Reflections on Teaching, III: Untitled

I think that—somewhere nestled between “paying for another year of graduate school” and “distracting me from my dissertation”—most TAs optimistically see their function as, on some level, “helping” their students.

If you asked me what that meant nine months ago, when I started teaching, I probably would have answered that my “help” would come in the form of some concrete skills and concepts, hopefully coupled with a decent grade. And, I suppose, I’ve done that, to an extent: I’ve watched some students grow in their writing, find their voice in class, and master the ephemeral relationship between habitus and social space. I’ve watched others coast, and I’ve learned to be okay with that.

Then, of course, there’s the more unexpected side of teaching. In the past year, my office hours have been an occasional site of unlicensed psycho-therapy, as I’ve heard about evictions, incarcerated family members, cuts to financial aid, the challenges of raising kids while in school, break-ups, debilitating depression and anxiety, and crushing parental expectations. As I recount this list, I realize how quickly I fall back on my imaginary of myself as at the forefront of public education; where once I was an activist, now I am a teacher, and have realized that—thanks to the personal complexities of my students and my own ability to see the context behind them—teaching and activism are pretty much the same thing.

Except, a month after the semester has come to a close, I’m so, so acutely aware of how from one-directional “helping” can be. In 2013, before I withdrew from school, I saw starting teaching as my last-ditch attempt to tether myself to graduate school and carve out a sense of personal meaning and efficacy. A friend advised me that I should never put that burden on my students, or to view their education as my emotional salvation. And yet, that’s exactly what, for better or for worse, this year turned into. Even when a dissertation topic once again seemed like a hopelessly unattainable goal and I sank back into frantic talk of leaving school, my classes forced me to get out of bed and get to school.

There’s an imbalance in teaching college courses which I never before realized. Our union contract says that we’re supposed to work 20 hours a week. If you really care, you almost invariably work more. But even if I was actually working half time, teaching has easily taken up 3/4s of my brain space: I dream about lesson planning, I fret about missing papers, I agonize over grading, I mull over whether sending another e-mail to the student who came to see me in distress and then disappeared is caring or harassment. For the students, though, I imagine it’s quite different. The students have five TAs, whose long emails and admonitions to “do the reading” melt together into mush. And I get it: after all, I can’t remember the name of a single TA I had as an undergrad.

I drew out the semester as long as I could. First I switched from proctoring a separate exam to the main room, where I could perch myself on the staircases leading out of the lecture hall. When the students turned in their exams, a few of them took the long route out, stopped by for a hug or a high five and to hear me wish them “congratulations” or “good luck” and to share a quick comment about a “great year.” But most of them walked up the other staircase. A quick wave, and they were gone. And then it played out again at graduation: some hugs, some photos, and then moving on.

I hope I always live in a place where spring means seniors leaving, anxious and excited, and fall means freshman arriving, anxious and excited.

Reflections on Teaching II: (White) Elephant in the Room

This is a post about race. In general, I would encourage you to read someone else on this topic—consider, for example, these blogs. Candidly, I’m not sure if the problem is that white males don’t talk enough about race, or if they talk too much and don’t listen enough. Either way, I’m thinking out loud about it, because race—I’ve discovered, to no one’s surprise but my own—is an ineluctable part of teaching.

My final act this semester was to address a re-grade request from a student who expressed his frustration with the white male theorists of the course and, only slightly more indirectly, the pedagogy of the white male TA who had been teaching them. He insinuated racism. I defended myself by noting the efforts I had made all semester to address inequality in the classroom. I’ve  realized too late that the latter claim in no way addresses the former; that is to say, whatever my intentions, racial bias almost certainly was part of my teaching.

I don’t want to fetishize the diversity in my course. Public universities are not representative of America, but in the long-bending arc of justice, I think they will eventually become more so. First the undergraduates, then later the graduates and TAs, and then—all too slowly—the faculty. Yet even if the demographics of the classroom may begin to represent the “new” America, the hierarchy—a white man in front, talking at people of color—will continue to look like the “old” one. I will, for my entire career, by whiter than my students, and yet the worst thing I could do would be to use that to wash my hands of teaching about race.

