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LSE is Occupied! An Interview

2010 LSE Occupation

On December 2nd, students at the London School of Economics and Political Science occupied the Old Building on campus, demanding the Administration take a stand against the looming education cuts coming from Parliament. I chatted with occupying LSE students Isla Woodcock ('11), Emma Kelly ('12), and Alice Stott ('13).

FSP: So first off, what's the overall mood in the building right now? What are folks doing?

LSE: Very positive. The events team are drawing up a schedule for the week, others are drafting our statement.We're all ecstatic about getting official union backing this afternoon after a vote!

FSP: Yes, I read that! How much organizing for the occupation itself was done under the auspices of the student union? Or was it more of an independent grouping of student activists?

Support the Millbank Demonstrators - from the comfort of your own home!

The Telegraph is now asking for people to send in e-mails identifying student rioters at Millbank. The Social War Protetection Agency says 'hella fuck that'. We are asking anyone with free time to send an email, or ten emails, or hundreds of emails, or thousands of emails to studentriots@telegraph.co.uk with the name of your favorite imaginary persons. Keep homies out of jail. Jam! Jam! Jam!

I got this message forwarded to me via email. We all have at least one email account, and I'd wager most of us have quite a few! Now's the time to use them! A few tips:

Malcolm Gladwell's Soft Authoritarianism

Malcolm Gladwell has folks in a bit of a tizzy over his latest New Yorker essay, "Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted." A lot of excellent writing has come out as a result. Zeynep Tufekci makes a whole slew of good points, especially with her analysis of strong and weak ties. My friend Angus Johnston over at Student Activism offers a corrective to Gladwell's narrow understanding of 1960s history and expands the notion of "social networking" to come to more interesting conclusions about activist organizing, past and present. There's also a great discussion going on in the comments section of thisAtlantic review of the essay.

In the interests of not reinventing the wheel, I'd like to do my part by taking a crack at one aspect of the essay I haven't yet seen anyone specifically take on, and it goes to the core of many of his assumptions about the nature of humanity and society.

In "Small Change," Gladwell presents us with a classic logical fallacy: the false dilemma. Inside the historical picture he paints, we can only choose:

  1. Decentralized networks, which are only good at tinkering with the system, or

  2. Top-down, hierarchical structures, which are all that can work if you want fundamental social change.

This, sadly, is all too expected for a writer like Gladwell, who cut his chops in large newspapers covering business news. (Imagine if this topic was written about by someone whose 10,000 hours were actually in social change organizing.) He constantly switches between critiquing social media and critiquing decentralized organizing, conflating them: he talks about Twitter in one moment and the PLO in the next. This allows him to construct some straw men that actually look like very convincing arguments, buttressing an altogether shaky proposition:

The drawbacks of networks scarcely matter if the network isn't interested in systemic change—if it just wants to frighten or humiliate or make a splash—or if it doesn't need to think strategically. But if you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy. [...]

Because networks don't have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can't think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Gladwell meant for that question to be a rhetorical one, but it's a question that gets answered every day by activists and organizers across the globe. It's a question I've had the privilege of answering with a dozen friends and comrades in cramped church basements, in huge meeting halls with hundreds of people, over email lists, and via phone.

Examples abound of powerful and often successful social movements that rely on decentralized and non-hierarchical structures. Stretching back in history:

  • The 2001 revolts in Argentina, which resulted in the toppling of three governments in as many weeks and the popular seizure and takeover of factories by their workers;
  • The 1999 Seattle WTO protests, which were successful by just about any measure (they shut down the WTO meeting and landed the first serious blow against the Washington Consensus);
  • The Zapatista revolution in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994, which was fundamentally opposed to hierarchical models both in the society they desired and in the groups they used to fight for it;
  • The massive, nationwide strikes and protests in France, May 1968, which caught all the hierarchical standard bearers of social change by surprise (the French Communist Party and the trade unions), and used the social media of the time (broadsheet newspapers and short-range radio) to coordinate the actions of tens of thousands at a time;
  • The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, which, unlike King's SCLC, made decisions democratically among its members, using consensus process;
  • The early labor movement, which won great victories without any large institutional foundations or centralized leadership; and
  • The Underground Railroad, perhaps the best and most iconic counter-argument to Gladwell's insistence on the easy infiltration and defeat of decentralized networks.

