Administrative Totalitarianism at the UC and the Necessity of Direct Action by Faculty

above: Proposal to Redesign the Great Seal of the University of California
The following text was presented at U.C. Riverside on April 23, 2012 at the invitation of the UCR faculty association.

On April 11, 2012 the Reynoso and Kroll Reports were released—reports which attempt to clarify the circumstances and the decision-making process that led to the pepper-spraying of student demonstrators at UC Davis in November 2011. The significance of this report is, at once, rather slight and rather weighty. It is, or perhaps should be, of rather little significance, because it largely restates facts and truths about administrative and police conduct which student and faculty activists have been stating openly for two years. But it is also of some import, because within the bureaucratic mechanisms of an institution like the UC—and in the judgment of faculty who might be inclined to dismiss any statements by those who engage in concrete political action—an “official” document like the Reynoso Report carries a kind of authority that the facts seem to lack, when articulated “unofficially.” So then what does the Reynoso Report tell us, which students and faculty who care enough about the public character of the UC system to defend it have been telling us for three years?

The UC administration decides by pure fiat which kinds of protests it will “allow” on UC campuses, and when it decides it finds one unacceptable, it deploys a militarized police force against the protesters involved without any regard for the law.

It tells us that the UC administration acts as an extra-legal regime, with authority over hundreds of thousands of people, which represses political action in a classically totalitarian fashion. If this statement seems exaggerated, let me restate it in terms that will clarify its meaning. The upper administration of our campuses has a militarized police force at its disposal—an armored, armed police force with military grade weapons (like the pepper-spray used on Nov. 18), which it is willing to use without either training or legal justification. And UC administrators are willing and able to deploy this militarized police force to repress student demonstrations without any legal justification whatsoever, in the absence of any clear law which the police force being deployed is actually enforcing. Moreover, the administration deploys this police force against student demonstrators without bothering to specify any clear guidelines concerning how it should conduct itself: without any effort to specify the limits of the use of force by its officers. That is: The UC administration decides by pure fiat which kinds of protests it will “allow” on UC campuses, and when it decides it finds one unacceptable, it deploys a militarized police force against the protesters involved without any regard for the law. This is a description of an extra-legal regime, repressing political action in a totalitarian fashion.

Well, this is a disturbing situation. Or it should be. Since the situation has been clear for two years, and since it is now officially confirmed, the question is: what do we intend to do about it?

But let me back up, and contextualize the sequence through which this situation has been highlighted since the events at UC Berkeley and UC Davis in November 2011. I want to try to specify what this sequence tells us about the relationship between administrative power and direct political action on UC campuses.

To put things as basically as possible, we are faced with an objective situation: the university is being privatized. In the simplest terms, what this means for students is that tuition is rising precipitously, and students cannot afford it. At a time when unemployment and under-employment is dauntingly high, especially for people in their twenties, students are paying for this increased tuition through rising student loans, which they know they will be paying off for some twenty years after they graduate. Student debt volume is now higher than credit card debt volume in the United States. The objective situation is that an entire generation of college students will probably default on these loans, while working jobs after graduation that are not much different than the jobs they are currently working to finance their education.

Many of these students are protesting against this situation. Why wouldn’t they? Their political action, too, is an objective situation. That is, these aren’t just some dedicated “activists” or “leftists” or “radicals” who are making trouble on UC campuses (though in many cases they are those as well). They are students who recognize that if they don’t fight for their future, they won’t have one. They are angry, and rightly so. Their actions are just, and they are justified. And since these students know all too well that their voices will not be heard if they merely speak, their political activity has often taken the form of direct action on UC campuses: particularly, building occupations and blockades. These students have had the determination and the courage to resist the privatization of the UC system and its impact on their lives. And they have managed to build the largest and most important student movement in this country since the 1960s. These actions testify to the conviction, integrity, and courage of the students that UC faculty have the privilege to know and to teach. That is: they are teaching us something about conviction, integrity, and courage, and we should be paying attention—just as we ask them to pay attention to us.