To be clear, I’m not weighing in about “identity politics” and “political correctness” or expressing some dismay about trigger warnings or having to tip-toe around gender pronouns. My student wasn’t complaining about language, but his grade—something which has real, material effects on him. The more generalized suspicion my students have towards my teaching doesn’t seem to be a result of “liberal” indoctrination or emotional fragility, but experiences exclusion and discrimination. So I wonder: how can you be an ally in the classroom, when you’re not really an ally, but a product and (willing) representative of an education system that is anything but your students’ ally?

– – – – –

I should be clear that, in writing this, I’m thinking about what I can do in the educational syste more-or-less as is, rather than what I’d love to see in some post-revolutionary Freirian utopia. One thing I need to do is to “own” my grading standards, and be honest about what I can and cannot control about them. As I wrote in my last post, I spent much of the semester encouraging students to critique the readings and connect them to current events. Yet in my oh-so-objective spreadsheet, with metrics of participation and blind-graded exams, I followed very different standards, those passed down from above and which, given my academic pedigree, seemed natural to me. When I went through the distasteful—but, it seemed, important—process of looking at the racial, class, and gender breakdown of my grades, it was clear there was a spread. Even with an unrepresentative sample, I can’t help but think that some students incorrectly took me at my word when I said I was looking for critical thinking, while others knew that, when presented with a grading rubric, I was just going to reward those who knew how to play the game.

Second, I’ve thought about the way I homogenized my students of color. I tried to compensate for a skewed syllabus by raising contemporary issues that, I thought, spoke more directly to students’ experiences. I steered us towards #BlackLivesMatter, to racist frats in Oklahoma, and over to the Civil Rights Movement. We were helped along by a few authors of color from the syllabus (Fanon and DuBois) and a few I threw in (Collins and Davis). But as one of my students pointed out, whenever we talked about race, we talked about African Americans, and through a lens of victimhood and oppression. I lumped my students of “color” together, and set them as a unified block against an equally unified mass of whites. Some were excluded and others were “othered” as the passive foil of American racism.

Third, I have learned from this—or perhaps, just learned what I need to learn. Sociology is a fragmented field; it’s impossible to be conversant in everything from Mathematical Sociology to Human-Animal Relations. Sometimes, I’ve felt that since our interests are arbitrary, it’s fine to bracket off some sub-fields: “you know about poverty, I know about mental health.” But there is no discussion of the social world that can evade race, class, and gender. Teaching sociology doesn’t require just attentiveness to racial dynamics in the classroom, but a deeper ability to see how they permeate everything we see, read, and discuss. And if our syllabi don’t reflect that, we nontheless need to be ready to point our students in the right direction to find these ideas.

Finally, and, I think perhaps more in contravention of the logic of ally-ship, I think we need to challenge our students to avoid unconvincing and easily dismissed arguments for diversifying the curriculum. Often, students demanded more authors of color—full stop—and one insisted she could never learn anything about inequality from someone who hadn’t “experienced” it (she assumed, incorrectly, that a certain white author had never experienced “symbolic violence.” Just being an author of color—say, Thomas Sowell or Ernesto Caravantes—doesn’t mean quality scholarship or liberatory insights on race. This is where I get on tricky ground—isn’t “excellence” in research, after all, defined by the dominant culture? But if we’re serious about social science—which, at its most basic level, insists that we accept that some perspectives on the world are more accurate than others—we have to accept that personal experience and social position is a source of data, but not a guarantee of truth.

W.E.B. DuBois was certainly excluded from the classical sociological “canon” because he was black. Many of his greatest ideas—the “second sight” or “double consciousness”—could not but have come, in part, from his blackness. But he should be included on our syllabi not just because he was black, but also because he was great, because he did serious empirical work, and because his claims remain generative for scholarship a century later. And I think that pretty much captures the dynamic I’m grappling with: students who have been excluded, students who have profound insights from that exclusion, but students who also deserve access to the best ideas of a discipline I still believe in.

Even if, for now, the bearers of those ideas are too often white males.

The Add/Drop Dance

The course I’m TA-ing this fall is required for undergraduates majoring in sociology. It is thus heinously oversubscribed. For the first three weeks of class, we circulated a sign-in sheet in lecture. Actually, we circulated several. Some students signed every single one—one person literally signed-in four times in one day and then came up to me after class to check to make sure I saw she was there.

