For the third year in a row, U.S. student direct action continues to rise. The year’s best-known action was the amazing occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol. The most important all-but-uncovered action was the continuing fierce struggle at the University of Puerto Rico, held by riot police for more than six weeks. Two weeks ago, California State University activists coordinated protests across the CSU system, ending in simultaneous occupations at as many as 11 of the 23 campuses. Last week, in an apparently coordinated action, United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) affiliated students occupied presidents’ offices at Tulane and Emory, demanding ethical employment practices (targeting Sodexo and other subcontractors). Student-led occupations and sit-ins are spreading to high schools, Department of Education events, oil rigs, and consulates. It’s not, say, France or England, but it’s a start.
Administrations have taken note, particularly in the University of California (UC) system, which was the epicenter of last year’s wave of events. Administrators or public-records requests at Berkeley, Davis, Santa Cruz and Irvine have confirmed “monitoring” of student activists by campus police, freelance investigators, or staffers. In some cases, undercover police officers or staff in “casual attire” have mingled with students to gather information on movement leaders and plans.
One of the more distressing developments is the recruitment of other students into this “monitoring” effort. At UC Davis, according to documents obtained under public-records request by activists, staff reporting to Chancellor Linda Katehi recruited “student leaders” to participate in “Activism Response Teams” with police and administrators. In security speak, the role of the students recruited onto the “response teams” was to “accompany” protesters and “update staff” about the events.
Campus activists have responded by publishing names and photographs of the administrators, officers, freelancers, and students involved. They are in essence answering back the administration’s Big Brother with a “little brother” deployment of social media for countersurveillance, solidarity-building, and awareness.
To a modest degree this mirrors the plot of Little Brother (2008) an award-winning “young adult” novel published by BoingBoing columnist Cory Doctorow. Essentially accepting the premise that much of Orwell’s vision has come to pass, Doctorow explores American schools as a vector for authoritarianism and rebellion. Positing an intense government security crackdown in the Bay area, Doctorow describes the rise of a youth-hacker resistance movement, communicating through gaming consoles and bypassing government surveillance and infiltration of high-school social media.
In the novel, though, the student resistance becomes effective when it connects with Bay-area anarchist, punk, and feminist activists, establishing a coalition across a broad front of movements.
Ultimately, the real success of Little Brother isn’t in countersurveillance—it’s in movement building. Along with the ACLU, I’m sympathetic with the concern to discover, expose, and counter the administration’s surveillance. Nonetheless, I wonder if it isn’t consuming energies best devoted to building coalitions? The occupation movement hasn’t been too active at the UC campuses this year.
So far the kind of truly broad front necessary to victory has developed primarily in Wisconsin and Puerto Rico, mostly in connection with public employee trade unions and, to a lesser extent, in the K-12 movement against test-based school reform. For next year’s campus occupation movement to reach its potential, I suspect a) it’ll have to start at full speed in September and b) it will have to spend less energy on the Little Brother of “stop snitching” and more on the Little Brother of solidarity.