Not only are there examples of democratic, decentralized social movements that succeeded, there are many counter-examples to Gladwell's paean to hierarchy. Just sticking to the Civil Rights movement: the Black Panther Party, which grew out of SNCC, was easily infiltrated and undermined in large part because of its rigid internal hierarchy and the secrecy among group elites that came with it. Gladwell's insistence that top-down is the only way to go has implications that reach far beyond the immediate subject of his essay. If the only functional organizations we encounter and participate in are hierarchical, then it's no surprise that we think such a model is a prerequisite for getting anything done. However history has also shown that anti-democratic means rarely result in democratic ends. How we organize is just as important as what we're organizing for, and thankfully we have plenty of more liberatory and empowering options than taking orders from the top.

I think Gladwell gets it right when he says that the revolution will not be tweeted. He is spot on when pointing out the media fabrication of the recent "Twitter revolts" in Iran and Moldova. Twitter and Facebook are tools that activists can use to supplement the tried-and-true tactics and strategies that have won victories for social movements in the past. They are a phenomenal way to access and augment the myriad weak ties that connect each of us to so many others. Any successful social movement will use these tools.

The revolution may not be tweeted, but I'm sure we'll get at least a few clever hashtags for it.

x-posted all over.

Toward a Student Unionism: New Pamphlet and Interview with Jasper Conner

Jasper Conner is an organizer with the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and a former SDS organizer at George Mason University and in DC. Jasper has just released a new pamphlet on student unionism. From the pamphlet:

If we are to address our common crisis as students, as current and future workers, as people living on this planet, we need to focus on building our power. Students are fighting amazing campaigns, but if we want to hold onto these changes, we have to organize beyond individual policy changes at our respective schools. We must organize for institutional power over our universities and create a way of holding onto that power.

Higher Ed Workshops at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum

Student Power: Organizing and Envisioning Democracy in Higher Ed

The 2010 U.S. Social Forum is almost upon us! The USSF is the next most important step in our
 struggle to build a powerful multi-racial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational,
 diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and
 changes history.

When I first started compiling this list, I originally wanted it to be all student- & youth-related workshops at USSF. Then I looked at the list. There are literally hundreds of workshops that fall under that category: a hassle for me, but a wonderful sign for the left. In the interest of brevity and precision, I've listed here all the workshops that are focused at least partially on higher education issues and organizing.

As you can see, there are workshops looking at higher ed and students from just about every imaginable angle (and sadly you can also see how much scheduling overlap there is).

All the workshops are listed in chronological order, from Wednesday to Friday - the sole exception being the first entry, the Friday workshop I'm co-facilitating (blogmaster's prerogative!). Let me know if I've missed one, thanks!

See you all at USSF!

A Few Thoughts on Student Government Stipends

Most student governments with large enough budgets pay their members - usually executive positions, but sometimes members of the student legislature are compensated too. Their stated purpose is foremost explained as a way to make sure working class students aren't shut out of student government roles. Stipend use is an easy fix, and as with most easy fixes, it's also a shoddy one.

They are usually too small to be effective, and still wind up as play money for elites

Many of the stipends I've seen are entirely too small to replace even one of the several jobs that most working class students have in order to afford school. And even when they are large enough, stipends are never pegged to the office holder's income and wealth - a task that'd just take a stroll to the Financial Aid office to determine. So therefore the upper class kids who have the time and resources to actually campaign for office get this money as just another perk of the office (and for the Future Bureaucrats of America™, that's a lesson they learn quickly). It also means incumbents have yet another material advantage over challengers. If there is a student government that does have a sliding scale stipend, please let me know. I'd love to learn more about it.

Quebec Student Unions: History, Structure, and Strategy

Simon Gosselin, François Carbonneau, Richard Huot & Caroline Bourbonnais came to the Students for a Democratic Society 2009 Northeast Convention to speak about radical student unionism in Québéc.

They make important distinctions between the situations in Québéc and the U.S. - but just as important are the commonalities we all face as students in universities, and it's those commonalities that demand we learn what we can from their past and current struggles (especially because they have a much better knack at winning). Below is the first of 8 segments: you can view them all in a row here on YouTube.

March 4: Quick Update from Berkeley

5:20pm EST: I just got off the phone with a friend on the ground at a march at Berkeley; she's saying several thousand people are marching right now, down to Oakland. There have been lots of flying strikes - spontaneous mini-rallies in auditoriums, halls, and classrooms.