The students are right to be scared. At Berkeley, if you miss one section or one lecture in the first three weeks, you’re automatically dropped from the course. It’s the raw arithmetic of the neo-liberal university. Even after our weeks of culling the herd, however, there aren’t even enough chairs: our class was placed in a lecture hall with fewer seats than students, so to get peoples’ attendance, I had to scramble around among students sitting on stairs, against the back wall, and out in the hallway.

I tried to shield my students as best I could. I fudged a few records and I quickly caved to the student pleading for me to expand the size of my section to accommodate him (a brilliant solution to underfunding, by which I teach for free). Now, halfway into the semester, my classes are set, and, to be honest, I haven’t been this infatuated since high school. I adore my students. Teaching has given me a new sense of the value of graduate school and, for the first time in a long time, the confidence in the future that comes from having a “calling” in life.

In my usually unsuccessful efforts to make class “relevant,” on the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement—an event marked with an administration-sponsored rally attended mostly by people older than my parents—I tried to obliquely raise the school’s activist history in section. I asked what going to Berkeley “meant” to them and to those in their family (we were talking about Weber’s analysis of the meaning of social action). I expected at least one of 41 students to say something about “radicalism,” “hippies,” or “protests.” Not one did. Instead, they talked about Berkeley being “elite,” “selective,” and “prestigious.”

I should have known. Getting into Berkeley is, of course, an achievement, one that for many of my students signals that they’ve caught one of the last few rungs on a ladder of upward mobility that our ruling class is rapidly pulling up behind it. I see the rankings; I see that my students have made it to the nation’s “Number One Public University,” and that this is, by all accounts, a privileged institution. I know that, whatever my complaints about the institutional context at Berkeley, I would have to multiply them by two before talking about another UC school; by ten before remarking on conditions at Cal State; by one-hundred before even mentioning the community colleges from which 40% of my students come.

It’s just hard to square the crammed classrooms, overworked TAs, and jockeying for spots in required courses with my experiences at the “Number One Private University.” My students ask me about Princeton; I tell them they’re just as smart as the students at Princeton, and it’s true. But it’s also true that the Ivy League considers itself above admitting community college transfers, people working three jobs to support their siblings, ex-convicts, and students in their 40s. I also tell them that Berkeley is harder, and I’m not lying. We had a hearty laugh at the fact that 35% A’s was too low for Princeton students. Nonetheless, I realize how, in so doing, I am reinforcing the double burden that every student—graduate or undergraduate—professor, and staff person at Berkeley faces: that of maintaining a top-tier institution with third-tier funding.

I read today that, through tax deductions, Princeton gets a $54,000 a year subsidy per head from the federal government. Here, state funding languishes at $7,500 per person, and spending per pupil has fallen 25% since 1990 to $15,000 total. But what does Princeton’s money buy you that you can’t already get at Berkeley, one of the finest universities in the world? It buys you an institution that respects you enough to have clean bathrooms. It buys you courses where the papers haven’t been replaced with exams to save graduate student labor. It gets you a TA who doesn’t have to hold his nose at grammatical mistakes and basic composition errors because his contract limits his hours and his professor says it’s not his job to fix California’s broken high school system.

At an event for the FSM anniversary, Professor Wendy Brown said something striking about the comparative “apathy” of today’s youth. In the ‘60s, students had to fight for free speech, but they could take a free public education for granted. Today, students have speech, but they don’t use it, because they’re too busy fighting to get an education. It’s just too bad that this “fight” takes place in the back of a lecture hall, as students vie to get a goddamned chair.

On the Appropriate Role for Assault Rifles in a Civil Campus Community

In the “national conversation” that we’re largely not having about militarized policing, I have nothing important to contribute. For what it’s worth, I forced my undergraduate Sociological Theory class to apply different theorists’ analyses to recent events in Ferguson. I’m vaguely aware of ongoing police surveillance, disruption, and violence in communities of color, and I’m lucky enough to have enough radicals on my news feed to know that we don’t know how many black people the police execute each year. But for me, in my citadel of privilege, it’s all background noise.

I did, however, see a University of California Police Department officer the other day walking from her car – parked on the street outside my office – into the underground, mostly hidden campus police station. She was carrying an assault rifle and a shotgun.

