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.

– – – – –

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

Quick Hits on Berkeley Sit/Lie

On June 12th, Berkeley’s City Council will vote on a “sit-lie” ordinance intended to prevent un-housed, homeless, and otherwise indigent people from sitting on city sidewalks during the day.

This is a terrible idea. The ordinance would turn what is at worst a minor inconvenience for those of us with a low tolerance for disorder into a social problem that demands city resources. Apparently, a similar ordinance in San Francisco has led to the police repeatedly ticketing a tiny number of older homeless people over and over again. I didn’t come to Berkeley to study homeless and I don’t consider myself an expert on the issue. But, through my work with Food Not Bombs in People’s Park, I’ve learned a thing or two about Berkeley’s long history of conflict over public space and the various “publics” that use it. Being unable to attend the City Council Meeting tomorrow, I offer a few quick thoughts:

1) We will always have the homeless (if we choose to). One of the most important ideological tricks that the right has played on us—and the left increasingly accepted—is the notion that “we will always have the homeless”. It’s a clever way of reframing the debate that refocuses us away from addressing the root causes of homeless towards trying to figure out how to manage what is reframed as a set of inevitable nuisances. But this framing is belied by reality: as Teresa Gowan documents in her (much recommended) “Hoboes, Hustlers, and Backsliders”, homeless as a large scale social phenomenon virtually disappeared from the 1930s to the late ‘70s, only to expand rapidly in the Reagan years.

Unless you believe that, over a five year period of the early 1980s, Americans suddenly started using lots more drugs, had a lot more mental illness, and became much less willing to work, it’s difficult to explain the sudden explosion of homelessness in terms of individual factors. Instead, we should remember that we, as a society, chose to de-institutionalize the mentally ill, slash social programs, skimp on services for returning veterans and ignore the impacts of globalization on the working class—all contingent factors behind the inevitable rise of homelessness. The nuisances of homelessness are not something imposed on us from the outside, but something that we have systematically created for ourselves.

2) This should be obvious but… Very, very, very few people in Berkeley are homeless because the want to be or have chosen to engage in the behaviors—like panhandling—that come with it. I say this because Berkeley’s homeless include a particularly uncharismatic element: street kids who—I am often told—have “chosen” their situation out of a desire to travel, avoid work, or fight the man. Most people of the white-liberal persuasion are willing to give a pass to homeless Vietnam Vets (and maybe even older African-American vets) but cannot abide crust-punks flying signs that ask for money to buy weed.

I get it: many of Berkeley’s un-housed community do not fit our image of the deserving poor. But, having interacted with scores of homeless people in the course of my research, I have only met two who claim to be homeless by choice—and neither of them panhandle. There is very little romantic about life on the streets: accessing basic services for shelter or healthcare entails endless degradation, and, for many, the meal we serve as Food Not Bombs is the only food they’ll get in the day. Ultimately, of course, we should try to break down the grouping of the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving”, but in the meantime, we should remember that there are hidden histories of abuse, disempowerment, and marginalization that lead people to sit on sidewalks and ask for spare change.

3) You can go elsewhere. They can’t. Thanks to my background, experiences, and identity as a white, heterosexual male, I am lucky enough to feel comfortable virtually anywhere in Berkeley, including in spaces occupied by homeless people. I acknowledge that others may not, and maybe for good reasons that, for aforementioned reasons, I can’t entirely understand. When I have raised the notions of “urban clearing” or “revitalization” with my classmates—expecting that they would be similarly horrified by the prospect—I’ve been surprised by the number of people who support them. They resent that places like Telegraph Avenue or People’s Park are, to them, uncomfortable and unsafe spaces.

And so I offer a somewhat insensitive retort: you can go elsewhere, they can’t. Homeless people don’t come to Berkeley to partake in some romantic sixties counterculture. They’re here because they won’t starve or freeze to death and the police are slightly less likely to harass them than in San Francisco. Berkeley is as close to a haven for the homeless as exists in our society. While that might create inconveniences for the rest of us, we should acknowledge that we can go be white privileged people and not get harassed by police or panhandlers pretty much anywhere.  I’m not suggesting that those in favor of Sit/Lie should move elsewhere—although I would note that there are an almost infinite number of neo-liberal, gentrified-as-shit law-and-order hellholes where you could go and not be regularly confronted with the after-effects of welfare-state retrenchment—but arguing that maybe you could just go to virtually any street in Berkeley other than Telegraph Avenue.

4) And jeez, we are Berkeley after all. I came to Berkeley expecting to find a progressive utopia. I’ve been sobered on this image by some vigorous baton thrusts and the realization that, like virtually everywhere, Berkeley is wracked by tensions between business and community, between tolerance and order, and between ideals and reality. But Berkeley is still special: a place that has in the past bucked and resisted national trends to criminalize homelessness, militarize the police, and run the poor and marginalized out of town. There are lots of places with Sit/Lie ordinances; there is only one Berkeley.

For interested, the Berkeley City Council can be reached at:,,,,,,, I’ve already received several personal replies, so if you are at all inspired, please contact them before tomorrow night. For those of you who tend to think no political action ever works and everything is 100% fucked, I would note that Berkeley activists have been successful in defeating similar ordinances in the past.

The Long Haul

After a fall spent trying to make some social change, this spring I’ve withdrawn into my more comfortable habitus: reading about social change.  I’ve been particularly drawn to stories about the Civil Rights movement, perhaps because I’ve been desperate to remind myself that change does in fact happen every once in a while.

