Reflections on Kerr Hall (by student participants)

barricaded elevators and doors at Kerr Hall
barricaded elevators and doors at Kerr Hall

An account of an occupation at UCSC in Fall of 2009.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 11, 2012

In the aftermath of the November occupation of Kerr Hall at UCSC there has been a storm of writing and discussion as both supporters and critics have rushed to represent the unprecedented events and imbue them with political meaning. The administration said what everyone knew it would say – that the participants went beyond the bounds of civil protest, that they deprived the university community of its rights, et cetera. We are neither surprised by nor interested in their rhetoric. More important to us have been the conversations developing within the movement itself, some of which we fear threaten to distort the real content of the occupation and drain it of its radical potential. As participants in the Kerr Hall events we want to set the record straight about a few misconceptions and also challenge a particular kind of political logic that has surfaced from some quarters.

First of all, we have witnessed over the last several weeks an effort on the part of some to cast the student occupiers as frightened victims of administrative terror. We have heard more than a few descriptions of events that – whether out of ignorance or political utility, we cannot be sure – describe students erecting barricades fearfully and desperately as riot police arrived. Not only is this factually inaccurate, it misrepresents the basic dynamic inside the occupation. It was a collective, preemptive decision by the occupiers to barricade the doors, not a fearful reaction to the imminent threat of police violence.

When negotiations with the university broke down, we had a number of discussions about how to respond, and ended up deciding to defend the occupation physically. We had taken over the administrative headquarters of the university; we knew the administration could not let us stay. When we made the decision to remain, we accepted the inevitability of police force being used to evacuate us – because when people occupy property that does not belong to them, and when they refuse to leave, they will eventually be forcibly removed by the state. Students put up barricades not in a last-minute panic as news spread that riot police were approaching, but because we made an assessment of the balance of forces and decided it was strategic to put up a fight. Though we recognized there was a good chance we would get arrested, we decided it was essential to demonstrate our unwillingness to give up control of administrative headquarters after the administration failed to grant any of our demands. We also calculated that we had enough support outside that our escalation tactic could potentially pay off.

The point is that there was nothing out of the ordinary or irrational about the way the administration or the police acted on that day. Administrators acted like administrators, and police acted like police. Anyone who was surprised or appalled by their actions seems to us naive in their understanding of the dynamics of power and resistance. The truth is that there was no “peaceful resolution” to the occupation, because the occupiers refused to allow it. It was not the administration’s fault that the police were called. The outcome was forced by the students themselves.

The conflicting interpretations of the occupation that have surfaced in the last week raise deeper questions about the way we understand and represent the emerging student-worker movement. Why do so many of the occupation’s defenders choose to frame the action using the discourse of non-violence, martyrdom, and moral purity? Why do they present the students as victims? From our experience anger and aggression characterized the mood of students more than fear and pacifism. This type of rhetoric is seductive in the short term because it has the power to keep more moderate supporters from feeling alienated by the movement. However in the long run it is a major obstacle to be overcome, because movements for radical change are not actually won by moral suasion. In a recent piece by George Ciccariello-Maher about the occupation of Wheeler Hall at Berkeley, he interviews a student, Ali Tonak, who participated in the day’s events. Tonak criticized the misguided attempts of some faculty members to quell the crowd’s rage when police forced their way into the building, commenting that “They have a warped understanding of how power works. They think that calming people outside was keeping the people inside safe, when it was really the opposite: the only thing that was keeping the folks inside safe was people being rowdy outside.”

Ciccariello-Maher develops the analysis further, commenting that “the final police and administration response–that of opting to let the occupiers walk out of Wheeler of their own accord–tells us just how powerful our collective presence was on that day. There can be no doubt that every single occupier would have been arrested, likely beaten and abused to some degree, and hit with the trumped-up felony charges, had the crowd not been assembled outside. And this was not merely because the crowd was bearing witness to injustice or expressing its verbal non-consent. It was not moderation and negotiation that created and sustained this pivotal moment and generated its outcome: it was the unmistakable show of force that the students gathered represented, a force that was not merely symbolic.”

