When Bureaucracy Tried To Kill Campus Organizing
By Bryn Buchanan
Sometimes I wonder what administrators of American institutions of higher learning felt like in the 60s and 70s — times of political and social upheaval — in those clarion moments when the people called for action, walls were torn down, sit ins organized, hunger strikes mounted.
I imagine if they are anything like the administrators of today they feel…inconvenienced. And when administrators feel inconvenienced their first response is to craft policy; and that means lots and lots of paper.
Take for example, the latest actions of the UC Davis administration and their hopes for a world in which order, rather than justice, is the ultimate value of our campus. In a recent article by the Davis Vanguard outlining the results of administration’s “Freedom of Expression Working Group” we see exactly how far campus administrators will go to bureaucratize violence — relying on juridical and business logics to rationalize the silencing of massive swaths of the campus community. Ralph Hexter, our interim Chancellor, has responded to campus “unrest” (organized direct action by concerned students and community members) by calling for order and demanding stricter implementation of policy instead of seeking justice and a reorientation of the university. His goal is to rationalize injustice. Something may be in writing, law, or policy but that doesn’t make it just.
As students of this illustrious organization let’s put our reading skills to the test, shall we?
First things first is to evaluate the mission of the working group. This group has a lofty title with an even loftier goal “ensur[ing] freedom of expression, personal safety, and security of campus facilities while promoting an environment where all members of the community feel safe, valued, respected and heard.” A bit of deconstruction quickly demonstrates the conflicting ideologies at work.
One of the most striking aspects of this charter is the relationship between property and freedom. The fact that property and people are put on the same level belies the interests of administrators in defending capital and property before personal, community, or civil liberties. If the protest of Milo Yiannopoulos’ event sparked the interest in “ensuring” these freedoms, perhaps we should harken back to that moment for a historical lesson on rights and property. That night a number of protesters were beaten, accosted, and harassed within range of police and the only thing they did was protect an empty building. Administration let students be attacked so they could defend property.
While property seems to be the main concern of administrators, they claim that the first and foremost priority of the university is to make us feel safe. That we as students are concerned solely with “feeling” safe and valued. While administrators across higher education have been concerned with how students feel, we’ve been concerned with eating, our physical safety crossing campus, and housing. “Good feelings” as a lens of analysis ignores the material bases of student struggles. It also flattens the power relations which exist between students; because in the realm of feelings, everything is valid. But let’s add a layer of nuance.
As a Black, trans person I can tell you, I do not care about the feelings of white supremacists who deny my personhood.
Their feelings around, say, Black people, are not acceptable. A core difference between our feelings is that Black feelings make white supremacists angry and the feelings of white supremacists actively get Black people extrajudicially executed, whether by cops or civilian vigilante justice. By utilizing the language of feelings, administrators perpetuate systemic inequality by ignoring historical and current violence.
Another premise of the Freedom of Expression’s charter is “ensuring freedom of expression.” In this administrative formulation freedom of expression is already assured by the workings of the university. Rather than seeing this current moment as the crisis of a university system founded on slave money, white supremacy, and patriarchy — that this moment is responding to a crisis already present in the university — we are expected to see this institution as reasserting a just norm, readjusting the system so that it continues to work. But work for whom? The charter demands that participants in this working group frame their suggestions within an institutionally sanctioned frame. Surely this is a case of “physician heal thyself.” It doesn’t make sense to demand the sick institution to heal itself.
The healing process is also not just talking about the problem — we have to be committed to doing the hard and painful work of recasting the university and campus community. By focusing on dialogue, the working group limits the possibilities for radical and holistic change. Forming a working group is not the way to mobilize or speak to those who find themselves dispossessed by the various administrative apparatuses of higher education. What this working group deems “logical” is determined by political commitments and material interests — myself and others who participate in these so-called disruptive protests are asking for an evaluation of the university’s investment in our exploitation and social and material harm (and even death). When we cannot be heard in any other way we turn to disruption of the normal, everyday processes which operate on our backs.
Beyond the call of this group lies a deeper ideological contradiction. Hexter and his working group rest their claims on twin, opposing frames. On the one hand all disagreement can be handled through discussion. Ideas, they say, are the purview of the university and so must be the central platform on which which freedom is constructed. We can see this in their findings, where they suggest that dialogue is the answer to systematic and historical forms of oppression. And yet to ensure the power of their claims and their ability to set the terms of discussion, they rely on coercion to accomplish their “peaceful” discussion.
Administrators don’t just ensure compliance through peaceful discussion or “campus education.” They do so through the threat of violence and the use of militarized police forces. In their findings they explicitly state, “The Working Group acknowledges that some of the protesters at campus events are not students and are not subject to student discipline. However, criminal activity by students and community members can be the subject of police action.” In other words, what they can’t enforce through direct disciplinary action they will enforce using an institution founded in slave patrols and strike breakers.
Administrators at UC Davis want so desperately to serve a single student body — a “One UC Davis.” This imaginary body is policed, pruned, trimmed and sorted already — Blackness, Brownness, Indigeneity all pandered to without a call to greater justice for our various communities. No discussion happens in a vacuum. The conversation is never just about words. It’s blood, dark alleys, chains, and prison.
Students seem to understand what’s at stake; we want to know if their administrators know — if they “feel” it the way we do. That their paperwork and forums are lives and families. That, as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have sided with the oppressor.”
You have provided a blueprint to silence the oppressed. By attempting to erect a de jure standard of supposed neutrality you are eliding power, bolstering the inequalities that already exist in our community. You have continued the law’s long, illustrious history of facilitating white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonialism. And you’ve armed us with the tools to see right through you.
Bryn Buchanan is a PhD student in the Sociology Department and an organizer of SWERV (Students and Workers Ending Racial Violence).