The administration of our campuses is thus faced with a decision: how will it respond to the direct action of students on UC campuses, with which it is confronted as an objective situation? These direct actions have continued for two years; they show no sign of stopping. What position will the administration take?

This administrative decision has already been made, and it too has become an objective situation. Hundreds of students have been arrested on UC campuses over the past two years. Hundreds of students have been beaten by police. That is: the decision of the administration has been to have students who take direct action against privatization beaten and arrested.

The vast majority of the faculty in the UC system is complicit with the beating and the arrest of students who take direct action against the privatization of the university.

It is probably fair to say that the public was largely unaware of this situation. And I think it is fair to say that the faculty of the UC system, for the most part, have tried to ignore this situation. To be sure, in any case, the vast majority of the faculty in the UC system has nothing to say about it, and have done nothing to prevent or to change it. This, also, is a disturbing situation. We can phrase it otherwise: the vast majority of the faculty in the UC system is complicit with the beating and the arrest of students who take direct action against the privatization of the university. They are complicit insofar as they do nothing to act against the administrative decision repress student protest through violent means. In a word, the administration has decided that the beatings will continue until morale improves, and hardly anybody cares.

In November 2011, however, this situation became more difficult to ignore and occlude. Video of students and faculty beaten at UC Berkeley went viral. A faculty member was thrown on the ground by her hair and arrested. Another had his ribs broken by a police baton. It became more difficult to ignore the fact that faculty who protest are also being arrested and beaten, as some of us had known all too well. Massive demonstrations followed at UC Berkeley and at UC Davis, the largest since the walkout of September 2009. And a week later, the Chancellor of UC Davis did something very predictable. She ordered police to clear out the same kind of demonstration on her campus, and the same thing happened: police attacked students, this time with military grade pepper- spray, for no reason whatsoever. The Chancellor emailed the campus and said it was unfortunate that the students chose not to disperse, and that the police had no choice but to act as they did. Unfortunately for her, millions of people saw what the police had done and what she had sanctioned, and over 110,000 people signed a petition calling for her resignation.

This was a new situation. Oops. Now everybody knew the open secret of the UC system: the administration of our campuses systematically uses police brutality to enforce tuition hikes. The UC administration makes students pay by having them beaten and thrown in jail by the rogue police force at its disposal. In the wake of these events, something interesting happened to the situation on the ground at UC Davis: the administration could no longer order beatings and arrests of student demonstrators. At the end of the fall quarter, students and faculty occupied a major administration building on campus for two weeks, shutting down the cashier’s office of student accounting at Dutton Hall.

And at the beginning of the winter quarter, student and faculty demonstrators did something smart. Recognizing the relatively powerless position of the administration, they began blockading the US Bank branch in the Student Union every single day, and they kept this up, every single day, for two months. The tactics were simple: they simply sat in front of the doors and shut the bank down. They let employees in and out, but they did not allow customers into the branch. They sat there and studied, talked, and held teach-ins. And the argument was simple: UC Davis has a special contract with US Bank, which generates funding for the university from US Bank revenue, in exchange for special advertising services and privileged branch and ATM placement. A US Bank logo appears on all UCD student cards, and these can be used as debit cards at US Bank. A clearer icon of privatization cannot be imagined. US Bank profits from student debt, because they finance student loans. That means they profit from rising tuition payments. And the administration profits from US Bank revenues, so it thus receives a double return on rising tuition payments. This is a conflict of interest and a disgusting and unacceptable situation at a supposedly public university. The students recognized this, they said it clearly, and they acted against it in a principled manner. Their analysis was correct, and their action was justified.

The administration couldn’t do anything about this political action. After two and half years of struggle, now it was the UC administration that was handcuffed. And an amazing thing happened: US Bank closed its branch on campus and pulled its contract with the university. Then it sued the university for lost revenue, because the administration had not had these students arrested (why not, US Bank asked, when it has done so in similar situations before?). If the situation weren’t so dire, this would be rather amusing: US Bank has argued, in writing, that the UC Administration is in breach of contract with a corporation because it failed to have students who protest privatization arrested. There could not be a clearer demonstration of the untenable situation into which UC administrators have blithely lead our university. Either we have student protesters arrested, or we face lawsuits from major corporations.