Indeed, not symbolic but material. According to one participant in the Wheeler occupation, the police were threatening the occupiers with ‘felonies and beat-downs’ if they did not open the doors voluntarily. Of course, they did not open the doors voluntarily, and the principal factor precluding such asymmetrical violence was precisely the fact that the police were physically surrounded. The crowd did not disperse when met with a police charge, despite the injuries suffered. Rather, many people stood their ground and fought back, leaving the police with the only option of forcibly removing a thousand people if they were to arrest the occupiers. Faced with a potential situation they could not handle, the police had no choice but to simply cite and release the occupants of Wheeler.

In Santa Cruz, a similar crowd dynamic would likely have been necessary if it were not for the injury of faculty member Mark Anderson. It was not due to the peaceful chants of the small crowd that the occupiers of Kerr Hall were released with no charge. If it wasn’t for the immediate accidental injury of the faculty member, which made the police look brazen and overly-forceful at a key early moment, then the occupiers could have faced serious charges and injuries. Defeating such consequences would have been possible only by forcibly securing a defended perimeter around Kerr Hall.

The dynamics outside of Kerr Hall were most of all a result of the administration’s decision to send riot police at 6am Sunday morning, after threatening occupiers with police intervention for the duration of the night. Their calculation that sleepless occupiers and exhausted, dwindling supporters would present the least effective resistance and exit most passively was the sole reason for the timing of their action and it should be noted that such a diffusive end to the occupation would not have been possible at any other time.

In order to understand what happened that morning we must also consider the role played by some of the faculty members present, in particular the attempt made by some professors to negotiate a resolution to the occupation. Professor Bettina Aptheker, for instance, communicated directly with both EVC Kliger and students inside Kerr Hall in an effort to persuade students to leave before the police were called. She described her efforts to the Santa Cruz Sentinel: “I told Kliger, ‘If you give me another five minutes I think I could get the door open.’ And he said, ‘I don’t have five minutes.’” ” The Sentinel and others have characterized Aptheker as negotiating on students’ behalf, but we would like to point out the logical absurdity of that statement. Let’s think about it for a second: Aptheker was negotiating on behalf of students to convince students to leave before the police arrived? If she was really acting on behalf of the students inside, why was she desperately trying to buy more time so that she could convince us to leave? And why was she unable to do so? Because we had made a collective decision to leave on our own terms, when we were ready. Aptheker was never given permission by us to negotiate with Kliger. If we were to give her any kind of authority to do this, we would have asked her to help win demands, not to convince him to let us leave – when the whole point of setting up barricades after negotiations broke down was to demonstrate that we weren’t going anywhere!

Clearly Aptheker was not acting on behalf of students but as a representative of certain faculty members who thought the occupation had reached its limit and that it was time for students to leave. These faculty members asserted their own political goals outside Kerr Hall by demanding a clean-up outside and inside the building, regardless of student aims. With “Faculty Observer” signs duct taped to their shirts and strung around their necks they immediately attempted to take control of the situation. One faculty member, without discussing her reasoning with students and supporters gathered outside, enforced a no-smoking zone near the building by telling students that they would “lose the faculty” if they did not obey. Some faculty took it upon themselves to contact students inside via cell phone and encourage them to leave.

When police arrived some of these faculty members took up a policing role themselves. Students who reacted to the riot police in anger, who wanted to demonstrate collective power and antagonism toward the authorities, were instructed to remain “peaceful.” Students who used swear words against the police were reprimanded and those who broke the police tape that cops had strung around the building to keep the crowd away were told to back away and observe the line.

While we do not doubt that these faculty members acted out of a desire to protect the students inside, we question the sense of authority and paternalism that guided their behavior. They clearly felt they had either a right or a responsibility to manage the situation as they saw fit. Faculty acted as though those of us inside were not aware of the possible consequences of our actions or were too naive to think them through. In reality we had already spent hours discussing every aspect of police and university repercussions and made our decision together, as informed adults. Real solidarity would have meant supporting our collective decision and joining the crowd outside as participants rather than “observers.” Instead their mode of interaction undermined student autonomy and collective power.

It is clear that the unprecedented events of the last several weeks – occupations, blockades, strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations across the University of California system – were generated almost entirely by student and student-worker initiative. Therefore we must make it clear to all faculty members who attempt to assert their authority over our actions that they should follow our lead, rather than the other way around. As we experiment with new political forms we will make our own decisions about tactics and strategy and cannot accept their recommendations as sacred. We welcome their genuine participation and support but we will not allow the teacher-student relationship that we experience in the classroom to characterize our interactions in this movement.

