At my last count yesterday, I had word of 76 actions in 25 states for the Day of Action to Defend Public Education. That number was incomplete — I’ve already learned about a major action in New Orleans that flew under my radar, and I’m sure there were plenty of other smaller ones too.
But if we figure that 76/25 is in the ballpark, and that what we’ve heard about the nature of yesterday’s actions is representative, we can draw some conclusions about the day. Here are my initial thoughts…
October 7 was smaller than March 4, but that was to be expected. Student protest follows an annual rhythm, and barring a huge spark it grows slowly over the course of the year. (This chart, from a workshop at a USSA Congress a while back, tells the story.)
Yesterday’s events also tended to be less confrontational than March 4’s. No campuses were shut down, no freeways were taken over. The two known sit-ins (at Berkeley and UC Davis) ended early and of their own accord.
California remained a center of protest, as in March, but the national character of the event seemed, if anything, more on display. There were about half as many actions yesterday as there were on March 4, but their geographical spread was almost as broad. A number of campuses that did not participate in March’s day of action did participate yesterday, while others — far from California and not known for a history of activism — participated in both.
There was an emphasis in some actions on electoral organizing that wasn’t seen in March. Some events featured voter registration projects, others concentrated on educating students about the upcoming elections or demonstrating student political effectiveness to politicians. Obviously this reflects the difference between an event held in March and one held 26 days before a national election, but it also I think reflects a rejection by student electoral activists of the idea that youth are going to sit this election out.
It’s clear, though, that this was, like March 4, an extremely diverse event. Participants’ political views ranged from reformism to revolutionary ideology, and their tactics varied even more. The financial crisis in American higher education remains a central concern, but students also stood up for due process on campus, against bias attacks, and for a long list of other causes.
The question “what did the protests achieve?” was asked regularly after March 4, and it will no doubt be asked again in the weeks to come. But the longer this new wave of student organizing and protest builds, the less useful it becomes to ask that question of any one action. American students are in the midst of a new project of movement-building right now, and the results of that project are unlikely to be clear for some time.
The middle years of the sixties, 1965 and 1966, were a moment when student campaigns — for peace, for student power, for racial and ethnic inclusion — that had long been the causes of small campus minorities began to catch the imagination of significant numbers of previously uninvolved students. The campus movements of the late sixties didn’t often produce dramatic results in their first few years, but they did continue to build and grow, and ultimately they proved transformative.
Are we in a similar historical moment today? I don’t know. Historical analogies are always clumsy, and anyone who claims to be able to predict the future is a liar. But what October 7 suggests to me, more than anything else, is that March 4 wasn’t a fluke.
American students are up to something new. And what they’re up to deserves attention.