Most recently, I read Doug McAdam’s, Freedom Summer, which chronicles one of the most pivotal moments in the trajectory of 1960s activism.  Frustrated with their inability to draw significant attention from the white, Northern liberals they needed to pass Civil Rights legislation, the black activists of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee hatched a plan to bring hundreds of white students from elite universities to the deep south for voter registration.  Confronted with poverty and racism that white Northerners had previously ignored, the volunteers were profoundly radicalized. As McAdam charts, Freedom Summer volunteers went back to school in the fall and were pivotal in launching the movements that defined the New Left and the latter half of the 1960s.  Case in point: Berkeley legend Mario Savio, future spokesman of the Free Speech Movement, was a Freedom Summer volunteer.*

McAdam caught up with the activists twenty years later and found that, contrary to the popular narrative about ‘60s radicals, most Freedom Summer volunteers did not “sell out” or turn conservative.  Continuing political engagement, though, came at a price. When the ‘60s were over, the activists felt like they were coming down off of a years-long “freedom high”.  Even those who wanted to fully reintegrate into mainstream society struggled to maintain “regular” jobs or “normal” relationships.  There are some political experiences, it would seem, that you just can’t shake.

This spring, I think many activists could relate: I, for one, am suffering an “occupy hangover”.  Not that my experiences could possibly come close to those of the Freedom Summer volunteers.  I can’t even entirely relate to those who, this past fall, quit their jobs to move to encampments or who spent hundreds of hours in General Assemblies. Nonetheless, as a wise comrade recently posted on facebook, I miss knowing that the encampments were there, that there were thousands of people out there who shared my concern for the state of the world and my desire to do something about it.  Not that there aren’t still protests and demonstrations: I’m excited for May Day and inspired by the creativity and boldness of yesterday’s Occupy the Farm action.  It’s just that, no matter how many people come out for them, the sense of infinite possibility, of existing in a moment of real historical import, has disappeared, crushed by police batons, dishonest media coverage, and the realization that too many people still don’t give a damn.  Looking back at blog posts from the fall, I’m almost embarrassed at the optimism, the naivety: it’s part of why it’s been so difficult to write (the schoolwork doesn’t help either).

My search for a meaningful, post-occupation place to put my energy brought me to where it almost always does: feeding people.  In February, I started volunteering with East Bay Food Not Bombs, which serves over a thousand meals a week, almost entirely from food that would otherwise go to waste. My previous image of Food Not Bombs was one of self-involved hipsters; in East Bay, though, FNB is a fabulous amalgam of squatters from Oakland, remnants of Berkeley’s various communist parties, self-described homeless-activists, and some elderly women who, despite visually fitting the church-ladies-in-soup-kitchens stereotype, have repeatedly assured me that that they are anarchists.  There are limits to the political change that can be accomplished with free food, of course, but in an age where even the most meagre of public benefits are becoming a “privilege”, serving a no-questions-asked vegetarian meal feels radical enough for me.

It helps that, with Food Not Bombs, I’ve been plugged into a community of activists which existed long before Occupy and, I imagine, will persist long past it. Five days a week, we serve in People’s Park, only three blocks away from campus but a no-go zone for most students, who are wary of its residents.  A few weeks ago, I was invited to a “People’s Park Oral History Night” at a local infoshop.  There, a long-haired man in his 70s shared how he and other students seized the park from the university in 1969, declaring it a “liberated” space that would serve as a haven for the dispossessed and a launch-pad for organizing against “The War”.**  “In the 1960s, there were thousands of us”, another old activist said.  “In the ‘90s”—when the university tried to retake the park and activists fended them off in five days of rioting—“there were hundreds.”  Now, he admitted, “There are only a few dozen of us greybeards left.”

And yet, somehow, these activists have stayed committed.  They survived Reagan when, as Governor of California, he declared martial law in downtown Berkeley, and they survived Reagan when, as President, he dismembered the welfare programs they fought for in the 1960s.  They were pissed off when Bush went to war brazenly and openly, and they’re pissed off that Obama is doing it covertly.  The costs of their dedication are obvious: most everyone I talked to has led a difficult life, one in which they traded in financial stability and social acceptance for “the cause”.  And, in the end, they have few tangible victories—other than a couple-acre park that most everyone in Berkeley seems to hate—to show for it.

Hearing their stories made me feel guilty to have taken a pause to focus on my studies after only a few months of activity.  But when I told this to the other activists that night, they all said I have nothing to be ashamed of.  People cover for one another; when one person steps back to take care of him or herself, there’s another at a point where he or she can step forward.  The community is always active, even if we, as activists, have to focus on ourselves once in a while.  I was reminded of how lucky I am to be in a place like Berkeley, where there are older activists to show me that this isn’t just a passing phase, even if there are a few days, months, or even years where I’m behind a desk and not out on the streets.

As if to drive the point home, the next day I learned that one of the Food Not Bombs volunteers was part of Freedom Summer back in ’64.  Who knows what he did in the intervening forty-seven years; but now, he comes down to People’s Park almost every day, wearing a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt, and serves food with a bunch of anarchists.

It seems more than a coincidence that infoshop where the event was held is called the Long Haul.

– – – – – –

* Fun fact: the interview report for Mario Savio’s application to be a Freedom Summer volunteer describes him as “not very creative” and “one of those average people”.

** There is only one war in Berkeley: Vietnam.