This also means we must say goodbye to the sanitized and pacified version of the sixties that has been surfacing at recent actions and events. The spectre of the sixties – its political symbols, modes of discourse, and cultural forms – is part of the mechanism by which the older generation seeks to maintain its authority over the movement emerging now. More than a few times we heard faculty members telling students, “Don’t link arms when the police arrive because it will antagonize them. Trust us, we did this in the sixties.” Every time these words were used in the context of persuading students to follow pacifist principles. And some students themselves embraced the climate of political nostalgia, choosing songs and chants from the era and flashing the peace sign. Our point here is not to trash the movements of the past but to caution against condemning ourselves to repeat the gestures of a bygone era, against letting the political weight of a particular set of symbols and messages be used to discourage us from generating our own ways of thinking and acting. The world has changed and a new generation will develop its own political forms. While history offers up many lessons that we may find useful, ultimately the present must be made anew.

Finally we must address the issue of property damage, which has proven so controversial in the wake of the occupation. As the administration and local news outlets broadcast inflated figures relating to clean-up costs, many have rushed to defend the occupiers by denying the fact that damage occurred or by characterizing it as unavoidable and minimal. In one sense these statements are generally accurate. Based on our experience it is correct to say that the majority of students inside the occupation had no desire to deliberately cause damage to the administration building.

However, while we appreciate these expressions of support and recognize their tactical utility in the midst of a smear campaign, we again fear that they overlook an important aspect of the political content of occupation. For we witnessed something else as well, something that seems not incidental but central to the experience of occupation itself: we watched the sheer glee with which students took over the headquarters of the university adminstration and made it our space. We ate food, listened to loud music, smoked cigarettes, wrote messages on every available surface, spread our belongings everywhere and used the Chancellor’s conference room as a screening center to watch the news coverage of the day’s events as well as footage from similar movements all over the world. We took back university property in a way that was much more than symbolic and in the course of so doing we experienced directly the realization that the institutional spaces from which power emanates – which we are taught all our lives to treat with deference and respect – were merely ordinary physical places, filled with mundane objects. And the shared experience of messing up that space, of treating the property inside as valueless, created instant bonds between participants. It was also a moment of genuine – if temporary – expropriation, as we claimed the property of the authorities for our own collective use.

We wonder why the issue of mess and property damage has proven so controversial in the way the occupation has been portrayed. Obviously we live in a society obsessed with the sanctity of property rights; however, the extent to which the issue has raised objections even among leftists suggests that it again taps into conflicting ideas about the nature of the movement itself. The pacifist camp seems to find the very notion that the occupiers deliberately made a mess or damaged property distasteful if not scandalous. It seems that they believe that every action on the part of students has to be represented as a defensive act, forced by the administration. For them the students are obligated to constantly embody the moral high ground, and their tactics have to cause the least amount of damage, disruption, or controversy possible under the circumstances. Their response to critics is always the apologetic “We were left with no other choice. The administration forced us to take this drastic action.” With this reactive approach to political action there can be no effective way to go on the offensive, to analyze the existing scenario and traverse the political terrain as we see it, based on our own terms and initiative. We prefer to take responsibility for our own actions and plans instead of perpetually playing the victim.

Based on the criteria of the pacifists, deliberately careless treatment of private property seems like a liability, because in an immediate sense it was not necessary for the political success of the action. However, it sent an important message to administrators, namely that we had come to the point where we no longer felt intimidated by their authority. We have observed that some of the recent actions at various campuses have been controlled relatively easily by administrators. A number of sit-ins were successfully de-escalated when an administrator was sent in to “talk with the students” about the budget and students, through force of habit, responded with deference. In situations where students refused to enter into a paternalistic dialogue with university representatives their efforts to disrupt university functions have been much more successful. More importantly, we initiated real, materialized disregard for administrative property that rippled through the minds of fellow students. Let’s not forget that the purpose of a movement is not just to enact a series of symbolic spectacles but to transform its participants, their relationship to one another and to the structures of authority that govern their lives. We submit that a lack of care for administrative property demonstrates not immaturity or irrationality but a very real sense of collective power and agency that is critically necessary if we are to sustain the courage necessary to continue to attack existing institutions.

Originally posted: December 16, 2009 at Anti-Capital Projects