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When Reactionary Talking Points are Conventional Wisdom: UC Crisis Edition

Nina Houts, writing for the Oakland Tribune, agrees with the purpose of the UC strikes and occupations but disagrees with their methods.

However, the manner in which these protests were carried out was utterly counterproductive to their cause. I'm sure it started out tame enough: crowded rallies and marchers with picket signs called attention to the issue, and students' contempt was conveyed. But then behavior escalated to more extremes, such as students cutting class, opting to lie in the streets or form human barricades outside of UC Board of Regents meetings, which was the case on Nov. 19. I think this type of "fight for education" was a complete waste of time, effort, and money.

Houts, who is a home-schooled high school senior, is learning quite quickly how to adopt the handwringing liberal style so prevalent in traditional media when people use tactics that actually have a chance of winning. The tendency which Houts is channeling prefers dissent to be polite and dignified - and it's hilariously telling that the very methods of dissent she is okay with are the ones she calls "tame." Such a preference comes from one of two possible mindsets. One is naive: the belief that public officials and other elites are doing what they think is best for all of us, and simply need to be convinced of our position in order for them to do the right thing (therefore the ideal mode of dissent for them is the strongly-worded petition). The second mindset is that of those who don't want to see the protesters win: their opposition to the demands is cloaked in concern trolling, worrying about protesters being "irresponsible," or "hurting their own cause." Their goal is to limit the spectrum of dissent to entirely harmless tactics.

From the age of this particular writer, I'm going to guess she falls into the first camp. Hopefully once she gets a taste of actual campus activism, she'll see the futility of playing by the rules of those in power. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded his white liberal colleagues who were worried about tactics that were "extreme":

"Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

Houts isn't a big fan of that kind of tension. She continues,

Who actually thought it was a good idea to skip classes in protest and/or occupy buildings to prevent professors from teaching their courses? Doesn't that just further inhibit everyone's opportunities to learn? It's unbelievable to me that so many students assumed that skipping out on classes in favor of holding destructive protests in the middle of a semester would perpetuate the idea that they care very much about their education.

One could just as easily move that argument over to the workplace. "Why would employees stop working if they wanted better conditions and wages? Doesn't that inhibit everyone's opportunity to go to work? Seems silly that people keeping everyone outside their workplace actually care about what goes on inside their workplace."

Then she pulls out the "responsibility" card:

It seems that school officials would be even less inclined to give in to student protests when trash is dumped in front of a chancellor's office and lecture halls are subjected to damage after a protest lock-in — it's a huge waste of resources. The lemming effect that came out of these protests made the whole ordeal unquestionably futile. A much better message would have been sent if the student protesters actually took responsibility for their actions.

No, it's not the exorbitant salaries and perks of the ever-enlargening Administration that's a huge waste of resources, nor the large chunks of the budget tied down into siloed (no pun intended) defense industry accounts, it's the exaggerated cost estimates of student actions that should be condemned. Then she repeats the claim that administrators are just poor public servants, tasked with a difficult decision, and that the students are immature for thinking that there's any other way:

It comes across as insensible for these students to actually believe that in this time of financial crisis, they would be exempt from the repercussions of a depleted state budget. While it is unfortunate that the UC schools will have to deal with such a drastic blow to the system, the reasons for doing so are valid. Students should begin turning away from griping and "radical" movements, and begin dealing with the issue a little more proactively. The thousands of dollars worth of campus damage is going to have to be paid off somehow, and all that money is going to come straight from a share of tuition that could be better spent on other things.

If Houts dug a little deeper into the UC crisis, she'd find a very different portrait of the UC top brass and their real priorities. On a side note, I wonder why she put radical in quotes. The radical student movement in the UC system is actually radical, not pretend-radical or faux-radical. She finishes up with the classic "be happy with what you have, because it could be worse" line:

The resources that have been put into controlling these reckless student protests will have to be compensated, and the state and UC board are left with very few options. A word of advice to you radical student protesters: This is your education on the line. Go to class, embrace that you are receiving a higher education at the cost and sacrifice of your family and government, and maybe even do some extended research on solving the California budget crisis. After all, we are the educated, proactive future generation — right?

I don't mean to pick on Houts specifically, and I am very happy to see a teen getting column inches in the traditional press. But her opinion piece is a phenomenal example of all the ill-informed assumptions and elitist talking points surrounding both the UC crisis and student movements in general wrapped into one convenient article. It's also worth pointing out how easy this op-ed must have been for her to write. It relies exclusively on conceptual frames that have been hammered into our brains by reactionaries for at least a hundred years: assumptions about the nature of those in power, the nature of those seeking change, and the best ways to go about making change. She didn't need any facts or references to create this piece.