Obviously the Davis administration would not be pleased to have its weakness, and its complicity with the worst, exposed in this fashion, nor to suffer a clear defeat in its effort to have the public funding of the university replaced with private funds. So the administration, which had been documenting the names of those blockading the bank through its “Freedom of Expression Team,” had the police forward cases to the DA for prosecution. The DA decided to prosecute, and twelve of those allegedly involved in the blockade are now facing twenty-one misdemeanor charges, which carry a total possible sentence of eleven years in prison for each of those charged. When it is made clear that replacing public funds with corporate funding of the university is not an option, this is how the administration responds: by trying to destroy the lives of student and faculty demonstrators. No longer able to attack their bodies directly, the administration takes retroactive legal action to have demonstrators thrown in prison for years, if possible. This is how UC administrators respond to a threat to administrative power by direct action. And what the US Bank blockade demonstrates is that direct action has become a real threat to administrative power.

If this is not yet sufficiently troubling, yet another case at UC Davis might make it so. In the winter quarter of this year, an undergraduate student in Art Studio was giving a class presentation on public political art—what sometimes goes by the name of “graffiti.” In this case, some of the art he showed involved stenciling on campus responding to the privatization of the UC system: public art as a means of participation in the struggle against the privatization of the university. This student happens to have been one of those pepper-sprayed in November 2011. Moreover, he was arrested that day, and suffered serious nerve damage to his hands because the zip- ties with which he was restrained were too tight. During his class presentation, and despite his resistance to doing so, his professor made him identify those pieces he had shown which were his own. A couple weeks later, early on the Saturday morning of March 17, this student was arrested in his dorm room by members of both the UC Davis and City of Davis Police. He was charged with Felony Vandalism and held in jail over the weekend and into finals week. His school supplies, phone and computer were all confiscated. With no access to his contacts nor warning of the arrest, he was unable to contact legal representation. Without any means of communication from jail, he was unable to take final exams, and was only bailed out (for $20,000) when concerned friends began looking for him after he had been missing for days. UC Davis Student Judicial Affairs, which initiated the warrant for his arrest, didn’t bother to notify his home department, his family, friends, or professors to let them know the student’s whereabouts.

This student was recently expelled from UC Davis. The explicit reason for that expulsion was poor academic performance. After all—he had missed his exams while sitting in jail in the winter quarter. And it seems he took incompletes for his courses in the fall quarter, after dealing with the trauma of being pepper-sprayed and the nerve- damage he suffered through the malpractice of the police. Since police repression of his political activity had prevented him from finishing his course work over the past two quarters, isn’t it obvious that he should be expelled? If the administration doesn’t have students arrested, the administration will be punished by corporations. And, if students don’t write their final exams in jail, they will be punished by the administration.

Students and faculty responded to this situation by staging a teach-in and protest at the office of the Dean of Humanities. Lo and behold, this student has now been reinstated as a student at UCD, following a consultation, the next day, between the Assistant Dean and his lawyer. However, although his expulsion has been reversed, this student now faces a number of felony charges, which the DA has decided to prosecute, with a possible sentence of four years in prison. This is what you get, if you allegedly write on the walls of a university, in public, the facts of the situation: that the UC administration is a totalitarian regime which suppresses political protest through police violence and legal repression.

The Chancellor of UC Davis has offered her earnest apology to students who were pepper-sprayed. And she tells us now that the administration is “moving swiftly” to address the rather bracing findings of the Reynoso report—which clearly and explicitly place primary blame for the pepper-spray incident upon the administration, not the police. Meanwhile, this same administration is having the cases of the same students who were pepper-sprayed forwarded to the DA for prosecution for the bank blockade and for a bit of graffiti. The administration apologizes for its totalitarian conduct at the same time as it intensifies it. This is the situation at UC Davis, where my colleague in the Department of English, Joshua Clover, is one of those facing a possible prison sentence for his principled political actions, and where brilliant undergraduate and graduate students who I know and care about deeply are facing the same consequences for standing up to an administration which is completely out of control.

