Student Government and Campus Activism:
Let’s take back what is ours!
The current ASUC record: a “student government” of the administration… without the students
On the UC Berkeley campus, which has one of the largest student governments in the United States, the vast majority of the students do not vote in the elections nor do they care. And who can blame them? The student government, known as the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California), has become a body filled with individuals more concerned with their career aspects and serving the bureaucracy of the administration rather than to fight for the students – essentially transforming what could potentially be a tool of great politicization, into a tool of dreadful a-politicization.
This has been true for a while now, but it became even more apparent during the Fall semester of 2011 when Occupy Cal (OC) gained national and international recognition on November 9, 2011 when police violently assaulted peaceful protesters. The numerous videos and images of police attacking students shocked audiences worldwide and news of the event quickly became viral. In addition, the shocking events of the 9th catalyzed the Occupy movement on college campuses throughout the United States.
So where was the ASUC during all this? We can recall numerous occasions last semester where the ASUC not only did not support the students, but openly sided with the rhetoric of the administration to silence and repress the student protests.
First, on Nov. 9th 2011 the ASUC’s stance was to stand behind the administration’s policy of disallowing an encampment to occur on university property, and without even engaging in a dialogue with OC, they supported the “compromise” agreed upon between the UC Berkeley administration and members of the ASUC. That “compromise”, which was instead an ultimatum and was presented by Vice Chancellor Harry LeGrande, was insulting. It granted 24/7 access on Sproul for only 1 week and it came with severe limitations that included: no tents, no blankets, no sleeping bags, and no sleeping. In other words, the administration and the ASUC would only allow an occupation that would not have the means to actually occupy anything.
The ASUC, so disconnected from the student body, pleaded with OC to accept these unacceptable terms, it completely missed the point that the encampment was supposed to be a protest against the administration, who are the active agents in the privatization of what’s supposed to be a public university.
Shortly after presenting the ultimatum, Harry LeGrande was sent off by the OC GA by loud chants of “Bullshit!” At this point, the will and message of the students was clear – to hell with the administration! And the ASUC, so disconnected from the student body, stood by and watched as the police were sent in minutes later to enact another round of violence on peaceful protesters. This is what the ASUC did. They betrayed not only the struggle of Occupy Cal, but their mandate to represent the interests of the students! They were willingly collaborating with an administration that did not flinch in resorting to violence.
Second, in the middle of November, shortly after OC’s November 15 strike day – during the height of OC – a delegation of roughly a dozen OC activists were invited to a meeting in the ASUC Senate Chambers. Already skeptical coming into the impromptu meeting, the OC delegation came out unsurprised at the results of the meeting. The OC delegation came to the ASUC to ask for any and whatever help they could offer OC. Whether that meant giving OC some storage space and access to bathrooms in Eshelman, or some money or food. The ASUC gave OC none of these. Instead, the delegation was met with a “sob story” from one senator who told the delegation that she became fearful for her safety and the safety of her sorority sisters when tents were set up near her during the massive 5,000+ GA where Robert Reich spoke. And although the results did not surprise the OC delegation, this response was shockingly revealing. The ASUC, a body that is supposedly involved in student government, was instead, a horribly apolitical and an entirely ridiculous body.
Finally, at the Faculty Senate meeting on November 28, 2011, in which the body comprised of UC Berkeley faculty voted 336 – 34 in favor of condemning the UC police and the administration for its actions on November 9, the ASUC once again demonstrated whose side they’re on. During a meeting in which countless faculty members came up to the microphone to denounce Birgeneau, and during a meeting in which Provost George Breslauer openly stated that “tactically, it would’ve been better to wait, to wait perhaps until the middle of the night to minimize the number of encounters between police and protesters and observers,” in regards to November 9 (basically meaning in hindsight they should have beaten students in the night rather than in the day), the ASUC representative simply called for an end to divisions. That people should simply move on from the past and look towards the future as if nothing happened. A metaphorical slap to the face to the many who faced the stings, bruises, and broken bones caused by police night sticks just a little more than 2 weeks earlier.
In comparison, the president of the Graduate Assembly, a form of governing body that represents the graduate students, openly denounced Birgeneau and the violent tactics of the administration. They took a stance against the administration, while the ASUC cowered behind and simply parroted the administration.
