Public Education in California–What’s After March 4?

Against the Current, No. 146, May/June 2010

Adam Dylan Hefty

ON MARCH FOURTH, we marched forth. Hundreds of marches, rallies and direct actions in defense of public education took place on March 4 across California. Now what?

This is the question being asked across the state in activist meetings of all sorts and configurations. The situation is contradictory: March 4 was by almost all measures an impressive success, yet the answer to the question “now what?” is a lot murkier now than it was in February.

March 4 represented a remarkable broadening, in quantity and quality, of the movement in defense of public education, particularly in California but to some extent nationally as well. Now part of a larger national process, the situation in California nonetheless has a certain density and specificity.

On my campus at UC Santa Cruz, a student strike successfully shut down campus, stopping business as usual for an entire day. In Oakland and Davis, protesters took to the freeways. Police blocked Davis protesters from marching onto I-80, but in Oakland, 150-200 people successfully blocked traffic on the I-980/880; most of them were arrested. Brief sit-ins or occupations took place at UCLA, UC Irvine, and CSU Fresno.

Walkouts and smaller rallies took place across the state, particularly at a wide range of community colleges and California State (CSU) campuses not represented during the fall 2009 protests.

In the Bay Area, March 4 was probably the biggest and broadest day of action since the antiwar marches of 2003. In Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, it seemed as though nearly every school was “in motion.” The Oakland and San Francisco school districts held “disaster drills” that allowed teachers and students to demonstrate, even if only around their own schools. Marches connected UC Berkeley with a rally in downtown Oakland; many later converged at the San Francisco rally of 20,000.

While these actions were certainly more widespread in coastal and urban California than in the rural and inland parts of the state, March 4 did permeate well past the traditional left-liberal bastions of California protest politics. A colleague of mine, for example, participated in a discussion about defending public education that was sponsored by her relatively conservative church in Silicon Valley.

Last fall one could argue with some justification that the movement in defense of public education was centered among relatively privileged students in California’s elite public university system, the UC. March 4 was different. Struggling public school teachers, parents and students, resource-starved community college students and traditionally underprivileged students, particularly students of color and immigrants, became a substantial part of the mix fighting to maintain access to higher education. This has, to some extent, transformed the character of the movement.

Contradictions: At A Crossroads

Thus, March 4 in general represented a significant step forward for the defense of education movement. At the same time, it brought certain contradictions to the fore, and the movement now faces a crossroads of strategy and political complexity.

Of course there were certain limitations to March 4 itself. First, it ended up being confined more to the “day of action” model than were the events of fall 2009.

Following the September 24 statewide UC walkout and a handful of occupations, a week of actions surrounding the November UC Regents’ meeting spilled over into almost two weeks of actions in which business as usual was suspended throughout much of the UC system as well as on a few CSU campuses.

A series of occupations, library sit-ins and study-ins, and other actions served to make public the crisis we had been experiencing for years. The brewing crisis came to a head over the past several months, and suddenly became a crisis for the administration as well.

March 4 did not share this characteristic. With the partial exception of the UC Santa Cruz student strike, direct actions were generally less successful. The Oakland freeway action certainly attracted a lot of media attention during rush hour, but it was essentially short-lived.

It’s fair to say in the fall that we were consumed, both by anger at the devastating losses we faced and by exuberant, sometimes irrational, excitement about our own potential. Last fall at UC Santa Cruz we could barely finish one action before a general assembly would be called to plan the next one. The exuberance may not have been completely grounded, but it created an audacity that caused people to dare to do big things and put political work at the center of their lives.

Now, despite the remarkable success of our March 4th strike, even at Santa Cruz that exuberance has given way to a more sober mentality. It’s possible to miss those heady days while still greeting this soberness as, possibly, a positive development, a moment in which we have to reorient ourselves towards a political maturity we haven’t yet defined and for which we don’t necessarily share a common compass.

I do not believe it is ridiculous to state that the defense of public education movement now faces a crisis over our lack of a big-picture strategy. Of course, this crisis can still coexist within a fairly vibrant movement. If the movement is going through a lull after March 4, perhaps it is just catching its breath; March 4 was an incredible amount of work in many places; certainly the rhythm of the school year can push towards a momentary diminution of student organizing.

Perhaps all that is missing is the right catalyst to ignite things once again. After all, the movement has now pulled off several successful periods of action in a row; it counts a substantial number of committed organizers and a broad milieu that has become convinced that collective action works; and of course the objective crisis that prompted the movement promises to be with us for years to come.