As it turns out, there’s more where that came from. That same day, the Daily Californian reported that UC Berkeley’s PD actually has 14 assault rifles, which they got from one of those federal programs that gives away military toys the same way the Engineering Department occasionally sends the social sciences some old computers. I checked the campus news for that day, to see if there was any plausible reason for the PD to be breaking out its heavy weaponry. According to their spokesmen, the rifles are necessary because its 9mm pistols “won’t defeat the body armor.” I’m not sure whether it was the Dean of the School of Education announcing her resignation or some students starting a campus version of BitCoin which created the need on this particular day.

This would all be sort of comical – I mean, comical relative to the not-at-all comical uses of military weaponry in Ferguson – if the UCPD hadn’t actually killed a student. I don’t know if any of my Princeton friends – accustomed to unarmed “P-safe” officers whose job it is to tell you to turn the music down at your illegal dorm-room party full of under-age drinkers – caught that, so I’ll repeat it: UCPD killed a student. By all accounts, it was suicide by police: a “troubled” (yes, it would seem so, seeing as he had multiple previous attempted suicide attempts) student brandished a gun in the business school and they killed him. His name was Christopher Nathen Elliot Travis.

The incident has stuck with me, but it’s disappeared from institutional memory. The Daily California makes no mention of it beyond one-week after the event. The UCPD annual report from that year does not see the incident as meriting a reference, although in the third paragraph they do state that their big event of the year was that they “hosted a very successful scenario on our campus that simulated the hostile takeover of an animal research lab, complete with escaped primates challenging the teams.” The crime statistics state that no homicides happened on Berkeley’s campus that year. The “independent” campus police review board also made no investigation into what happened, presumably because Christopher did not file a complaint in a timely manner.*

Perhaps the date of that unmemorable killing – November 9th, 2011 – sticks in my mind because it’s the night I was arrested by UCPD. I actually still see the officer who broke my ribs, booked me, and then lied to the police review board about it, telling them I was “cocky” because I asked for my rights, on a regular basis. Police still freak me out. But this is small change. As a _____ (insert list of synonyms for “privilege”), I don’t get beaten, arrested, or shot by police at random. But when I look at my sections for the course I am teaching, I realize that most of those adjectives do not apply to them. 80% of my students are non-white. My black students come from a community in which five unarmed men have been killed in the last month by police; my Latino students from neighborhoods where the police are the means for tearing families apart; many of my foreign students from countries where the police are the enforcement arm of authoritarian states.

“Trigger warnings” have been a buzzword of public discussion of academia in the last year. The justification for “trigger warnings” is that our students have suffered forms of trauma that might be resurrected through exposure to sensitive material. I have mixed feelings about whether course content should be subject to trigger warnings; but while we’re on the subject, perhaps we should also consider the trauma of our students who have watched their families, neighbors, and people who look like them get deported, beaten, frisked, imprisoned, arrested for kissing their white partner, or shot. I don’t even approach the level of having suffered “trauma,” but I for one would like to know when and where representatives of the only campus group that have killed a student will be, so that I can – for my own safety and psychological well-being – stay the fuck away.

Like I said, I have nothing to say on this. I have no way to comprehend what it’s like to be constantly victimized by the police, because it isn’t part of my history. But I do speculate that, for at least some of our students, a “civil” campus climate might start with an absence of assault rifles and, while we’re at it, any institution that thinks it needs assault rifles to be part of campus life.

*Of course, we could say that students waving guns is exactly why we need police: then again, this is just ceding the terrain to idiocy, since we could also just say – as many other advanced countries have – that people shouldn’t have guns, and watch our homicide and suicide rates drop in tandem.

Anomie Soup

Recently I’ve been spending my days working frantically on my book, voraciously reading texts for my qualifying exams and—this is the best, and most exciting, part—talking animatedly about potential dissertation ideas with my colleagues. You could say that, after a two-year hiatus, I love sociology again. The only problem is that it took me getting away from the best sociology department in the country to remember it.

About those colleagues: they are graduate students in sociology from SciencesPo, Paris. They work on a spectrum of topics and come from a range of countries, but as far as I can tell, they share at least one thing in common: they actually seem to like graduate school. We all work in a big, shared office room, and every hour-and-a-half someone announces a mandatory coffee break. We take a long hour for lunch, and in that time, virtually no one brings up how stressed they are about work, how unhappy they are with their advisors, or their bleak job-market prospects.

