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.

Cops and Cowards: Reflections on the Recent UC Regent Protests « Anti-Imperialist Inc.

via antiimperialtheorizing

i am not particularly concerned with a majority of the activity that occurred Thursday, January 19th at the UC Regents meeting in Riverside, because the energetic ad hoc efforts of the student organizers from all of the participating UC’s speaks for itself.  The day represented a solid advancement for Southern California student activism. It is an advancement that has been growing and will hopefully continue to fuel a sense of urgency for Our struggle.

What i am concerned with in this essay, is what has been lacking from the critiques of Thursday the 19th: creativity, tactical analysis and above all: a look into the events that unfolded while the cops still maintained their presence on campus post-meeting. This moment, for me, crystalized an idea that has been floating around the UC community/blogosphere for some time now, the struggle cannot only pertain to austerity and fee hikes, but the opportunity has been widening for making domestic militarization a central focus of Our praxis in the student movement. A decision that has the potential to connect the struggles of the UC’s, to the struggles in the prisons,  to the struggles anti-violence groups face, with the struggles of immigrants rights groups and with the struggles of  communities across the state. The movement  for the people by the people has to recognize the enemy of the people. And at the moment, thanks to their own efforts, its becoming pretty clear who that is.

Earlier accounts of police violence at the Davis and Berkeley campuses have been vainly provincialized, described as epic calamities – where moral outrage was merely the result of police crossing the boundaries of whiteness. So with this understanding, I do not want to dismiss the importance of acknowledging the privileged perceptions amongst the liberals and a majority of UC advocates, as a barrier between understanding modes of domination in the US and within the UC community itself. This understanding is the basis of my politics and this essay should be read with an assumed understanding of the context in which it is written from. However, it should be made very clear that a militarized police presence is, nonetheless, the divide between Us students and any dream of completely controlling Our educations. The police were the physical wall between Us and the Regents on Thursday the 19th, they were the lurking force that surveilled organizers prior to the meeting, and outside of the University they are the physical embodiment of all that is so completely fucked in Our society.

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In Which UC Riverside Chancellor White Blames Protestors For Police Violence At UC Regents Metting on 1/19/2012

Chancellor White’s Friday Letter of January 20, 2012

Dear Friends,

For me this has been a week full of great sadness and worry, great pride, and deep disappointment over opportunity lost. No wonder this Letter is late today… I admit to being a bit spent!

At the beginning of the week, we learned that two graduating seniors were gravely injured in a car accident a few miles from campus. Chris Lee and Regan Moore have been heavily committed to UCR and fully engaged in their academic and living communities. We are all pulling for them to survive.

On Wednesday night, I joined several hundred students and others from campus and student affairs at the Bell Tower. I found the candlelight vigil to be sad and sobering, and at the same time inspiring and hopeful.

Parents and siblings were there and spoke, as did close friends. They have latched on to little signs of hope.

Hope. Community. Unity. Those three elements were so profoundly visible that chilly Wednesday evening… and when we gather together in really dark moments to provide support and encouragement, it makes me proud to know the strength of our community is genuine and strong.

We hosted the UC Regents meeting in the HUB on Wednesday and Thursday, and I was so very proud of our students, staff and faculty who let their voices be heard about the profound concerns and challenges about access, affordability and high quality…elements that are under great duress across the UC. Community leaders also came forward to encourage the Regents’ continued support of our emerging School of Medicine.

And special kudos to our staff, who organized every detail of food, transportation, facilities, safety and communications. I heard over and over from our guests about the special warmth, caring and pride of Highlander Hospitality.

One of our undergraduate students, Chris LoCascio, presented to the Regents a different approach to funding UC. He had worked for nine months with other students, as well as UCR and UC finance people, to design a plan they call FixUC. This concerned group of students, raising their voices and offering thoughtful solutions, garnered national media attention.

But then we lost opportunity because of the behavior of a small number of individuals. Their behavior briefly and peacefully shut down the Regents meeting, on the cusp of an engaging and provocative discussion of innovative solutions to funding UC going forward. Their actions, while making a point to disrupt and while remaining nonviolent, nonetheless prevented others from listening to the discussion by denying public access to the remainder of the meeting.

