In Defense of Student Activists

Bill Leumer

In December 2009, eleven student activists at San Francisco State University (SFSU) occupied the business building on campus, preventing classes from being held for one day. Such occupations have occurred on other campuses, including U.C. Berkeley and U.C. Santa Cruz, as a result of students protesting cuts to public education throughout the state of California and rising tuition fees on the university level. While The New York Times typically ignores peaceful antiwar demonstrations comprised of over 100,000 participants, it nevertheless covered this occupation by a small handful of students, which can only serve to encourage these kinds of tactics as opposed to peaceful mass demonstrations.

While sit-ins, occupations, and other similar actions are important tactics, as a general rule they should only be adopted when the majority of the people in a particular movement are prepared to engage in them. One should aim at uniting as many members of the working class as possible who want to stand up and fight to defend what they already have or to demand more. In this way the struggle is conducted on a class basis. Moreover, all those who participate have the potential to learn from the experience so that their consciousness is raised. And by maximizing the number of people who participate, the chances of winning rise correspondingly.

However, the fight to defend public education in California is only at the beginning stage, and most participants are only prepared to join demonstrations that are entirely legal. Consequently, instead of uniting those who want to defend public education, the tactic of occupations or blockage of freeways has divided the movement and thereby to some degree weakened it. Occupations of campus buildings alienate university faculty and staff because they risk losing their jobs by participating. And because these occupations prevent classes from being held, students and faculty who support the movement to defend education were nevertheless angry and alienated because they lost valuable class time without having been given the opportunity to participate in the decision to stage the occupation.

At SFSU, the decision to occupy the Business Building was conducted by a small minority of the activists involved in the movement in defense of education because they were convinced that if the decision became public, the campus administration could take steps to protect the building and foil the occupation. Other student activists complained that the decision was made behind their backs, and so ill feelings were immediately engendered.

Yet with all these criticisms of the tactic, when the administration proceeded to impose punishment on the students, we find ourselves steadfastly in support of the students. The administration stumbled every step of the way.

It began by demanding the eleven students each meet with administration representatives. The students were told by the representatives to sign an agreement indicating they would pay for any property damages they caused. These damages were described as “scuffs” on the floor and “chipped paint,” totaling somewhere in the range of $50, but the administrator added that he did not have the exact amount at that time. The students were also told that if they did not sign the statement where they admitted guilt, agreed to pay restitution, and forego their right to a hearing, they would then be liable to much more serious punishment, including suspension from school. In other words, there was intense pressure to sign.

Accordingly, all but one student signed the agreement. However, when the students received the bill, instead of the total falling into the $50 range, it amounted to exactly $744.25 each. The students were now being told — in contradiction to the oral agreement — they would have to pay for expenses involved in bringing police from other campuses to SFSU. Amazingly, the San Francisco Chronicle (April 24, 2010) later reported that the administrator “now remembered that he had discussed such a deal [of only paying $50] with them [the students] after all.”

Even worse, the one student who did demand a hearing was not only required to pay the same fine, but was suspended from the university for a year, even though he did nothing different than the other students. In other words, he was punished for exercising his democratic right to a hearing.

Of course, when administrations act in bad faith, make an oral agreement with students and then break it, and also impose disparate punishment on students who commit exactly the same acts, then administrations are either wittingly or unwittingly encouraging even more disruptive tactics by students who are outraged by the injustice. Moreover, by suspending a student for a year, the administration ironically undermines the goal that it supposedly is dedicated to upholding: the moral value of an education. It appears instead to be promoting the value of ignorance.

While the occupation of a campus building at SFSU might not have been the best of tactics, nevertheless the students were motivated by the highest ideals. They wanted to defend public education. In contrast, the administration, which exhibits a top-down structure — since campus presidents have almost absolute power — seemed to display the worst of motives. Little regard was given to the fact that the administration broke its own oral agreement regarding the amount students would be fined, as if the administration was not bound by basic rules of fairness. And when one student had the courage to exercise his right to a hearing, he was brutally punished for doing so.

In relation to the administration, we give our full support to the students.

About the Author:

Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). He is a frequent contributor to Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.

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About the Author: Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.), former member of IBT Local 216 and was a pro-Carey TDU member. He is a writer for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.