I’m sure that if I stay long enough, I’ll find a certain amount of disaffection and dissatisfaction underneath the surface. Still, my interactions have raised a previously unthinkable proposition:: graduate school doesn’t have to be miserable. Sometimes, I think the side-by-side comparison I’m constantly making between these SciencesPo students and my compatriots at Berkeley is unfair, since I viewed Berkeley through the lens of extreme depression and I am now seeing the whole world in a sunnier light. Then again, a few of the grad students here have been to Berkeley, and a few Berkeley students have visited SciencesPo, and in both cases, the universal consensus was that Berkeley students seem really, really unhappy.

I can’t actually say that I would have been happier had I chosen a different school—I was probably due for a depressive episode, anyway. But it’s not exactly like Berkeley is set up for thriving. For one, the department is ruthlessly denigrating of collaboration and co-authorship: we were literally told in our introductory pro-seminar, “Don’t ask a professor to write something with you, they’ll say no” and “Co-authored publications count for nothing on your CV.” It’s not the department’s fault that the faculty-student ratios are so far off, but facing a sign-up sheet on a perpetually closed professor’s door, with dozens of 15 minute blocks booked for weeks into the future, doesn’t exactly give you a sense of being valued as an individual. And it doesn’t exactly make me feel great that my adviser didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent telling her I was extremely depressed and considering leaving school, the one where I said I was leaving school, or the one saying that I was thinking about coming back.

The weirdest thing that has occurred to me with a bit of distance is that Berkeley sociology is so damn un-sociological. If I wrote a dissertation that said that a social movement came from a single leader or that wealth comes from individual aptitude, I’d be laughed out of the department. As sociologists, we know that great things come from groups, not individuals. Except sociology, apparently, which comes from lone, isolated geniuses. It’s funny we read so much Durkheim, since you could argue that our dis-integrated department is designed to produce anomie.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite, because I will go back to Berkeley. The activist inside of me wants to go back and to try to change it—to join those other students trying to create some sense of community, perhaps, or maybe even start a “mental health” working group, or something. But as far as I can tell, the people at Berkeley who are happy are the ones who take what they need from the department and then invest as little in it as possible. As a really, really fantastic and inspiring and caring professor told me on a skype call recently, “Don’t come back here until you’re really ready to take advantage of it. It’s not a good place.”

Maybe they should mention that on visit weekend.


“Has anyone here ever been part of a union before?”  No hands go up.

“Does anyone here think they’ll be in a union after they graduate?” Still no hands.

“How about this: who thinks they’ll someday be on the other side of a negotiating table from a union?”  Finally, hands go up, along with a smattering of laughter.

My first act as a Head Steward for United Auto Workers Local 2865—which represents 12,000 academic workers across the UC system—was making a membership pitch to business school students.  It wasn’t particularly successful, but I was optimistic about the broader project of union-building nonetheless. Our union felt like the most vibrant social movement on campus, fighting for public education and a preparing to negotiate a fair contract.  Compared to my previous forays with activist groups, the union seemed remarkably well-run and non-dysfunctional.  I was even excited about going through departments knocking on doors, a chance to confront my phobia of pushing strangers into political action.

My enthusiasm didn’t last long.  I found the apathy of my fellow graduate students disturbing and disheartening.  After all, for once I wasn’t trying to get people to help the animals or save the planet, but just to take a few simple actions to benefit their own bottom-line.  And, as it turned out, the union wasn’t quite as harmonious as I thought.  The endless internecine bickering between different union caucuses—taking place as the real foe, the university, prepared to screw us massively in contract negotiations—was off putting.  And, of course, I was wickedly depressed.  In August of this year, I resigned from my post as Head Steward without completing my term.  I’m not sure if, in those seven months, I convinced a single person to sign a membership card.

That was the end of my time as a union organizer but not, as it turned out, the end of my involvement in the union.  My decision in October to leave Berkeley meant abruptly dropping my position as a Graduate Student Instructor, which in turn was covering my fees for the semester.  Technically, I was legally entitled to two weeks of paid leave, which would just barely put me over the threshold at which the university was obligated to pay my tuition.  But none of the administrators I talked to mentioned this fact.  A few weeks later, a bill arrived: $7,500—full tuition, without even partial remission to compensate for the five weeks I had actually worked.

