As with the inaugural event of the California occupation movement two years ago – when students barricaded themselves inside the Graduate Student Commons at UC Santa Cruz – the occupation of Tolman Hall was both an act of material expropriation (or attempted expropriation) and an act of communication, meant to signal, to warn, to threaten and raise the alarm. . . It was both a declaration of resumed hostilities against the university and a form of communication with comrades here and elsewhere, both inside and outside the university. It was a warning directed at the small clique of arrogant, befuddled bureaucrats who run the university, as well as their armed thugs. But also a message sent to our comrades. For our comrades, the occupation was meant to communicate first and foremost a kind of excitement: Let’s do this! Let’s occupy everything! But behind the initial thrill it should communicate, also, a few critical lessons:
1)The first lesson is as clear as a geometric proof: Violence works. As with the threat of a two thousand person riot which freed the Wheeler occupiers on Nov. 20, defensive violence works particularly well. Faced with a group of largely passive occupiers, a group which seemed in no way prepared to resist a dispersal order, the police decided to enjoy their own capacity for arbitrary displays of power and bar the doors without giving any verbal warning. The occupiers, correctly, rushed the doors and tried to get out, pushing the cops out of the way and dearresting those whom the police grabbed. With over half of the crowd outside, the police finally secured the doors, throwing one of the last people to try and flee to the floor, bloodying his face and nearly dislocating his shoulder. They had started a riot. Outside, fewer than five officers faced off against a crowd of 30 or more in total darkness. Someone threw a metal chair at the cops. Others threw chunks of concrete and traffic cones. They chanted “Pigs just fucking try it. There’s gonna be a fucking riot.” The cops were forced back into the building, at which point it seemed like only a matter of time before the crowd tore down some fencing and smashed open the doors (someone had already smashed one door). Realizing the volatility of the situation, the cops released the detainees on the inside. QED: violence works. Violence, in this case, is one of the most intense forms of solidarity. Only because of the mystification that surrounds the police, can this appear as anything other than an act of mutual aid. When a group of thugs kidnaps your friends and starts beating them, you fight back. This is common sense.
2)Second lesson: the police are the enemy. They cannot be convinced, cajoled, manipulated. They have been given orders to treat every demonstration as a criminal matter, an act of burglary and vandalism. The administration has indicated in explicit terms that only the police will deal with such situations. There will be no discussion, no phone calls or visits from the Deans. It does not matter if we have the support of the inhabitants of the building. Police are the proxy owners of the campus; they will go in and militarize occupations immediately. Unlike other places where the police might wait outside for hours or days or weeks until given orders to attack an occupation, police at Berkeley act on their own initiative, autonomously, attempting to take control of a space even before they contact their superiors. The image of officers rushing into the crowd as if they were running backs pushing through defensive line would be absurd elsewhere, but here it is par for the course. This makes the “open occupation” – the occupation which attempts to claim space but allow for easy circulation in and out, creating a functioning autonomous space in which all kinds of activities take place – rather difficult. It is pretty obvious at this point: we cannot be free with cops in the room. There is no struggle against fees and debt, no struggle against austerity that is not, at the same time, a struggle against the cops. We will have to find ways to physically prevent the entry of police into our occupations, unless they are politically prevented from doing so. This is our message to the administration: restrain your attack dogs or expect more riots.
3)A final lesson. This occupation failed for many reasons – an inability to keep police out of the building, a lack of “planning for success” (ie, having clear ideas about what we wanted to do once we were inside). All of this meant, ultimately, that there were too few people to survive the first night without courting arrest. Still, as brief and disorganized as it was, the number of people entirely new to protest and occupation was incredibly encouraging. These new folks, of course, displayed a naivete that is no doubt frustrating – wondering, for instance, why the presence of cops in the building was even an issue (they learned the answer quite quickly). But instead of engaging them, and attempting to explain what was happening, instead of attempting to help them understand the practice they were engaged in, many comrades simply left them alone, preferring to congregrate with the likeminded. This is a real weakness, one we note in ourselves. It evidences a lack of patience, and a desire to avoid uncomfortable experiences that strikes us as rather prevalent in the Bay Area milieu (and prevalent, we note, in our own behavior). Our contempt for those who stand in our way, and who do so repeatedly, is good and important. But it seems we resort to contempt even when confronted with people who oppose us not out of some deep-seated ideological conviction but out of sheer lack of experience. Let’s be clear: insurrection will not occur solely as the result of intentional action by a group of already committed radicals, a group of people who already display the “correct” thoughts and actions. It will occur as the result of transformative experiences – experiences that always involve new forms of knowledge and politicial discourse – and which drive people to do things they never imagined doing before. In short, we need to get better at talking. We’re pretty good at fighting. We’re pretty good at writing. We’re pretty good at taking care of each other. But we’re not so good at speaking publicly, it seems, under pressure, at the right moment. As a friend noted to us afterwards, perhaps this is because we hate leaders and fear becoming them, fear the banal acts of persuasion and oratory upon which the left thrives, and despise those who try to dominate others through such proselytizing. But saying what you think is not necessarily domination. Sometimes it’s an act of friendship.