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Interview with an Occupier: A Closer Look at the UC Santa Cruz Occupation

University of California Santa Cruz Occupation

Also published at WireTap.

On the morning of September 24, students across the University of California's ten campuses awoke to their first class of the school year: an object lesson in labor and student resistance.

That day, thousands of faculty, students and staff joined to protest the massive budget cuts to the state's university system -- and to protest the complicity of the university's administrations and the Board of Regents.

California is facing a budget shortfall measuring in the tens of billions of dollars over the next several years. As a result of the unique legislative hurdles required to pass a budget (it requires two-thirds majority, which neither party has), no decisive action has been taken to close the fiscal gap. On July 24, as teachers and students were away from campus for the summer, Sacramento passed a budget that included $8.1 billion in education cuts.

Soon after, the University of California announced that tuition and fees for in-state students would increase more than 30 percent over the next year, coming on the heels of a previous 9.3 percent hike announced in May. Hundreds of university employees are being laid off with most remaining employees subject to furloughs. Faculty and staff unions, who saw the cuts looming well in advance, organized in opposition, calling for a walkout on the first day of classes.

Protesters' tactics vary by campus -- UC Berkeley saw thousands march through the streets, picketing, blocking intersections and holding teach-ins on the crisis and ways to reform the university; UC Davis saw support staff unions honoring picket lines and students briefly occupied the administration building; UCLA's protesters marched to and then occupied the chancellor's office, holding signs proclaiming "freeze our fees," "stop the privatization of our public UC" and "stop the layoffs, layoff Yudof" (referring to Mark Yudof, the president of the University of California system).

While building occupations were attempted on several campuses, only one of them -- the occupied Graduate Student Commons building at UC Santa Cruz -- is still ongoing. I had a chance to talk with one of the occupiers over the phone Friday morning (name withheld at their request).

For Student Power: How many UC system campuses have occupations right now?

UCSC Occupier: We believe we're the only one -- Berkeley attempted one and it was rapidly shut down. They were sabotaged by various liberal student government types, who let the cops in.

Over all, here, it's great! It's going amazingly smoothly, and it's in an optimal location. This building is in the only central location on campus, so we're really using it to propagandize a lot.

Actually, there was this spontaneous dance party that erupted down in the area below last night. A ton of freshmen came out of their dorms and partied with us on their first night on campus. So we think we're going to be using the space really effectively. So far the police haven't been too bothersome -- we got through the night without incident.

FSP: What's the primary function of that building?

UCSCO: It's a commons area for graduate students -- there are some offices and conferences are scheduled here, so we're interrupting those. But here we have access to the internet, computers, a printer -- even a coffee machine.

FSP: What are the students doing right now?

UCSCO: Some of us are milling around; we have a lot of literature that we drew up in the early stages, and I think we'll continue to draft some things. We're having meetings, talking about how we're going to expand this to different buildings and campuses. We're in contact with the Berkeley people and they may try something again.

FSP: What's the organizational impetus behind the whole walkout? When I see the headlines, it looks amazingly well-coordinated among students, faculty and staff.

UCSCO: For the occupations, specifically, there [were] a couple of meetings about something like this at the end of the spring quarter which fell through over the summer. The situation with the system-wide governance became a lot more pitched, and the faculty led the way and decided to schedule a walkout for the first day of school. The faculty were being forced to take furloughs, so they voted unanimously to hold those on instruction days. The Regents chose to ignore this and granted President Yudof emergency powers to get around that dissent and bypass any shared governance with faculty.

About 1,200 faculty system-wide signed up to walk out. On the same day, one of the service worker unions, UPTE, called for sympathy strikes, as did the clerical workers union. From the faculty's lead, then graduate students and undergraduates started organizing over the summer.

Some of us have been involved with the more "above ground" meetings, but the occupation was not actually planned by or with the strikers.

FSP: Tell me about the students occupying the building right now.

UCSCO: There are over 30 inside -- comprised of students, graduate students, some lecturers and a few staff and alumni.

FSP: Occupations more than anything hearken back to their predecessors in the late '60s and early '70s. Is there discussion on where this fits in historically?

UCSCO: Yes, it's been discussed, but some of us took issue with that comparison, because we're situating this specifically at what we consider to be a turning point in the history of capital. The '60s were a completely different period and they had to deal with different material conditions. We're focused on a very different horizon than those in the '60s. We are, of course, still drawing on that history; we're also drawing inspiration from the Chicago Windows and Doors occupation, and the recent occupations of the New School, NYU and University of Vermont.

FSP: Does UC Santa Cruz have a strong history of activism on campus, relative to other UC campuses? Have there been building occupations at UCSC in recent (or not-so-recent) history?