I had no energy or willpower for a fight against the UC bureaucratic juggernaut, and reluctantly resigned myself to draining my savings to pay the bill.  But a steward in our department asked if he could look into the situation, and I acquiesced.  I wish I could say I was an active participant in the process that followed, but in truth, I did virtually nothing.  On the other hand, a union activist—one with whom I hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with in months—held who-knows-how-many meetings with the administration.  Eventually, the department caved and my bill vanished.

Being me, I of course feel slightly guilty about this favorable outcome.  Couldn’t that money have gone to something better?  But I guess that’s why we have unions: to fight for us, as workers, when we can’t or won’t fight for ourselves.  I joined UAW 2865 because it fought for grand causes like re-funding public education or reducing income inequality.  In the end, though, solidarity for me has a less sexy, but no less important, meaning.

November 9th and the Changing Repertoires of Activism

The reports are just rolling in, and boy, has it been enlightening.  A few weeks ago, the University of California Police Department released a report determining that the real source of problems at Berkeley on November 9th was that police weren’t allowed enough “force options”—particular, pepper spray. Shortly thereafter, a quasi-independent review board at Davis came to a somewhat divergent conclusion that, there, the use of pepper spray was “objectively unreasonable.”  And, after seven months of painstaking research, the Berkeley Police Review Board has closed the book on November 9th by declaring that campus police “may” have violated campus norms and procedures.  One wonders: isn’t a “possible” violation of the rules usually the starting premise for an investigation, not its end point?

Of the lot, I think the Edley/Robinson report to the UC President comes closest to saying something interesting about November 9th—which is ironic, because it was the only report which wasn’t tasked with investigating what happened on November 9th.  One thing about the report stood out to me in particular.  Early on, the authors note:

Although we began this project by addressing “protest” activity generally, we soon realized that the central challenge before us related to civil disobedience… It is only when demonstrators engage in civil disobedience—the refusal to comply with laws or regulations as a form of protest or as a means of drawing attention to the demonstrators’ message—that more complicated and controversial issues arise (5)

I think the authors are on to something.  Policing “protest” at Berkeley isn’t complicated, because most of the 50-or-so registered “protests” at Berkeley are sanctioned, contained, and, ultimately, totally meaningless.  The issue, really, is about how to deal with certain kinds of protest tactics that deviate from this predictable norm.

In a sense, I’m grateful that the authors called what we were doing “civil disobedience.” After all, immediately after November 9th, Chancellor Birgeneau sent out an e-mail claiming that we hay “betrayed” the legacy of the civil rights movement.  Now, by calling what we did “civil disobedience”, they are now implicitly connecting us to that tradition.  For me, at least, civil disobedience immediately conjures the image of black college students in the deep south, sitting patiently at a segregated lunch counter, bravely bearing police harassment and violence in order to dramatize injustice and spur legislators to action.  It’s an overly generous comparison, and while I’m not sure we’ve quite lived up to it, I’ll take it.

There’s only one problem: what we were doing on November 9th wasn’t civil disobedience, it was direct action.  While for Occupy Wall Street activists and their ilk this is all fairly obvious, I think that the difference between “civil disobedience” and “direct action” is crucial for understanding what happened in November, and why things ended so badly.  And, because it relates to my current research interests, it seems like a good starting point for a brief excursus into the sociology of protest repertoires.

* * * * *

Activists like to think of social movements as strategic actors, cleverly adapting innovating new tactics to achieve their goals.  In truth, though, activists tend to resort to the same narrow range of tactics—like marches, demonstrations, and petitions—over and over again, while ignoring a host of theoretically possible other ways to express dissent.  These “repertoires” of protest tend to vary coherently over time and between countries.  As the late sociologist Chuck Tilly demonstrated, prior to the 19th century people “protested” by acting directly to address the problems they perceived.  If a group of people thought bread prices were too high, they would riot and seize the granary.  If they didn’t like a tax on tea, they’d throw the tea into the sea.  If you were pissed off at your feudal lord, you’d burn down his house.