Use Houts' essay to develop effective and compelling fact-based counter-arguments, because when talking to anyone outside the student movement (say, your family over the holidays), you're bound to come up against at least one or two of the arguments she has put forth. Hopefully they'll be using these arguments out of well-intentioned naivete, which will give you the opportunity to convince one more person to stand with students who are taking action to push the university forward.


You did a really thorough job picking apart this article. Like you said, Houts' never really examined any assumptions she might have about the world and the student movement. We've seen this article 100 times before in mainstream newspapers and student newspapers. This reminds me of Op-Eds in Seattle newspapers that criticized the Port Militarization Resistance in Olympia and Tacoma (people who tried to blockade military equipment destined for Iraq from reaching the port). It's actually hard to think of a more peaceful, yet effective resistance to the war. The media lambasted them for being too extreme. What do these "Concern Trolls" expect people to do? Beg and plead to their elected officials and if that doesn't work go home and sulk?

There's a way to confront the issue of budget cuts that will actually get something accomplished. I'm not sure if it's Nina's, or yours, or someone else's. Whatever it is, more than two months after this response to Nina's column was posted, for all the yelling and screaming and throwing of fits, I have yet to see it.

What I do know is that while nonviolent actions such as leaving class and blockading buildings are more on the neutral side of opposition (i.e., they do not do irreversible physical damage to someone or something), there is a certain line that, when crossed, harms the cause, and sometimes irreversibly at that. Your counterargument to Nina's column conveniently ignores the fact that movements must simultaneously be forceful about their cause without turning potential supporters away from it--a convincing, intellectual case must be presented for the public to accept the validity of the movement. That's not to say there aren't strong intellectual reasons for opposing the budget cuts (obviously, there are), but when I was at San Francisco State and saw several protesters actively defacing a sculpture installed in a plaza near student housing, I was turned away from the cause. When I heard students yelling slogans insinuating violence against administrators, I was turned away from the cause. When students actually broke into the Chancellor's house at UC Berkeley, I was turned away from the cause.

I am not questioning student rights, nor the activism necessary to preserve those rights, because I firmly believe they are essential elements of every healthy campus. And I do not "naively" believe, as you might say, that the only acceptable protest is a tame one. But the bottom line is this: those who have done damage to the UC system, administrators and students alike, must take responsibility in order to "push the university forward."

That being said, there is nothing at all naive about being opposed to the damage of public works of art, private property (shops alongside the UCB campus), and public property (utilities such as roads, the 880 freeway, and dumpsters) which I witnessed both at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley during the protests. (Yes, I have been physically present at both campuses when protests were taking place during the last six months.) Artists, private shopkeepers, and those unable to attend class or move freely to a destination, are citizens whose rights are being violated--they are not merely the collateral damage of your movement.

As Nina's colleague, I would recommend that you write a letter to The Oakland Tribune/Contra Costa Times yourself expressing your response to her article. On this website, "For Student Power," I'm afraid you're just preaching to the choir.

In the spirit of open discussion,

Andrew David King

Thanks for commenting, Andrew!

If we want to get into a movement theory discussion, it's worth pointing out that public sympathy for a movement isn't its #1 goal: realization of its demands (and therefore elite acceptance of those demands) is primary. Any tactic that has even a remote chance of succeeding will alienate someone. For Nina, it was the simple act of a walkout and picket - one of the lowest-level actions students can do.

Within any healthy student movement you will have a range of actions taking place, running the gamut from petition canvassing to militant direct action. Obviously I think, 99 times out of 100, deliberate property damage does nothing useful to push any student movement forward. While it should be - and usually is - discouraged by other activists and organizers, it does happen. It's the nature of all social movements.

And I've been hard pressed to see any official sponsorship of property damage - no mass calls for statue defacement, or window smashing, or graffiti as far as I can tell. To use the stupid acts of a few individuals as an excuse to "turn away" from a movement with which you agree doesn't make a lot of sense. Just like it wouldn't make sense for you to "turn away" from journalism after the Jayson Blair scandal, or after the numerous other journalist plagiarism scandals of the past decade.

I appreciate the invitation to write a letter to the editor. As one could imagine, it'd be rather difficult to take the time and energy to respond to every op-ed and article I see that I disagree with. Like I said in the last paragraph of my post, I focused on Houts' article because it is helpful both in examining a lot of the anti-protest talking points & conceptual frames floating around, and in formulating effective responses and counter-frames.