UCSCO: Santa Cruz does have a fairly strong history of activism relative to other UC campuses. David Horowitz thinks we're one of the worst in the nation, so that's something. Our anti-military recruitment campaign a few years back got us on the FBI's Terrorist Watch list; as far as occupations go, we're not really sure. There was a tree-sit two years ago where small buildings were constructed in trees, but beyond that, I think this is unprecedented.

FSP: How are decisions made among the occupiers?

UCSCO: We have really long meetings [laughs]. There isn't much of an organizational structure, honestly; we don't have a name or anything. It's just people who share concerns and share this tactic. In the run-up to this, we did have several meetings. We actually switched the location at the last minute. We decide by majority vote.

One of the things we didn't decide were demands, because this is a demandless occupation. We're pretty cognizant of the absurdity of issuing demands to people whose agency we don't believe in, as either causing this crisis, or being able to get us out.

So we're using this to make an appeal to all students and Californians to take this occupation further.

FSP: Do you think that having a demandless ocupation, one without even "transitional demands," may cost you some support from the population at-large?

UCSCO: We may lose some support, yes, but the impact on campus thus far has actually been so bemused in general that I'm not even sure they're aware that it's demandless. We'll see how it plays out from here.

FSP: You were saying how the Berkeley occupation was sabotaged by their erstwhile center-left allies. How are you arrayed ideologically inside the occupation? Are most folks self-described radicals, or is it a larger swath of the student population?

UCSCO: Actually, some people unaffiliated with us spontaneously tried to occupy another building on campus once they had heard about us; that was shut down very quickly, but some of them jumped over the railing and joined us. Some freshmen, whose very first day of college this was, who I don't think had a very strong political identity yet, jumped in and joined us. But yeah, there are some radicals here, but we're not all hard-line anarcho-primitivists or anything.

FSP: Are you seeing the protesting and occupying students shift in terms of demands and understanding of the situation? The walkouts started as a reaction to budget cuts, but do you get a sense that folks are widening the scope of their criticisms to more systemic causes?

UCSCO: The students organizing things are certainly widening their scope. Many of the people here on the inside I met last year in a relatively reactive, reformist-minded group which went nowhere; they’ve since begun, publicly at least, to issue these more systemic criticisms. The budget cuts do have terrifying, material effects for certain people, though, and therefore are obviously more interested in entering into negotiations when their livelihood is directly on the line, but its also becoming more apparent that the same pretexts for cuts are brought up again and again. We're looking at a solid decade of state fiscal emergencies, so hopefully people will begin to see what we're seeing.

FSP: I think a lot of students would love to know the play-by-play of how exactly you took the building.

UCSCO: We were a little worried about how we were going to deal with the workers who were going to be here. Thankfully, we found out the night before that the clerical workers union who would be staffing this building called a strike as well, so we expected that nobody was going to be here.

There was one woman, who I guess wasn't respecting the strike, and she was in her office. So we came in, and we were like "Uh, we have a study group meeting!" She was kind to us at first, but then she started getting suspicious.

Meanwhile, there was a rally and a general assembly being held at the base of the hill we're on, so we coordinated with people down there to try and turn it into a march to bring them up here. As we got word that there were 100 to 150 people coming up the drive, we had to put things in place, so we sent some people to talk to the secretary and she left the building. We then had blocks and tables and everything in place -- we started at 4:30 and had it locked down by 5:00.

FSP: If occupations don't spread, what's the end game?

UCSCO: If they don't spread immediately? That's a topic for discussion this morning, actually [laughs]. Worst case scenario, we walk out of here; we've demonstrated that occupation is on the table as a tactic that people can use. And we'll continue organizing, and trying actions like this in the future.

FSP: What's your best-case scenario?

UCSCO: Starting with the UC system, we get occupations going on every campus and we shut it down -- we demonstrate to them that they are running it in such a way that it cannot function, and that we will not allow it to function. Best case, of course, is occupations in every school and workplace -- students and workers stopping the theft by our own elected representatives. They're stealing from what is held in public, so the best-case end game is widespread occupation to stop this theft.

FSP: Your occupation has gotten statements of support from students and activist groups from all over. Is there anything you'd like to say to students across the country, who may be looking to the UC system walkout and this occupation as a source of inspiration?

UCSCO: Do it yourself -- occupy a building on your campus. The time for sitting at a table with negotiators, trying to figure out a more equitable way to, you know, cut off your left arm versus your right arm, has passed. We see no more point in petitioning, or requesting meetings with administrators. They can't give us anything; they've made that abundantly clear, at the very least in California. Time is past due to occupy and take your own spaces back for yourselves.