Nevertheless, strategic thinking now becomes essential if we are to broaden the movement further and develop it as a real force, rather than something capable of being bluntly impactful on state and administrative policies but incapable of determining the parameters of those policies along genuinely more favorable lines. We need a plan that goes beyond calling the next day of action or getting together another hopeful wave of occupations.

For that matter, we need to get beyond the common-sense critique that campus-based protest represents the “political immaturity” of the movement while lobbying should represent its maturity. We need a plan that can synthesize all of these various elements into something on a greater scale, to alter the balance of power in the state and in our schools.

It’s difficult, of course, to create such a strategy in an ideologically disparate movement based in very different sectors, particularly when the movement lacks coordination. Developing that coordination may now be necessary, but it will be a difficult issue around which to forge consensus, since a substantial slice of the movement is politically suspicious of anything close to a central body.

Strategy and Analysis

Strategy of course doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It also depends on our assumptions about the world. Some leaders of student government (as well as many school administrators) stress the notion that public education in California would be fine if we could just get more state funding. More state funding, of course, would be beneficial, but this analysis downplays the structural factors that have created a nearly impossible situation for the state to be able to pay for any public goods.

Conversely, some union leaders within the UC system sometimes talk as if the UC system would be fine if it were governed by democratic, pro-worker and pro-student priorities rather than the pro-corporate priorities of the current administration. Establishing democratic oversight of and transparency within the UC system and shifting institutional priorities could certainly go a long way towards reversing the austerity measures of the past two years. Over the long term, however, having a vibrant public education system requires a vibrant public sphere — but the public sphere itself has been systematically crippled.

On the other end of the spectrum, many involved in the occupation wing of the movement, particularly the self-described “ultra left,” are committed to a version of crisis theory which suggests that we can’t win meaningful reforms in the near future because capitalism is in such a state of decline that even if the money is there now to cancel austerity measures (assuming a different set of priorities), it won’t be in the near future. Therefore, certain approaches towards reform might be fruitless at best and an ideological distraction at worst, propping up faith in a deteriorating system.

My own view is that the robust, accumulative neoliberalism of the past 30 years has been largely discredited, but as of yet no new, broad system of economic management has emerged to take its place; a kind of austerity-based neoliberalism lives on. There is a range of plausible scenarios for the development of capitalism over the medium term, from a series of medium-sized shocks to a speculative recovery (of capital’s profitability, if not for working people).

Given this scenario I think we have to assume that the state will remain an important domain of struggle over the distribution of resources for some time to come. In fact, as capital’s ability to expand in absolute terms declines, its need to staunch its losses by extracting more from workers and from the natural and public commons will only grow. Indeed, to the extent that the environmental crisis makes capitalism’s traditional model of growth impossible, a struggle over the distribution of resources in the medium term may become a primary arena of social conflict. Whether we can win gains or merely struggle mightily against losses is a question of force, to be determined in practice.

A Multi-Pronged Struggle

We need to construct a movement that is capable of intervening in such important debates at the state level. We also need to keep developing our base on the campuses, where we are strongest, and where we can might at least win more immediate fights over priorities.

California’s Proposition 13, which caps state property taxes, guarantees that the state will always be too resource-starved to do anything that requires a large infusion of public funding. Without overturning or at least radically revising Prop 13, the movement’s larger goals are not achievable. Some movement radicals have tended to treat any focus on state politics as reformist, tantamount to lobbying. There is, however, a statewide political imperative of building a movement that could alter the balance of forces, radically revising or overturning Prop 13 and achieving other democratic victories, which would include making the UC Regents accountable.

There exists no statewide political force capable of articulating this agenda. Certainly the leadership of the Democratic Party doesn’t want to touch the main part of Proposition 13, and even if they did, they aren’t politically capable of it. They don’t have a political vision of how the state could be different, and the leading social groups most closely linked with the Democratic Party leadership — Silicon Valley and Hollywood business leaders — don’t want radical change.

If our movement wants to fight for that kind of agenda, we would have to be the spark that could ignite a statewide political force capable of articulating it. The student movement isn’t broad or large enough to do that ourselves. But we might be exciting enough to instigate something and keep the momentum going. ( In fact we have already changed the equation of what is politically possible in California.)