I was disappointed by that, because it was an amazing opportunity for many, lost by the behavior of a few. These few protestors claimed victory for what was actually a loss.

Several Regents, including Chair Sherry Lansing, met with eighteen of our students after the official meeting ended, and reported a fascinating, difficult, thoughtful, respectful, inspiring and helpful dialogue. That session got no media attention.

Because of the disturbance of a few individuals outside the meeting venue, we needed to use our police to ensure the safety of meeting participants as well as the overwhelming majority of protest participants who were non-violent students and community members engaged in peaceful protest and exercising their right to free speech.

While many of you may be exposed to media treatments of the meeting, what you may not learn is that nine officers received minor injuries, as barricades were thrown at them and signs used as weapons. Yet only two individuals were booked for alleged felony assault of police officers. These two individuals were older men from Los Angeles and Corona…not UC students.

We never seek to use force. But the reality is that some individuals became unlawful aggressors and dangerous to others. Despite several warnings to stop, they chose not to do so. That is a choice that has consequences. And while our co-workers who are police exercised great restraint, they did need to use force at times on Thursday outside the meeting venue to protect themselves and ensure safety for others.

Tim White, Chancellor
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Open Letter to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi

via UCDavis Bicycle Barricade by Nathan Brown

Linda P.B. Katehi,

I am a junior faculty member at UC Davis. I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, and I teach in the Program in Critical Theory and in Science & Technology Studies. I have a strong record of research, teaching, and service. I am currently a Board Member of the Davis Faculty Association. I have also taken an active role in supporting the student movement to defend public education on our campus and throughout the UC system. In a word: I am the sort of young faculty member, like many of my colleagues, this campus needs. I am an asset to the University of California at Davis.

You are not.

I write to you and to my colleagues for three reasons:

1) to express my outrage at the police brutality which occurred against students engaged in peaceful protest on the UC Davis campus today

2) to hold you accountable for this police brutality

3) to demand your immediate resignation

Today you ordered police onto our campus to clear student protesters from the quad. These were protesters who participated in a rally speaking out against tuition increases and police brutality on UC campuses on Tuesday—a rally that I organized, and which was endorsed by the Davis Faculty Association. These students attended that rally in response to a call for solidarity from students and faculty who were bludgeoned with batons,hospitalized, and arrested at UC Berkeley last week. In the highest tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, those protesters had linked arms and held their ground in defense of tents they set up beside Sproul Hall. In a gesture of solidarity with those students and faculty, and in solidarity with the national Occupy movement, students at UC Davis set up tents on the main quad. When you ordered police outfitted with riot helmets, brandishing batons and teargas guns to remove their tents today, those students sat down on the ground in a circle and linked arms to protect them.

What happened next?

Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students.Students remained on the ground, now writhing in pain, with their arms linked.

What happened next?

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

This is what happened. You are responsible for it.

You are responsible for it because this is what happens when UC Chancellors order police onto our campuses to disperse peaceful protesters through the use of force: students get hurt. Faculty get hurt. One of the most inspiring things (inspiring for those of us who care about students who assert their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly) about the demonstration in Berkeley on November 9 is that UC Berkeley faculty stood together with students, their arms linked together. Associate Professor of English Celeste Langan was grabbed by her hair, thrown on the ground, and arrested. Associate Professor Geoffrey O’Brien was injured by baton blows. Professor Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, was also struck with a baton. These faculty stood together with students in solidarity, and they too were beaten and arrested by the police. In writing this letter, I stand together with those faculty and with the students they supported.

One week after this happened at UC Berkeley, you ordered police to clear tents from the quad at UC Davis. When students responded in the same way—linking arms and holding their ground—police also responded in the same way: with violent force. The fact is: the administration of UC campuses systematically uses police brutality to terrorize students and faculty, to crush political dissent on our campuses, and to suppress free speech and peaceful assembly. Many people know this. Many more people are learning it very quickly.

