After the Wheeler Occupation

Against the Current, No. 145, March/April 2010

Zachary Levenson

ONE ASTUTE OBSERVER of the Wheeler occupation noted that the events of November 20 represented a synthesis of the twin strategies of the current student movement: “popular organizing” in the form of general assemblies on the one hand, and a “militant resistance” enamored of occupations on the other.

This synthesis overcomes the twin pitfalls of organization without mobilization and its equally pernicious inversion, mobilization without organization.

The former tendency is most visibly espoused by self-appointed student leaders of various persuasions. Under the banner of democracy, endless weekly assemblies appear as an end in themselves, with mobilization posited as the ultimate goal, but it remains just that: ultimate. Now remains always too soon for escalation, for transcending merely symbolic actions that are all too readily described as the meritorious exercise of free speech.

Calls for more militant action are either dismissed by the moderators of these assemblies as premature, as desirable when organization reaches a stage adequate to the execution of such actions; or they fall through the cracks in these undirected discussions that all too often take the forms of redundant brainstorming sessions. The key tasks of concrete organizing and mobilizing for future actions do not in themselves comprise the agenda of these general assemblies, much to the bewilderment of many participants.

This is a clear instance of antidemocratic democracy: the privileging of process and procedure to the point where substantive discussion of tactical considerations becomes an impossibility.

The second pitfall of our movement, less clearly affiliated (and deliberately so) with officially formed groups on campus, is the tendency that posits direct action as an end in itself: mobilization without organization. While undoubtedly those who carry out these occupations are as tightly organized as any student grouping, organization stops there.

The idea that action is itself an organizing force was demonstrated to be questionable at best by the first two Santa Cruz occupations. However admirable the intentions of those who orchestrated these actions, even those already organized and partial to moving beyond merely symbolic protest were alienated (and even conservatized) by those who present occupation as an end in itself.

Wheeler: Problems of Occupation

The Wheeler occupation illustrated quite clearly that a small occupation retains no force in itself. Without articulating itself to a militant mass movement outside, occupations of the scale currently spreading throughout California retain little relevance or transformative power. Hence the awkward declaration of victory after the weeklong occupation of the UCSC Graduate Commons. Without supportive masses to mobilize, in what sense can an occupation be considered a mobilizing force at all?

In creative yet desperate attempts to secure such a popular mass, these occupations held dance parties that demonstrated a notable lack of articulation between the actions themselves and the student movement at large. These actions conclusively demonstrated that direct action in itself is not necessarily an organizational force; the radical posturing of these occupiers failed to resonate with an otherwise radical student movement at Santa Cruz.

Why then did the occupation of Wheeler draw a couple thousand students, workers, faculty, and community members who persistently weathered pouring rain, flailing batons, and rubber bullets? It would be all too easy to craft an answer disregarding the apprehension we felt as we moved into Wheeler that day.

I of course cannot speak for others who were in there with me, but I can assure you that I was terrified — especially after the embarrassing turnout on Wednesday and Thursday — that mass support would not come. And even if the numbers did come to gawk at the riot cops and police tape, I’ll be perfectly candid: under no circumstances did I imagine upwards of 2000 militant students and workers dismantling police barricades, pulling fire alarms across campus, and blocking every possible exit from Wheeler.

Perhaps the open and democratic way in which the occupation was planned provides an answer. Emerging from a general assembly the night before, just under a hundred interested students met and voted on their desired mode of escalation. A locked occupation won overwhelmingly.

The vast majority of the Wheeler 43 are students without anything approximating a unified politics. All were agreed that the time for escalation had come, that symbolic protest had served its function but was no longer useful by itself; other than that, there was no monolithic line inside the building.

Most of those inside would have trouble identifying a label adequate to their intentions in occupying Wheeler. That is part of what made the action so productive, so resistant to dismissal as “those-people’s-action.”

As we plan our next steps, we need to reflect on the success of Wheeler. Was it, as many would argue, the excessive police force, the Alameda Sheriff as spectacle, that radicalized so many on that day? Was it the concrete demands? Was it the manner in which we decided to occupy?

How do we use police brutality as a mobilizing tool without deflecting attention from our movement’s aims? What are we organizing for? How will our direct actions remain articulated to the broader student movement? How do we remain both militant and grounded in a popular base?

These are all crucial questions, but the fact of the matter is that we have transcended the organization/mobilization divide — perhaps not once and for all, but for the time being. Whatever our reservations about what went down on November 20th, we now have the beginnings of a militant student-worker movement, something I had until that Friday never seen on an American campus in my lifetime.

ATC 145, March-April 2010