So again, my question is: what are we going to do about this situation? One thing is obvious: action through procedural channels tends to uphold the power of the administration. Policies and procedures are, strangely, the administration’s primary alibi—even though it constantly violates them. In a vote of the Academic Senate at UC Davis, some 400 faculty voted to accept the Chancellor’s “good faith apology” for the pepper-spray incident, carrying the vote on that rather bizarre ballot measure. At the same time, some 350 faculty voted against a ballot measure denouncing police violence against student protesters, and calling for the consideration of alternatives to police action by the administration. These people, who I am ashamed to call my colleagues, are unequivocally the enemies of everything a public university is supposed to stand for. And they are the primary support of the administrative regime that threatens the lives of anyone who acts against them.

It is up to the rest of us, then, who are not so willing to sanction police violence against students, to directly oppose the administration which orders and condones it. The faculty of the UC system is now faced with an inescapable imperative: to directly confront the administration of the university, and to make it impossible for that administration to continue repressing direct political action on our campuses. How can we do this?

Like the students who have the courage and conviction to take direct action against the UC administration, the faculty will also have to have the courage and conviction to take direct action against the UC administration.

If we attempt to do it through ballot measures, it seems these will be ineffectual. The reactionary faculty of the UC, it appears, are more eager to vote than those who care about the public character of the UC system and the people who defend it. So we will have to break with pallid and powerless channels of policies and procedures. Like the students who have the courage and conviction to take direct action against the UC administration, the faculty will also have to have the courage and conviction to take direct action against the UC administration. Student activists have understood the simple point that forms of action which do not pose an immediate and concrete barrier to the normal functions of the university will be ignored, deferred, and displaced. So they organize occupations and blockades. If the faculty want to confront the totalitarian conduct of the UC administration, we will also have to organize and participate in occupations and blockades.

Why is this so difficult to imagine or to accept, one wonders? If we recognize the objective situation at the UC, why are the faculty so reluctant to take direct action within and against it? Why does it often even seem preposterous, to many faculty, that we might do so?

One of my colleagues is facing a possible eleven years in prison for allegedly blockading the US Bank. Given this situation, why is the English Department at UC Davis still teaching courses? Why would we be willing to submit our grades at the end of this quarter? Why don’t concerned faculty at UC Davis immediately organize a picket and blockade of Mrak Hall, shutting it down completely, until the Chancellor takes action to have these charges dropped? And why couldn’t such an action be supported by similar actions at all other UC campuses?

What would such actions require? To shut down Mrak Hall, it would require about 20 faculty, at most, and perhaps 20 students, to block the doors of the building—which could be done by even a few people holding a banner across the doors, supported by students and faculty picketing across the steps. Those holding the banner could be rotated to avoid disproportional accountability. And it would be possible to organize a rotating schedule of those carrying out such an action on different days, so that no one would have to be there all day every day.

We can organize major international conferences, but we cannot organize this? It is easy to isolate out a single faculty member like Joshua Clover at UC Davis or Ken Ehrlich at UC Riverside, and pretend that he is some idealogue corrupting the youth of Athens. But even ten faculty involved in a direct action are too many for the administration to isolate in that fashion. The fact is that the faculty have far more power than do the students of the UC system, though we have been far more reluctant to use it. So students are fighting on our behalf (if we care about the public character of the university) against privatization. And they are thus bearing the burden of administrative repression. But the administration cannot repress the faculty of the university in the same fashion, if we act together.

So when are we going to do so, in defense of our students, and in defense of the university, and therefore directly against the administration? That is my question for UC faculty.

Nathan Brown is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at UC Davis.