You are responsible for the police violence directed against students on the UC Davis quad on November 18, 2011. As I said, I am writing to hold you responsible and to demand your immediate resignation on these grounds.

On Wednesday November 16, you issued a letter by email to the campus community. In this letter, you discussed a hate crime which occurred at UC Davis on Sunday November 13. In this letter, you express concern about the safety of our students. You write, “it is particularly disturbing that such an act of intolerance should occur at a time when the campus community is working to create a safe and inviting space for all our students.” You write, “while these are turbulent economic times, as a campus community, we must all be committed to a safe, welcoming environment that advances our efforts to diversity and excellence at UC Davis.”

I will leave it to my colleagues and every reader of this letter to decide what poses a greater threat to “a safe and inviting space for all our students” or “a safe, welcoming environment” at UC Davis: 1) Setting up tents on the quad in solidarity with faculty and students brutalized by police at UC Berkeley? or 2) Sending in riot police to disperse students with batons, pepper-spray, and tear-gas guns, while those students sit peacefully on the ground with their arms linked? Is this what you have in mind when you refer to creating “a safe and inviting space?” Is this what you have in mind when you express commitment to “a safe, welcoming environment?”

I am writing to tell you in no uncertain terms that there must be space for protest on our campus. There must be space for political dissent on our campus. There must be space for civil disobedience on our campus. There must be space for students to assert their right to decide on the form of their protest, their dissent, and their civil disobedience—including the simple act of setting up tents in solidarity with other students who have done so. There must be space for protest and dissent, especially, when the object of protest and dissent is police brutality itself. You may not order police to forcefully disperse student protesters peacefully protesting police brutality. You may not do so. It is not an option available to you as the Chancellor of a UC campus. That is why I am calling for your immediate resignation.

Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students. Your actions directly threaten the safety of our students. And I want you to know that this is clear. It is clear to anyone who reads your campus emails concerning our “Principles of Community” and who also takes the time to inform themselves about your actions. You should bear in mind that when you send emails to the UC Davis community, you address a body of faculty and students who are well trained to see through rhetoric that evinces care for students while implicitly threatening them. I see through your rhetoric very clearly. You also write to a campus community that knows how to speak truth to power. That is what I am doing.

I call for your resignation because you are unfit to do your job. You are unfit to ensure the safety of students at UC Davis. In fact: you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis. As such, I call upon you to resign immediately.


Nathan Brown
Assistant Professor
Department of English
Program in Critical Theory
University of California at Davis


Masks, or The Illusion of Power

The following text is a script for a participatory performance. Copies of the text are handed out to the audience and volunteers are asked to read aloud the questions that are underlined along with the performer. The script was first performed at the UCIRA conference State of the Arts at UCSD on 11/20/2010.

Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw materials are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils to the specifications laid down. –Ellwood Cubberly, Public School Administration, 1916 quoted in School is a Factory by Allan Sekula, 1980.

The students’ movement in California and around the US is a real opening for radical politics. It raises basic questions about what society has become and where it is going. I am a long-term critic of neoliberalism, I am convinced that this form of capitalism is totally unsustainable and unlivable. Since, however, it is squarely installed in the realms of knowledge, culture and information — since it is cognitive capitalism — it seems there is no more strategic point for opposition than the universities. That doesn’t mean that every point of opposition is not important, just that this one could become crucial if enough people would raise the basic questions of value, what’s society good for, how am I participating, which consequences does that have on others, etc. Those kinds of questions form the basis of the practical philosophy that interests me. –Brian Holmes in an interview by Michael Wilson  (

“a) The struggle for public education is a struggle against privatization throughout the economy, against the exclusions of the marketplace, and finally against an economy based on private resources.

b) The defense of staff and adjunct teachers is part of a program against the precaritization of workers’ lives in every sector.

c) The student (witness the recent revelations about the scope of student debt) is not a privileged case but a true subject of the market in its credit-fueled plunderings of the future — and the fight against capitalism will necessarily happen on campuses, among other places.via facebook by Joshua Clover

