fire,” many UCLA students witnessed police breaking a glass door and arresting a classmate from Berkeley in a desperate attempt to exclude most voices, including our own, from the Regents meeting.

In between those bleak bookends were the early-morning arrests on November 18, 2011 of 14 UCLA students who had occupied Wilson Plaza to protest a prior round of tuition increases and budget cuts. Many current UCLA students, including some of the authors of this editorial, vividly remember dozens of heavily armed riot cops claiming that linking arms is “violence” that justifies a violent response. Since then, Wilson Plaza, the site of the arrests, has been unofficially known as Angela Davis Plaza among former protesters and current faculty alike.

It was in Angela Davis Plaza that, on November 20 of all days, a few dozen protesters caught sight of the setup for the Beat ‘SC Bonfire. The Bonfire is a monument to a system in which college athletes, many of them from marginalized communities, perform unpaid labor that enriches a handful of elites (Jim Mora is among the top 20 highest-paid college football coaches). The Bonfire, a symbol of a manufactured rivalry between a private and an increasingly privatized university, works like an Orwellian “two-minute hate” to distract students from the forces that really threaten their interests.

In the context of the never-ending assaults that permeate UCLA herstory (as opposed to history), in November of all months, and on the day that the Regents approved a new round of tuition hikes, the preservation of this particular UCLA tradition entailed the overlooking of countless others. It required that we permit our fellow students to remain ignorant of or indifferent to the violence students and workers continually experience. In the face of such violence and silence, reclaiming a little patch of space in Angela Davis Plaza can only be called a remarkably mild response.

In the wake of a string of non-indictments improbable except in an injustice system with white supremacy and police impunity as its cornerstonesaggressive police reactions to less modest reclamations of space are making international headlines, and further polarizing responses in a clarifying way. So, those who bother to engage the more privileged among students might urge them to consider who they may be aligning themselves with when they voice hostility to the “non-fire.” This is not to appeal to an elusive “right side of history,” since UCLA’s past and present—not to mention what systemic oppression wreaks on a broader stage—has likely undermined students’ confidence in an “arc of the moral universe” without brutally down-turning inflection points. Rather, it’s to suggest that with resistance on the rise, it would be very wise of them to strive to stay on herstory’s good side.

 

Signatures:

Liz Thornton, Graduate Student, Indo-European Studies; Member, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition

Todd Lu, Second Year, Political Science; Member, Student Collective Against Labor Exploitation

Naveed Mansoori, Graduate Student, Political Science

Protesters from the Free University Coalition, UCLA

Workers Against the University