As part of an overall strategic vision and in order to keep building the moment, we need an array of tactics. That includes, in the medium- to long-term, taking on the fight over Prop 13. It also means targeting decisionmakers who have an ability to immediately alter spending priorities, particularly the UC Regents.

A corporate-campaign, modeled after the kinds of campaigns aggressive unions have used to fight intransigent groups of employers, could be an important tool in targeting these decisionmakers, who are working hard to deflect the blame onto the state. We should look at the UC Regents as a corporate board and develop an understanding of their business interests and the relationships in the community that matter most to them. [See Gray Brechin’s accompanying article “Republic of Dunces” — ed.]

From the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott to Justice for Janitors and campaigns against multinational hotel chains, corporate campaigns have been successful at turning up the heat on intransigent corporate boards. This kind of a campaign could also provide a focus for the movement in between major days and weeks of action. It could utilize tactics from media-savvy street theater and flash mobs to small leafleting actions and targeted sit-ins and occupations.

The direct action wing of the movement has suffered some setbacks. Many of its leaders, particularly at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, two of the most active campuses during the fall, are now facing administrative action for their fall occupations.

Other activists have become tired and disengaged, leaving an increasingly young and inexperienced cohort at the center. Furthermore, campus administrations and police have become more clever in responding to direct actions.

Organizing actions openly is fairly sure to bring out a large number of police; the only way to overcome that problem is truly massive numbers. Secretly organized occupations at the beginning of the year were extremely controversial within the movement. In most places, the level of trust and overall radicalization doesn’t exist for clandestine planning to be successful.

Nevertheless, this movement needs a thriving direct action wing. Direct action can create a sense of momentum and excitement even when mass-based interruptions of business as usual are not possible; it can also dramatize for the media the crisis we’re experiencing. It’s important not to fetishize what is or isn’t direct action; rather, we should recognize that occupations and sit-ins, as well as strikes and rallies, have been critical tactics in putting this movement on the map. These tactics will continue to be essential in going forward.

Symptomatic of the difficulty we’re having in charting the movement’s course has been a confusing process for determining a date and location of a statewide organizing conference after March 4. As I’m putting the finishing touches on this article, it looks as though the meeting will happen April 24 in Fresno, although it’s possible this could change yet again.

Next Steps in a Long Battle

The statewide conference is an important space to chart a course for this movement between now and the early part of the fall semester. Undoubtedly we will lose some momentum with the end of the school year, so it’s important to target smaller actions we can do over the summer, and hit the ground running in the fall. A corporate campaign and a series of actions targeting political hopefuls might make effective summer campaigns.

Additionally we face a problem with the movement’s current structure. Decisions are made through a rather byzantine network of regional and local coordinating committees, a statewide coordinating committee, and email lists that correspond to each of these bodies. The existence of coordinating committees is a good thing, but their mandate is so limited that instead of focusing political discussions and developing strategic alternatives, they often end up focusing on logistical details for yet more meetings. And the email lists have frequently gotten bogged down in flame wars, masculinism and sectarian modes of discussion.

We need to revise these structures, especially at the local and state levels, if we want to develop new people coming into the movement as activist-organizers. Coordinating committees or strategy committees should never substitute for broad, democratic decisionmaking, but they can function to enable that decision making. They can promote healthy political debate, raising analytic as well as strategic and tactical issues. They can then aid the development of well-thought-through, collectively discussed, possibly counterpoised, proposals for action.

At Santa Cruz, running proposals through a strategy committee allowed us to move from meetings where people would throw out half-formulated ideas to better articulated, multifaceted discussions.

Initially the idea of a strategy committee was somewhat controversial,. There was a fear that some political tendencies would use the committee to impose their agenda. The result was that different political currents turned out their sympathizers for the initial strategy committee meeting. In my view this was positive in that it allowed for a sharper discussion. This particular model will not work everywhere, and it’s too soon to say for how long it will work even at Santa Cruz.

The reality is that the movement in defense of public education has tended to generate new forms of campus organization every couple of months: We’ve seen general assemblies, solidarity forums, action assemblies, dance parties that lead into immediate action, a strike committee, a strategy committee, and a solidarity forum.

At a statewide level, we need to be prepared to experiment with these forms as well. This experimentation will help us find structures that will minimize infighting and logistics-driven discussions, and maximize meaningful political debates and strategic development.

ATC 146, May-June 2010