“A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.” -Joseph Brodsky

Thanks everyone for coming and thanks to the organizers of the conference. I would like to dedicate my time today to reflecting on my engagement – both individually and collectively – with the struggles around the meaning of public education over the past year and in doing so I hope to consider what I see as an unresolved tensions within this struggle that are both productive and debilitating. And those are, in part, the tensions around symbolic action and modes of engagement – The tensions that surround the meaning of public education when what constitutes ‘the public’ is itself a contested term full of the sorts of antagonisms that animate collective fictions. By focusing on the arc of my own involvement in this struggle I hope not to engage in a kind of narcissistic blow by blow of the last year or so but rather to re-examine my experiences in light of questions that faced and still face those of us who seek to link the struggles around public education with a broad social, political and economic climate and the ways that the university administration manages various forms of resistance to privatization.

I warn you in advance that some listeners may find a certain naivete and redundancy in what follows but what I would like to say, without a hint of anti-intellectualism, is that I’m looking to avoid further mystification without oversimplifying the complexity of our predicament. I should also say by way of introduction something about my format. When I proposed this talk for the conference I was under investigation by Labor relations at UCR for my involvement with the website which announced Mark Yudof’s resignation last March. I’ve structured this presentation in an intentionally open ended way so that we might have a conversation and really use the experiences and questions that I present as a starting point. I don’t want to preach to the choir here and I do think that we have to ask difficult questions of ourselves so that as the administration puts the final touches on dismantling the UC system as we know it, this conference does not become hamstrung by hand wringing OR by patting ourselves on the back. The question is not only WHAT TO DO NOW but also how do we move from protest to action, from managed, reactionary politics towards spaces of potential?

On september 24th last year, after making a number of protest signs and teaching an abridged version of my web-based art class at UCR, I encouraged my class to attend the rally together which was beginning to form just outside of the art building. I had already spent a large portion of the class explaining the so-called crisis as I understood it then, the logic of the walk-out and I made what I thought was a rational appeal to my students: namely that the interests of staff, faculty and students were being undermined in the name of austerity and efficiency. This logic, I explained, could only be countered by a large demonstration of refusal. Most of my students wandered off sheepishly and the rally, though organized with good intentions and a sense of commitment, was poorly attended and felt more like a rehearsal than an event. Meanwhile other campuses saw rallies attended by thousands and the building occupations that have given this “struggle” such as it is, its real meaning and charge. One of the questions I faced was how to activate meaningful struggle on a campus that seemed and still seems almost oblivious to the gravity of the present-day dynamics of the university.

Between that September day and the regents meeting at UCLA in November was a crucial germination period in terms of my own thinking about what the stakes of this particular struggle represent. A teach-in in Berkeley – still available on youtube – set out very clearly that in fact everything was and is at stake. Wendy Brown, the renowned political scientist, suggested the legacy of prop 13 and 30 years of right wing propaganda have ushered in a political moment in which we risk absolutely every aspect of human experience being reduced to equations of dollars and cents. And I probably don’t need to tell all of you that we are fighting, to put it very bluntly, to stop the utter commodification of absolutely everything. The 50,000 students marching in London last week and the relatively timid actions in CA this week, are loud reminders that this is only the beginning of that struggle…

The day of the November regents meeting at UCLA last year was perhaps the decisive moment in my understanding of this struggle… I recall vividly walking between a large confrontational protest in front of the building where the regents were approving the 32% fee hike with students linking arms defiantly in front of cops in full riot gear. The scene was tense and vital but also predictable. Both the cops and those of us protesting had rehearsed our roles many time before… if not literally then in some cinematic, phantasmagorically inflected dream. On the other side of campus, students had occupied a building, issued a beautifully open statement, and renamed the building after two murdered black panthers bunchy carter and John Huggins. The space around the building was mysteriously quiet. I tried to enter but was not allowed in… I stood outside in solidarity and argued with the odd passerby who was willing to engage with me about the merits of the occupation. Towards the end of the day I drove home in the blank and contorted traffic of Los Angeles. Los Angeles, the place that Jason Brown describes as “a hellscape of ash and banality, a metastasizing agglomeration of darkness and pain, a fungal architecture engulfing the earth in erasures and hyperrealities…” So… when our actions become too rehearsed, we search for ways to re-animate our own sense of what constitutes collective, direct action. We try to shake off the distracted paralysis and the tormented mask. We look for ways to inject into our cynical narratives moments of off kilter gestures, we try to most of all to surprise ourselves. But on that November day I wrote: “Some say the economy is shattered. I say the economy shatters us all. At least for today. Today is an economy of shatters. Or, shattering, today is an economy of alternative economies.”