The ASUC must play a role in actively supporting student struggles for education and other needs
Judging from the actions of the ASUC, it is not a shock that many activists and students on campus choose to disregard the ASUC as a meaningless and bureaucratic body. However, the attitude and response towards this, although it may be true, should not be to simply ignore the ASUC. Instead, we should be asking ourselves “What would have happened if the ASUC was a more radical body during that time?” What would have happened if the ASUC stood not just in solidarity with the students, but were actively organizing the students as well? If the ASUC was in radical hands during this time period, it could have truly shook the campus to its very foundations.
As a result, we must not ignore the ASUC, but we must rather directly confront it. For better or for worse, the ASUC exists. This existence can not be denied because among many non-politicized, apolitical, or potentially radicalized students, the ASUC has some form of legitimate power. Moreover, the ASUC has at its disposal many tools, primarily the ability to send out an email to the entire student body once a month and the ability to allocate roughly $1.6 million dollars in funds. Unfortunately, the ASUC, in its current regime, is filled with as many bureaucrats, careerists, and cowards as ever so these resources and capabilities are vastly misappropriated. Simply put, for as long as the ASUC exists, it is better that people wield its power and resources for something meaningful rather than what it is used or not used for now.
Taking over the ASUC will allow us to push the campus struggle to another level by taking back the structure that is suppose to represent us and making it function for our real needs as students, workers and community members: fight for public education, democratize our university etc. It will allow us to experience and create a real democratic body that organizes the students and enables their participation and also will start developing an alternative power in the university: the power of the students when they act united for their rights.
The ASUC, as a body that is supposed to represent the students, should also defend the students when they are being attacked. Peaceful protestors were physically assaulted by the administration, and the ASUC has no stance on this. Chancellor Birgeneau, who blatantly lied about his lack of knowledge of events during Novemeber 9th, which was revealed thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request to his e-mails, is still backed by the ASUC. And Chancellor Birgeneau is undoubtedly the one pushing the Alameda County District Attorney to press charges against at least 8 protestors for what happened on November 9th, including Professor Celeste Langan. This combination of physical violence and political targeting of activists and organizers is proof that the administration is willing and already is waging a war on the student body. There can be no question in how the ASUC must deal with this. They must defend the student body! This, however, is not the case. In fact, in a meeting on March 12, 2012, the ASUC senators, made up of party members from Squelch, Student Action and CalServe, with their proceduralism and their careerist attitude, especially in regards to being either too attached or simply too afraid to call the administration out, prevented a proposal to simply put the question of demanding Birgeneau resign to an open ballot for the student body to vote on from passing. The senators, rather than allowing the students to exercise their own voice, took it upon themselves to “represent” the student body with their votes. Needless to say, this meeting was a complete disgrace to democracy. This meeting is just another reason why the ASUC needs to be radically taken over.
As it stands, the ASUC is comfortably under the thumb of the administration, but this is because those in the ASUC allow themselves to be handled by the administration. If a slate radical enough took over the ASUC, especially since it is through popular elections, it can create a semblance of a dual power structure that can seriously push the administration into crisis mode. With the backing of the masses, an ASUC radical enough can truly create a body that will allow students greater independence from the administration. By democratizing the student government and opening it up to the entire student body, the ASUC can begin to operate in the fashion of a student union – a body that represents, fights, and is run by the student masses. Moreover, this will offer a big audience and a great chance to radicalize a large body of the student population through their democratic participation in student government. Ultimately, a radical ASUC can both carry out the voice and will of the student masses and contradict and undermine the administration’s monopoly on power at the same time.
However, the issue of taking over the ASUC is not, for us activists, a matter of strategy but rather a tactic. We know we will not fix the problems of our current university and the broader problems of society just by winning the elections of the ASUC. We know that a broader and way more radical social movement is needed to confront those structures of power, but we need to build that social force and organization first.
The end goal is to not merely to win the elections, but by using the power of the offices and the resources of the body it can make politicizing and mobilizing the campus much easier, and also show the students what can (and what cannot) be accomplished through the ASUC to truly fight for our rights and needs. But, this only works if a radical slate exists, and such a radical slate does exist in the Students for a Democratic University (SDU). And this slate will only work, if it has the people willing to run on it.