In early 19th century England, though, this changed.  Protesting moved from the realm of the material to the symbolic: instead of acting directly, people sought redress indirectly by making appeals to powerful external actors.  The rise of what Tilly calls our “modern repertoire” of contentious politics, then, is closely tied to the rise of democracy.  Although civil disobedience might seem to be much more radical than an orderly march, it still follows the same basic logic of other actions in that repertoire.  Even if CD by nature emerges from a frustration with the ineffectiveness of institutional political acts, like voting, it still requires a belief that the system as a whole basically works.  You don’t do CD unless you believe that elected representatives will eventually be responsive, if only you show—through breaking the law—that your particular cause is an important one.  The paradox of civil disobedience, then, is that it simultaneously reinforces the legitimacy of the political system even as it trespasses one part of it.  The black students carrying out sit-ins were violating one particular law, but in so doing they were validating “The Law” and the representative-democracy from which it flows as the appropriate way to address it.*

Since the 1960s, CD has become an increasingly routinized part of the protesting landscape.  In annual demonstrations against nuclear power plants, for example, demonstrators will often arrange with the police beforehand, making their own inevitable arrest an integral part of their message.  But this is only part of the story of how protest tactics have evolved in the last few decades.  Although “direct action” never really disappeared—strikes, for example, are in some respects direct actions—I believe (and, hopefully, will someday empirically document) there has been a major upsurge in this tactic.  The “direct” shutdown of the WTO meeting in Seattle, 1999, is a visible example, but projects like “guerilla gardens” started in abandoned lots or Food Not Bombs’ free meals from discarded food are also “direct actions.”  The demise of state-socialism has, I think, effected a change towards anarchist models of organizing that prioritize these kinds of tactics that attempt to immediately, and directly, change society.

This is a major shift.  As John Rawls suggests, CD only makes sense if you believe you live in a “nearly-just society”; DA, on the other hand, is a tool for those who believe that the whole system of representative democracy is broken and the best we can do is work around it at every turn.  And, of course, while the lines between CD and DA are always fuzzy, the two entail profoundly different ways of relating to the police.  As David Graeber notes:

Those carrying out a ‘civil disobedience may willingly surrender themselves to the police; even if they don’t…they act in the full expectation they will wind up in jail…Direct actionists, in contrast…are trying their best to get away with it (Direct Action: An Ethnography: 205).

In short, for the civilly-disobedient, the police are an integral part of the script of a protest; for the direct actionist, they are a hazard.

* * * * *

A charitable reading of the Edley and Robinson report is that the authors are trying to return us to a previous model in which civil disobedience was, well, civil.  After all, within Occupy, it has often seemed like the tacit understanding between police and protesters engaged in CD—you let us break the law, and we’ll let you arrest us and face the consequences—had broken down.  After November 9th, I found myself wondering why no officer ever bothered to ask me if I would submit to arrest peacefully.  In this respect, Edley/Robinson—with its call for mediation and dialogue—seems like a step in the right direction.

But would it have changed anything?  For better or for worse, on November 9th, we wanted to “get away with it”—not make a statement through getting arrested.  We weren’t setting up an encampment because we wanted to dramatize the irrationality of the university’s rule against encampments.  Nor were our tents a publicity stunt to get legislators to wake up and pay attention to our concerns.  We were making a direct intervention into the operation of the university, attempting to create a real (not just symbolic) alternative to privatization and austerity.  Had the university attempted to mediate, we probably would have ignored them; had they asked us if we wanted to be arrested, we likely would have said “No.”

A lot of occupiers like the way that DA “heightens the contradictions” within our system, forcing authorities into a binary choice between letting protesters do what the want—whether occupying a public space or starting a farm on nominally “private property”—or engaging in spectacularly stupid acts of repression.  The point, though, is that not everyone realizes this is happening.  People like Edley/Robinson continue to believe that they are dealing with a variant of classic civil disobedience, and so they’re confused as to why activists aren’t playing their part.   Sociologically, it’s a fascinating moment, in which there are not just divergent opinions about the issues we’re protesting about, but also different conceptions of what these protests actually are.  For protesters, though, it’s bad news, as the police and some elements of the administration seem to have picked up on the fact that the only way to stop direct action is to beat people into submission – which is why, for all it’s reasonableness, the Edley/Robinson report will be completely ignored.

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* Of course, this may reflect the fact that – were they to do anything more radical – the violence against them would be even more extreme.