It was a desire to overcome the stale habits of protest, retaining of course a spark of that oppositional spirit, that led me to think about strategic ways to push the meaning of the struggle elsewhere… or everywhere. Conversations and communication with Marc Herbst, Cara Baldwin, Jason Smith, Caleb Waldorf, Sean Dockray, Micha Cardenas, Michael Wilson, Brett Stalbaum and Ricardo Dominguez gave me the impetus and the inspiration to buy the domain name and begin thinking “what to do?” How best to use this site and when? How best intervene in and interfere with the impoverished symbolic logic and economy of the university? How best to target those who turn a crisis of priorities into a budget crisis? How to extend the logic and spirit of the building occupations? How to “occupy everything?” as we decided to put it…
The thing that surprised me most on the morning of March 3, when yudof’s resignation site was made public was the speed with which events unfolded. Threads began to circulate on discussion boards:

– this is a gag, right. probably would be a good idea to hold the jokes for a while. too many jokers around who don’t know when something is not funny.(ucsd)

– This is funny. “I have decided to go back to school to study the history of social movements.” as if…

–Is this a joke? I feel like I am in the Twilight Zone? Is it April 1st?

– Read it more closely…. and see links to “occupy everything ” , “destroy capitalism ” and the like……??Well done, authors! You had me going

– If ONLY it was true. And in this hyper-reality, who knows, who knows?

And it was only a couple of hours before I received an e-mail from the office of strategic communications at UCR, cc’d to the chair of the art department Charles Long:

Hi to both,
We have a problem. A Web site pretending to say that Yudof has resigned can
be traced back to Ken Ehrlich and the UC art department.

Anything we can do about getting that down?

We have one media request already and we are likely to see more….

Thanks, Kris

Kris Lovekin
Director of Media Relations
Office of Strategic Communications

The question of anonymity, or the potential for certain forms of digital masking, quickly came to the foreground. When I purchased the domain name, I chose not make the domain information private. This was a quick decision, not without consideration, but also not entirely cognizant of the ramifications of this choice. Even though the site was hosted through the BANGLAB server here at UCSD with the support and encouragement of Ricardo and Micha and Brett, a quick web search revealed me as the owner of the domain. As the gesture played out in the media, I was trying to strike a delicate balance: I did not want to claim sole credit for the project in a way that would take away from the idea of using yudof’s “power’ in the media and directing it towards the actions in support of public education scheduled for March 4. I also felt that the longer the gesture played ambiguously in the media, the more attention it would generate. In an effort to strike the right balance, when media relations asked me “if there was anything I could do about getting it down” I changed the domain registration to private and wrote back, saying that the site should no longer be connected to me or UCR. Later when the investigation was underway, and I went public asking for support and citing Ricardo’s idea of radical transparency, this caused some confusion. The fact is that I never explicitly denied my involvement, I simply attempted to mask it slightly in an attempt to give the gesture more legs.

The local chapter of the AFT, the union that represents lecturers and librarians across the campuses, was completely supportive and immediately and assertively working with me to end the labor relations investigation as soon as it began. Letters of support poured in from around the country and all over the world. As amazing as the showing of support was, the question quickly became: How to use the energy and organizing around the investigations and turn it towards a continued activation of the struggle to re-imagine public education? The administration seemed to be using investigations as a means to suppress dissent. Was the goal of the investigation meant to have a chilling effect on protest as much as it was to persecute my individual actions? Certainly potentially losing my job was consequence I could not take lightly – and the criminal investigation that ricardo, micha, brett and bang lab were facing even more so – but the investigations became a distraction from many people using creative energy and time from organizing, agitating and articulating ways forward in the face of a bureaucratic and managerial structure whose main purpose it seems is to reinforce the narrow logic of administration and by extension, capital accumulation for the few and massive debt for the many. In this way, the investigations themselves became mired in the machinations of endless memos, meetings, conference calls and corporate communications. There might be an argument to be made that if the university were so bogged down by endless investigations into similar activities, the bureaucratic structure might fall in on itself in some sort of Kafkaesque joke, but as we’ve seen, so far the university has proven remarkably fluent at maintaining high levels of managerial gravitas and public relations flim flam.

