Fifty years today, students at UC Berkeley blockaded a police car on campus to prevent the unjust arrest of a recent graduate, Jack Weinberg, who had been leafleting on campus. Here’s how I described the events in my dissertation:

            On September 14, 1964 the dean of students of the University of California at Berkeley, feeling political pressure from local conservatives, announced new restrictions on student activity on university property. Tabling by student groups would now be strictly regulated, and leafleting, speech-making, and the sale of publications relating to off-campus organizations would be banned. A broad-based student coalition called the United Front (UF) quickly rose up against the ban. They held their first protest on September 21, and the next day the campus student government, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) voted 11-5 to ask the Regents of the university to overturn the policy.

            When the administration refused to lift the ban, members of the UF began tabling in defiance of the policy. Their protest rapidly gained momentum — when five students (representing SNCC, the Young Socialist Alliance, and the campus political party SLATE) were cited for violating the tabling policy, hundreds joined them in a march to the dean’s office. Three students who helped to organize the protest were added to the original list of five violators, and before the day’s end it was announced that the eight had been suspended from the university. The march had by then turned into a sit-in, and the UF had been given a new name — the Free Speech Movement (FSM).

            More tables were set up in the heart of the campus the next day, and the administration escalated their response. They approached one of the tablers, a recent Berkeley graduate, and when he refused to identify himself they informed him that he was under arrest. As the campus police dragged him to their car, the students in the plaza — thousands strong by now — sat down. They blocked the car for more than 30 hours, until Mario Savio, a protest leader and one of the eight suspended students, announced that a team of negotiators had won a number of concessions from the university. Berkeley president Clark Kerr had agreed to submit the suspensions to a faculty committee for review, and to convene a separate committee of faculty, students, and administrators to assess the regulations that had sparked the protests. Furthermore, the university would not press charges against the man who had been arrested.

Yesterday Lydia Brown, a student disability activist at Georgetown was supposed to help lead a training on accessibility and student programming. The event was hosted by the campus Center for Student Engagement, and Brown showed up as promised. There was soda, there was pizza, and there was nobody there.

Brown blogged about the incident last night, writing that

Nothing demonstrates more clearly the utter disregard that disabled people face every day at Georgetown than this. That of literally hundreds of student organizations with hundreds (possibly even creeping into the low thousands) of students involved on their boards or other leadership positions, not even one person deemed it worth their while to learn about access and inclusion.

I agree with all that, and I’d like to add one more thought: For student affairs staff to humiliate a student like this is indefensible.

Planning an event like this shouldn’t just be a matter of sending out an email blast or putting up a notice on Facebook. You need to reach out one-on-one to the people you want there. You need to get commitments. You need to make sure that there are people in the seats, and you need to know who those people are going to be.

And if you reach out and you get rebuffed? If it’s a couple of days before the event and you don’t know who’s going to be there? You tell your guest. You give them a heads-up and you tell them what you’re doing to drum up turnout. And if all else fails, you cancel.

For student affairs staff who are paid — paid! — to organize events like this to invite a campus activist for students with disabilities to address student organization leadership and then allow her to show up to an empty room without warning is an insult and a dereliction of the their responsibilities.

The folks responsible should be embarrassed, they should be apologetic, and they should be taking concrete steps to repair the damage that they’ve done.

One of my favorite political songs is an old hobo tune called The Big Rock Candy Mountain, about a place where there are “lemonade springs where the bluebird sings.”

That lyric doesn’t give the full flavor of the song, though — the Big Rock Candy Mountain is also a place with whiskey rivers, a place where the cops have wooden legs and “they hung the jerk who invented work.” It’s a song about a post-scarcity, post-state-violence utopia where everyone has what they need.

I was thinking about the Big Rock Candy Mountain this morning as while engaged in a friendly twitter debate about a new essay on the abolition of wage labor — an essay that I found pretty frustrating for a bunch of reasons. The idea of the abolition of labor is a fundamentally utopian idea, and the danger in advocating for a utopia in any concrete way is that you’ll make it seem farther away than did before you started talking.

The trick — and it’s a trick I think The Big Rock Candy Mountain pulls off beautifully — is to help people imagine a world they’ll never get to in the hope that they’ll start walking toward it, or at least start wondering which direction it might lie in.

•          •          •

I came up in student organizing through student government, and I think that’s part of the reason I’ve always loved the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

One of the things I find most exciting about student organizing, and student government-based organizing specifically, is that it comes about as close as we get to a post-scarcity organizing environment. When you’re in student government, you don’t have to fundraise. You don’t have to scrounge for cash. A pile of money just appears every year, and all you have to do is figure out what to use it for. (When I was an undergraduate two decades ago my girlfriend was the Financial Vice President of our student government. At twenty, she managed an annual budget of a million dollars, one that was democratically allocated and disbursed by and for the students of our campus.)

When you’re in student government, money is for using, not for getting. It’s a tool, not a goal. A means, not an end — unlike in almost all other institutional organizing.

