More Noise than Signal at the UC Berkeley Stand Off

Posted on November 21, 2009


Things are getting heated on the UC Berkeley campus today; students have blockaded themselves in Wheeler Hall as I’m writing this. The building occupation mirrors other elevated levels of activity at the disparate UC campuses across California in the aftermath of the fee hike by the Regents of the UC system yesterday.

Why don’t I care? I’ve wrestled with this question all through the week. There are some ready answers that seem to seep up, unwanted as they may be, from the cracks. As a forty year old student who worked hard to get to UC, not only scholastically but in all areas of my life, the attitude students have towards their education here rankles me. Granted, that rankling is tempered by the reality that many of them are closer to childhood than adulthood, and are far more mature and focused than I was at that age. Another easy answer; I have too much school work to care. Add that to the mind numbing real work I have to do to to make sure I can eat in a home and sleep in a bed during the remainder of my UC education.

Those are, as I said, the easy answers. They mirror some of the virulently angry opinions of some average Californians. Such as these, published in an LA Times blog:

They can always go to community college like the rest of us. Screw those spoiled brat UCLA students. Hit up your rich mommies and daddies for the difference. Cry me a river. What a bunch of useless losers.


Listen up, UC students. I’m about to lose my job and I’m close to losing my house. Do you want me to sell my 10-year old car so that I can pay for your incredibly cheap tuition?

I’m at once offended and saddened by this kind of populist antagonism while oddly in agreement with it. Its taken me awhile to understand why, but this is my best answer to date:

I don’t feel like those leading these actions have done a very good job of describing what it is they’re fighting for, and what it is I, as a student, should be fighting for. I know, as far as students go, I’m not alone in this feeling. I should say that at first I was very supportive of the strikes last month. But when I really began to understand the issues, I understood less and less what the resistance was advocating. The Blue and Gold Program, according to Yudoff, will be maintained, and guarantees that working class students like me won’t see any change in January or September of next year. Those who oppose the tuition hike seem strangley silent on this issue. Is it true? And if it is true, then isn’t one of the most powerful symbols for the movement against tuition hikes—that poor students who need education the most will be most affected—undermined? Thus, is this a fight for middle class parents who can’t afford the extra two hundred dollars monthly? Or is it about reinstating the custodians? Or is it about keeping the jobs of teachers at UC? Or is it about holding on to the  breadth of classes at the school?

What’s most startling about the tactics at the school, today, is the reality that the poorest students are the ones least likely to be able to protest or support the actions. And for others, like me, the risks entailed by breaking the law—expulsion, the need to find a full time job again, while faced with paying back student loans for an education that provided no advantages—are too great to have anything but a tangential relationship with the protesters.

Most importantly, the movement lost control of the message, and never communicated very effectively to their base—other students and their families. This is in stark contrast with the very effective action today, coordinated across multiple campuses in synch. I think even a disinterested or antagonistic observer would have to give credit where credit is due—the actions were superbly carried out and have splashed the issue on the country’s tv screens in a way that last month’s strikes failed to do. But then what? There is no call to action. The hikes affect few people outside of the campus; there is no tension or leverage between the communities surrounding campuses and the Regents; there is little the average Californian can actually do to make their voice heard on the issue,  that is if they actually understood what was at stake or how to reverse the changes. With so many cuts across so many lines, with people struggling to keep their jobs and homes, with an unprecedented number of adults returning to Community Colleges in search of better opportunities, just what can they do for the UC system? On the radio, on televisions, on internet and on campus, I hear no answers.This passage from New York Times coverage of the event shows exactly how muted the protester’s voices really are on the issue:

“The group inside delivered a list of demands to the administrator, and it’s a pretty far-reaching list, to get them to repeal the fee hikes and stop the privatization of Santa Cruz and U.C.,” said Don Kingsbury, a Santa Cruz graduate student in politics. “It’s kind of a symbolic list.”

Indeed, many of the long-term demands are beyond the reach of the Santa Cruz administrators, including the impeachment of Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system; the elimination of the Regents’ positions; and an end to all student fees and student debts.

I don’t expect the NYT writers to do the work for the protesters; what’s going on here? What do the protesters want? Why are they so visible and yet so voiceless? Is it a standard issue of framing and bias? And is that even possible when the issues of a powerful student body and faculty at a prestigious university are being discussed.  I hope to find some answers to these questions. There are none for the time being; despite the fact that the multiple occupations of the UC Campus’ were very effective ways of broadcasting a message, the signal was empty.

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