After one tense meeting and months of waiting, anticipation and silence from the administration, I finally in July received a counseling memo. I definitely need counseling of all sorts, but I couldn’t help wonder about the semiotic implications of declaring me the counseled one. I suppose it’s better than rehabilitated. The memo encouraged me, in the course of my research, to be careful to abide by University policy and cited two specific violations of that policy. One was impersonating a university official. Clearly satire is not impersonation. Second, I improperly used the seal of the university. The authenticating image that ironically enough reads “let there be light” is of course meant to be used after receiving proper approval and signifies the real in the domain of the University.

One of the most successful aspects of the gesture, admittedly quite limited in scope given the dynamics at hand, was that it forced the members of my department to have a series of difficult conversations about the website and ultimately come out in public either in support of me and the work (as most chose to do) or implicitly identify themselves as complicit with the corporate logic of the University. With some notable exceptions, in the last year faculty across the campuses have been remarkably complacent and uncreative in responding to this series of assaults on public education that have now resulted in a 40% fee hike, furloughs, layoffs, etc.. The question is why? Have faculty members either fully internalized the corporate logic of the university or do they imagine that they can hold onto whatever position thru this storm without causing a fuss? What else goes on in the minds of faculty members who are disengaged and silent?? Do faculty and students perceive engagement in the terrain of education as just another demand? Be more rigorous, more political, more engaged, funnier, more media savvy, more politically adroit, more sensitive to race, gender and sexuality. Since rebellion is packaged and re-packaged as a refusal to submit to demands, whether they are familial, cultural or political, do faculty and students imagine disengagement itself as a form of protest? Part of what I wanted to say with the website, either symbolically or otherwise, was that Yudof does not have power unless we reaffirm it. The mask he wears is one that we help sustain…. I had little faith that yudof or the regents or the stunted bureaucracy of the administration would respond favorably to protest… But masks are ambiguous. Unmasking power does not reveal some formerly unseen truth, it reveals hidden or partially eclipsed potential. Students and faculty absolutely have the potential to structure the terms of the battle and, again with a few exceptions, we have failed to do so… How then, playfully, absurdly or otherwise, to transform masks of power?

Now I would like to step back to ask a series of questions specifically in relation to the arts. Given that traditionally and historically images have always had a charged relationship to truth claims, how can we possibly frame or understand critical image making in relation to the utterly fragmented and spectacular information overload that is endemic to cognitive or cultural capitalism? As the cops and students compete to analyze video and photographs of tense standoffs are we once again, as artists, caught up in debates about the relativism of meaning in relation to images? Does the political landscape of the university itself become a series of abstract images?

An artist whose own work is instructive in thinking through these problems is Allan Sekula. In particular his 1978 project School is a Factory points out some of the historical remnants of critical image making in relation to the politics of education. As a scholar of photography and an image maker, Sekula uses sophisticated prose to situate and problemitize his own photographs, relying on language to lift images out of the abstract and ambiguous space in which they circulate culturally.

Part of Sekula’s strategy in school is a factory is polemic, perhaps one that underestimates the complexities and nuances of power, for strategic ends. And here I will quote Sekula at length:

We have been led by the champions of corporate liberalism to believe that schooling and the media are instruments of freedom. Accordingly, these institutions are seen to fulfill the democratic promise of the enlightenment by bringing knowledge and upward social mobility within reach of everyone, by allowing each individual to reach his or her own limits. This ideology hides the relentless sorting function performed by school and the media. Both institutions serve to legitimate and reproduce a strict hierarchy of power relations, tracking individuals into places in a complex social division of labor while suggesting that we have only ourselves to blame for our failures. School and the media effectively situate most people in a culture and economy over which they have no control, and thus are mechanisms by which an “enlightened” few promote the subtle silencing of the many.