If you maintain the support of the students and you can keep free of the clutches of the administration, the money is just there, yours to spend as you see fit.

And I think that’s a big part of what makes (some) campus organizing so experimental, so improvisational, so surprising. It’s a big part of why so much weird influential novel organizing work has traditionally come from campuses, a big part of why students matter so much in movements for social change.

But of course this kind of post-scarcity student organizing has been under attack for a long time. For starters, students as a group used to be post-scarcity, even post-work, in ways they aren’t anymore. They were mostly middle-class or above, younger than they are now, more white, more male. They had less to worry about.

And these more-privileged students were paying lower tuition and fees, less burdened by debt, and (for a while, at least) graduating into a much less fraught job market. (My dad got a tenure-track job without finishing his dissertation, and was tenured without ever publishing a single scholarly article. He only actually completed his PhD at the end of the tenure process, prodded by a friendly suggestion from his department chair.)

But just as poor students arrived on campus in large numbers, tuition started to rise. (The City University of New York imposed tuition broadly for the first time in 1976, half a decade after activists won an open-admissions enrollment policy.) Today’s students have to worry about money in ways that their predecessors seldom did, and not just money but employability — they have to graduate on time, have to keep their grades up, have to avoid disciplinary blots on their permanent record.

And at the same time as scarcity has begun to constrain student organizing, there’s been a direct and ongoing administrative crackdown. Arrests for activism are more common than they used to be, along with suspensions and other campus punishments. At the same time, student fee autonomy is being steadily eroded.

The more students have to fear for their wallets and their future, the harder it is for them to organize. The harder it is for them to organize, the weaker they become. That’s why building student government and student unionism is a radical act. That’s why building student autonomy is radical, and radicalizing. Keeping tuition down (and working toward, yes, the abolition of tuition and fees) is radical not just directly but because of how it reconfigures the campus.

This week’s sit-in at the Colgate University admissions building ended peacefully yesterday upon the release of a joint statement from the activists and the administration. In that statement, the administration pledged to take action on most of the 21 proposals for change that the Colgate University Association for Critical Collegians (ACC) had put forward.

The joint statement is lengthy and detailed, and I don’t have the familiarity with Colgate’s internal workings that I’d need to fully assess it. A few facts do, however, seem to leap out:

First, ACC is taking some tangible victories away from this action. The administration is promising new diversity trainings, a revamping of campus tours, cameras on campus buses, and a variety of other concrete actions. ACC even won a pilot implementation of the free transportation program I mentioned in my previous blogpost, which I’d assumed was a non-starter. Yes, there’s a lot of “we will review…” and “we will explore…” in there too, but Colgate is pledging to put real money behind real change as a result of the sit-in. That’s impressive.

Relatedly, more than half of the promises made by the administration carry a specific deadline for implementation that falls before the end of this calendar year. New work-study positions to improve access to services for underrepresented and first-generation students will be filled by the end of October. New scripts for campus tours highlighting POC, women’s, and queer spaces on campus will be in place by early November. Something like a dozen different promises will be fulfilled before the end of the fall semester. And if it doesn’t happen, the students will be able to hold the administration accountable.

ACC have really set themselves up well here. Because the sit-in came at the beginning of the academic year, and because they successfully demanded a specific, accelerated timetable for administration action, they’ll be able to tell really soon whether the administration is fulfilling their promises, and they’ll have the rest of the academic year to hold admins’ feet to the fire if they aren’t. As I tweeted last night, I’ll be shocked if there isn’t a big butcher-paper timeline up on the wall of some student activist office or apartment right now, listing all the deadlines enumerated in the agreement in chronological order with specific students delegated for monitoring each one.

I often tell student activists who ask me how to grow their campus organizations that you build a movement by winning. When you win something, anything, folks see the possibility of winning more, and they look at you (and at themselves) as people who can make those victories happen. ACC just got themselves a big win to start the school year, and every one of the deadlines that comes over the next nine months is either going to be another win or an opportunity for another passionate action. It’s going to be an exciting year at Colgate. (And I see from Facebook that folks who participated in the sit-in are already talking about what they’re going to work on next.)

One final comment about the way the sit-in went down. ACC occupied the Colgate admissions building around the clock for more than a hundred hours. Their list of demands was long and ambitious. The instigating events behind their protest were mocked by more than a few people as insubstantial. But at no point did the administration ever — to my knowledge — threaten or even consider criminal charges, police involvement, or disciplinary action. Instead, the sit-in was handled the way campus sit-ins were typically handled a generation ago — as a negotiation between members of the campus community.

In the last few years we’ve seen campus administrators use batons and pepper spray and mass arrest against peacefully protesting students. We’ve seen guns drawn and bones broken. We’ve seen students coerced into promises not to exercise their First Amendment rights for the remainder of their time on campus. Some of these tactics have been effective in smothering student protest, at least in the short term, at least on some campuses. But they’re reprehensible, and they’re poisonous. They’re a violation of the obligations of administrators toward their students, and they’re a violation of the fundamental principles on which a campus should be founded.