One of the best stories I've heard from the actions today happened during this march. As the students marched past a local middle school, at least a dozen kids ran out (some climbing over the fence) and joined the procession. They said that the protesters are "defending our future," and that risking a 3 day suspension was worth it, because if things keep up the way they are, they won't be able to afford college at all.

I'll post more as I learn more, particularly about the middle school students. I wish I could say I had the cojones to skip out of school and join a march when I was their age.

Photos from UMass Boston Rally & March

Dozens of students, faculty and allies held a rally and march today from Noon to 2:00 at UMass Boston. There was a brief session of speakers on the megaphone, a few rounds of circular picketing, and then the march began.

The chanting crowd snaked through several campus buildings, including the student center and two classroom buildings. While inside the classroom halls students chanted "out of the classrooms, into the halls!" and banged on classroom doors. At least a few students obliged and left their classes, joining the march.

A teach-in on the crisis is being held now, from 4:00 - 6:00.

Find out more about March 4 actions and events happening across the country here and here.

A few workers helped get the crowd energized:

Students protest at UMass Boston

Students protest at UMass Boston

Students protest at UMass Boston

Students protest at UMass Boston

UMass hearts California

Remembering '68: Students Re-enact Orangeburg Massacre

Orangeburg Massacre (February 1968) Re-enactment at South Carolina State University.Via the Times & Democrat:

The first live reenactment of the Orangeburg Massacre included a mix of humor, sorrow and passion, which students say helped tell the stories of three slain students whose one purpose was to promote justice and equality.

Produced by the Henderson-Davis Players, the original stage play “Taking a Stand” debuted Thursday night in the Martin Luther King Auditorium on the campus of South Carolina State University. Its purpose was to provide a reenactment of the events that led up to what has become known as the Orangeburg Massacre, which occurred on Feb. 8, 1968.

Two days earlier, several students were hospitalized during a protest rally against the segregated All Star Bowling Lanes - black students had tried to bowl there and were refused, then tensions rose and a fight broke out between the students and the city police. The agitation continued into the week. On the 8th, the students constructed a bonfire. When police and firemen were called to disperse the crowd and douse the fire, a police officer was hit by a piece of a banister as students retreated. Minutes later scores of cops lined up on the edge of campus, armed with pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Claiming later that they heard gunfire, police shot into the crowd, killing students Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton. The play's site tells us:

As students began returning to the front to watch their bonfire go out, a patrolman suddenly squeezed several rounds from his carbine into the air—apparently intended as warning shots. As other officers began firing, students fled in panic or dived for cover, many getting shot in their backs and sides and even the soles of their feet.

The next day, the Governor blamed outside "Black Power agitators." To add insult to injury, the nine police officers who shot into the crowd were cleared of all charges - the only person to serve jailtime was SNCC activist Cleveland Sellers, who was convicted for inciting the riot itself. (Sellers was pardoned 25 years later; in 2008 he was tapped to be President of Voorhees College, an HBC.)

Just about every institution of higher ed in this country has a history of resistance. It's often not as graphic as the iconic '60s campus actions we think of (and it's often meticulously hidden by administrators) but I'd argue it's just as important for those organizing on the ground here and now. Keeping in touch with your own school's history can help to inspire and motivate students. Students at SCSU are using dramatic re-enactments to bring the conflicts of the '60s back to life for a new generation:

Timothy Hughes, a 20-year-old junior elementary education major at S.C. State, said the play’s producers and actors did a “great job” of getting students to understand what the Orangeburg Massacre was about as well as its importance and the seriousness of the event.

“As far as civil rights, I think it was really a great opportunity to expose a lot of young minds to it. They probably don’t realize how important it is and what the people in the play fought for. But coming after them, I really am proud and respect the fact that Middleton, Hammond and Smith fought for a great cause. And I’m so proud of my peers and other students in the play. They did an excellent job,” Hughes said. “I’m real proud.”

Nicholas Darien, a 20-year-old junior business management major at the university, said the play drew heavily on his emotions and did a good job informing the public about what happened during the Orangeburg Massacre.

“A lot of people still don’t know what happened. The play was very emotional. I really felt the play. It was really exciting for me, and it was a great experience for me to come and see it. As the title says, take a stand and be a believer. Just stand strong and you’ll overcome.”

So ask your professors. Dig up old student newspapers and yearbooks. Especially in the wake of the passing of radical historian Howard Zinn, let's take the time to find the voices of resistance and hope who spoke before us - and listen to what they say.

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