School and the media are inherently discursive institutions, sites within which discourse becomes a locus of symbolic force, of symbolic violence. A communicative relation is established between teacher and student, performer and audience, in which the first part, as the purveyor of official “truths,” exerts an institutional authority over the second. Students and audience are reduced the status of passive listeners, rather than active subjects of knowledge. Resistance is almost always limited only to the possibility of tuning out. Domination depends on a monologue of sorts, a “conversation” in which one party names and directs the other, while the the other listens deferentially, docilely, resentfully, perhaps full of suppressed rage. When the wholly dominated listener turns to speak, it is with the internalized voice of the master. This is the dynamic of of all oppressions of race, gender and class. All dominating power functions semiotically through the naming of the other as subordinate, dependent, incomplete as a human being without the master’s discipline and support. Clearly such relationships can be overthrown; the discourse of domination finds its dialectical antagonist in a discourse and practice of liberation. Like home, factory, prison and city streets, school and the media are sites of an intense, if often covert, daily struggle in which language and power are inextricably connected.

Sekula’s positioning of education as central to “the sorting function” under capitalism echoes the current demand that we understand the fight for public education in the broadest possible context. Do we defend public education in its current problematic form or do we see the organizing around public education as an opening for an other kind of politics? Certainly we can also draw on Sekula’s strategy here to produce an engaged critique. The work in question was made while Sekula was teaching at a southern CA community college and part of its success and long term meaning is based on his own self implication: For Sekula this is not a detached analysis, but a provocation. A set of questions about institutions from within.

In context, this kind of politically minded artistic work constitutes a move from representation to engagement. While many readings of most so called political art might justifiably render an artwork a simple illustration of nuanced political questions, Sekula’s work demonstrates the potential to imagine forms of artistic engagement that oscillate across aesthetic, subjective and social spheres. Sekula’s practice circulates around the documentary form; while the gesture of a satirical website that plays with the conventions of authenticity is situated in the domain of hyperreality (or whatever other awful term we’ve come up with to describe the contemporary digital landscape). Sekula’s work and this gesture, as different as they might be, both traffic in forms of text and image making in which verifiability and abstraction are central. At the end of the essay that accompanies these images, it is precisely forms of abstraction that Sekula critiques.

There is first the abstraction inherent in what he calls the “supposedly realistic world picture of a bureaucratic, commodity centered society: the abstraction that emerges from the triumph of exchange value over use value, and so on.” And secondly, the abstraction that emerges from the separation of aesthetic culture from the rest of life, the imagined freedom of the disengaged play of signifiers. Against these forms of abstraction, Sekula argues for a kind of political geography. What does this political geography look like? Analyzing the interrelated dynamics of intellectual labor, cultural capital, the rise of a managerial class inextricably linked to the politics of education, Sekula’s designation of political geography is a prescient identification of the territory we currently inhabit. Produced at around the time of prop 13 and before the Reagan era set in, the work stands as both a critique of and a warning against the surge of cognitive capitalism witnessed since the time of it’s production. If Sekula seeks to move from representation to engagement through contextualizing his photographs with text, there are certainly other and perhaps more complex ways to consider engagement. So too must there be other ways of engaging the political geography of the university than creating a satirical website announcing the resignation of a corporate bureaucrat. Far from an exemplary example of a nuanced engagement with the political geography of the University, the yudof website represents an experiment: an attempt to find a form for that kind of engagement.

Directly connected to my teaching digital media the gesture was created at a time when many in the university are re-considering pedagogical strategies. If we are to fundamentally engage the political geography of this place – where we teach, study, learn, socialize, do research, and so many other things – we might begin by asking What constitutes our own assumptions about pedagogy? And how might we continue to integrate experiments in pedagogy into our efforts to dismantle the logic and the structure of a university that does not prioritize education in the broadest sense of the word.