So kudos not only to the students of ACC, but also to the administration of Colgate University. Both groups did well this week. And both set a standard that’s worth emulating.

Update | The sit-in ended with a negotiated agreement on Friday after more than one hundred hours. Read my recap here.

•          •          •

I received word not long ago that as many as three hundred students are sitting in at the admissions office of Colgate University, a private college in central New York with an enrollment of about three thousand students. The sit in began on Monday morning, which means that it just passed the 48-hour mark with no end in sight. You can keep track of events as they develop on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr, and there’s a good write-up on Tumblr from some supporters at nearby Hamilton College.

The protest was sparked by concerns about campus climate and inclusivity at Colgate, particularly around issues of race and socio-economic status. Some Colgate students’ noxious attitudes are reflected in Yik Yak responses to their action that the activists are collecting and posting to Photobucket — the gallery includes plenty of overtly racist trolling, as well as more insidious comments like this one:

“If you want equality, then fine. Either I come here for free too of you all can pay $60,000 a year like I do. I’ll let you choose.”

Top Colgate administrators released a statement yesterday saying that they “are eager to work with all members of our community to fulfill our mission to be an inclusive institution, and to move the campus forward in a purposeful manner. We are working on a comprehensive response to the student petition,” the statement continued, “which we expect to share with them tomorrow.” (A previous statement from the administration can be found here.)

The students sitting in haven’t presented a list of demands, but neither are they engaged in the kind of open-ended campus occupation that has been seen so frequently in recent years. Instead, they’ve published a Petition of Concerns/Action Plan — a 1200-word, 23-point proposal for campus reform. The Colgate students’ Action Plan is wide-ranging. It calls for more student-centered, culturally conscious admissions and orientation policies; more robust financial aid; improved diversity training for new and existing faculty, as well as improved attention to “systemic power dynamics and inequities” in the curriculum; improved support for Colgate’s economically disadvantaged and educationally less-prepared students; and new efforts to attract and retain students from underrepresented groups. The whole thing is worth reading, but one proposal in particular leaped out at me:

“We ask…that, because Financial Aid cannot remedy systemic socio-economic disparities, including access to transportation services, Colgate reinstate a free and safe transport system to and from Syracuse for the entire population at Colgate. This would work to alleviate the experience of isolation on the basis of socio-economic status.”

Colgate is a college of three thousand students in a town of sixty-six hundred. Syracuse, the nearest big city, is forty miles away. The college offers a shuttle service to Syracuse, but prices start at $108 each way. And although I haven’t been able to find specific demographic information online, my strong hunch is that many of Colgate’s least well-off students come from cities, making their isolation in small-town America that much more acute.

A report from the sit-in’s Twitter account suggests that there’s likely to be a new statement from the Colgate administration at eleven o’clock this morning. I’ll be following this story as the day goes on.

Update | Post edited to incorporate additional information from Inside Higher Ed. Also, this week’s protest follows one thirteen years ago in which a group of students occupied the same building for seven hours in response to a series of racist incidents on campus. Several of the demands from that sit-in are repeated in the current occupation’s action plan.

12:15 Update | According to a source within the sit-in, daytime participation in the action has been hovering around four hundred students. Some two hundred stayed overnight last night, up from one hundred the night before. Given that total enrollment at Colgate is a little less than three thousand students, these are big numbers.

12:30 Update | The Colgate administration has apparently prepared a response to the sit-in proposals, and had intended to release it in a mass email to the campus. The demonstrators have convinced the admin to discuss that response with them before making it public.

2:00 Update | In a new statement, the Colgate administration says that “President Jeffrey Herbst — along with Suzy Nelson, dean of the college, and Douglas Hicks, provost and dean of the faculty — met for many hours over the past two days with ACC representatives to discuss their concerns. Herbst, Nelson, and Hicks also joined the sit-in for several hours to listen to the students’ stories of having endured incidents of racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism on campus.” The statement says that senior administrators have prepared “a written, point-by-point” response to the demonstrators’ proposals — apparently the response that the demonstrators have requested not yet be released publicly.

In concert with the release of the new statement, President Herbst and Dean Hicks addressed the demonstrators in person. Activists responded positively on Twitter to the latest developments, but the sit-in is still ongoing.

5:20 Update | According to the most recent report I’ve seen, posted to Facebook at about 4:30, the sit-in is still ongoing, amid discussions among the demonstrators about the administration’s point-by-point response to the ACC’s proposals.

6:00 Update | The occupation’s twitter account just declared that “the sit-in will continue until further notice.” In a series of tweets, they described the administration’s response to their proposals as “vague,” and said the occupiers were taking a dinner break after two hours of discussion regarding “plans to move forward.” More details should be forthcoming sometime tonight.

Thursday Morning Update | The occupiers have spent their third night sitting in, and don’t seem to be in any particular hurry to leave. I’ll be offline most of the day, but I’ll post updates on Twitter if I get the chance. Meanwhile, follow the #canyouhearusnow hashtag for all the latest.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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