What Students for a Democratic University (SDU) Stands for
We, the SDU, want to increase student independence from the administration. We want to democratize the ASUC by allowing all and any students to participate in it whether it be allowing them to make proposals to the body or by allowing them to participate in ASUC committees.
We want to stand up to the administration and contradict them, especially in times of high struggle on the campus. We want to politicize the campus on the issues of privatization of the university.
Let’s not forget that the Regents attempted to pass an 81% fee hike in Fall 2011, which was a primary reason why Occupy Cal was launched to begin with. And more importantly, let’s not forget that the mass mobilization around Occupy Cal, as well as other student mobilizations, is what put the 81% fee hike on hold. Despite this victory, student debt continues to grow (national student debt is roughly $1 trillion), our universities continue to be run undemocratically by members of the 1% who are also unaccountable to the public, and the right to free speech on universities is still not guaranteed. It is for these reasons that we must continue to fight and be mobilized.
But, we must also politicize the campus around issues outside the university. For example, one such issue is the ASUC and the UC administration’s ties to Israel. In the 2010 Spring Semester, the ASUC, under the same old regime of Student Action and CalServe, voted to maintain their investments in businesses tied to Israeli violence against Palestinians. Some members of CalServe even signed in support. Divestment in Israel is something the ASUC has full control of, and the regime of Student Action and CalServe proved they are unwilling to do what is right and sever ties with this apartheid state. SDU will fight for full divestment of funds from Israel. For too long has UC Berkeley, with its role in the creation of nuclear weapons and its conscious funding of organizations and governments responsible for the oppression of entire peoples, been a tool for American imperialism. And for too long has the ASUC not directly confronted this issue. We, the SDU, say no more to this state of blissful ignorance!
We also say no more war! It is no coincidence that funding for public services has been drastically reduced in recent years, while the United States has been engaged in a couple of wars for more than a decade now. What kind of democracy is being fostered when funding priority is given to tools for mass destruction rather than education?
Additionally, we will participate in domestic struggles. No person is illegal! Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are integral members of the California community, and as such, they should have the same access to education that residents, nay, that all humans should have. And beyond just education, immigrants, who produce most of our products and provide many of our services, should have full access to the rights and resources that other Californians share. We further acknowledge that this is an issue that is affecting the entire United States, and we must stand in solidarity with others fighting for the same rights in other states.
Furthermore, communities of color, who have increasingly been excluded or neglected from the public education system, and by the government in general, must be granted greater accessibility to the education system, which is vital to any healthy functioning democracy. After all, if education is treated as a commodity for the privileged few, then what kind of unhealthy democracy is this fostering? If the UC campus is to be reflective of the California population, then the simple fact is that there needs to be many more Latino and black students admitted. And this is a struggle that won’t be won with legislation but with mobilization.
We have no illusions in the ASUC but we have trust in the power of the students!
It is important to note, that we are wary of the bureaucratic mess that is the ASUC and the limitations it has. No one said changing all this would be easy. For sure it will be a tough fight with many forces actively acting against us. Regardless, it is a venture worth trying because running such a slate will be able to gain popular traction, and it will push the administration into a crisis, potentially forcing them into a lose-lose situation.
If the administration prevents us from performing the duties we wish to achieve, then how easy would it be to explicitly show to the entire student body just how undemocratic our university is? Would this also not be another flash point that would intensify the struggle? If we win then of course we can carry out these agendas. If we win and the bureaucracy prevents anything from being achieved, then we can publicly disclose the farce that the ASUC is, and perhaps then we can truly demand a real student government body. This would pave the way for the development of a real organized power of the students, like the one of unions, that can challenge the power of the administration. Ultimately, win or lose, the elections can be a highly politicizing event depending on how all of us handle the situation. If we are proactive as organizers then we can push the contradictions to their limits.
Which takes us to our final point, do not mistake us here, we want to operate the ASUC, not as bureaucrats, but as organizers. Our goals and platforms will not be achieved just because we simply vote them through. We must build a movement to achieve true victory. Our office is subordinate to the movement. In fact, our office is useless without the movement. If we win all the positions we run for, the objective is to not fulfill the bureaucratic role of the position. Instead, it would be our collective responsibility to use those positions and all the material and social capital they have at their disposal to get folks mobilized. Bureaucracy, administration, and order as we know it be damned!