Occupy Everything: A Roundtable on US Student Occupations

Kelly Fritsch

A wave of occupations has swept the coasts of the United States. In December 2008, students at the New School for Social Research in New York City occupied their main building for three days while hundreds of supporters cheered outside. After winning some demands, they left and vowed to be back. On February 19, 2009, students and friends at New York University occupied their student centre, in solidarity with the people of Gaza, to protest high tuition, and to demand the disclosure of all of NYU’s investments. After three days, the students were detained by security and forced to leave. On April 10, 2009, students and allies occupied the New School again, claiming the building at 65 Fifth Avenue as a free social space and demanding the resignation of the university president. This occupation lasted only seven hours before hundreds of police, called in from all over the city, arrived and arrested 19 people inside and three outside the building.

On September 24, 2009, students at the public University of California schools walked out across the state in protest of the UC schools’ Regents, who were that day debating an historic 32 percent tuition hike to solve their budget crisis. At UC Santa Cruz, students successfully occupied the Graduate Centre for a week. The lesson was learned: occupation is on the table. On November 18 and 20, when the Regents met, schools up and down the coast were occupied, locking down hallways from UCLA to Berkeley, Santa Cruz to Davis, SFSU to Fullerton. On the March 4, 2010 national day of action, more students occupied, resisted, blockaded, rioted, and disrupted the normal functioning of their universities and cities. This roundtable brings together three groups who have been active in the occupations in New York and California to consider the role of these occupations, and their implications for radicals outside the university.

Anti-Capital Projects (California) – One of the groups involved in some of the occupations at UC Berkeley and elsewhere in the Bay Area.

Architects of the Negation (Santa Cruz, California) – A group interested in putting occupation as a tactic on the table and seeing where it can go.

Dead Labour (NYC) – After barricading doors and fighting leftists at the first New School occupation, facilitating a Hegel reading group in the middle of the NYU occupation, mooning the crowd in the second New School occupation, and after studying Das Kapital and reading some Endnotes, this group came together to answer other people’s questions.

Why occupy the university?

Anti-Capital Projects (ACP): As a state-funded institution, the university is an obvious site to mount our retaliation against the past 40 years of neoliberal counter-revolution. Other major institutions don’t have the clear advantages the university does: young people confined in a physical space tagged with largely unfounded abstractions like “experimentation,” “exploration,” and “learning.” The university is a meaningful place to begin because its population is made up of energetic youth who interface with one another regularly. And who wouldn’t gravitate toward occupation after years of petitions, button wearing, and voting campaigns aimed at holding on to legislative gains won during the 1930s and 1960s? What student wouldn’t want to apply experimentation, exploration and learning in reality?

The university produces future labour. As such, it is one of the places in which the future, or its absence, can be contested. By creating disruptions here, we render visible and materially oppose the future that awaits most students – the debt, the shitty jobs, the empty obedience. We would never suggest that this is the only place where one should fight, or even that it’s a better place than others. At the same time, we see nothing else to do but fight as hard as we can where we are.

Architects of the Negation (AN): The university is a place through which many bodies pass waiting to be fully deployed into particular sectors of production. It is the transition space from either “youth” to “adult” or from one job to another. While an occupation within the university may be ephemeral, the traces left from an occupation are embedded in the bodies that travelled the terrain of such an autonomous space and can be deployed within the greater social field once these bodies exit the university. Since the university is this juncture of transition, it is fertile ground for disseminating the tactic of occupation and generating the kind of social fabric that can counter the fabric of capital.

Dead Labour (DL): Occupation is not merely a means to an end, it is also an expansion of power over the territories in which we circulate. Occupying the spaces in which we work, live, study, consume, and reproduce the social relations of our world is the most obvious of actions. In repossessing the spaces that possess us, we liberate their use. Occupying an institution stops it from functioning normally. During the occupation, the question becomes: what is happening to the university?

In New York, universities were occupied in response to issues particular to each institution: budget cuts, the elimination of student space, and the predictable behavior of the President and Board of Trustees. While the impetus for each action was particular, as the crisis of capital deepened, our actions gained a wider resonance.

The university is a site where the reproduction of knowledge meets the reproduction of capital. On the one hand, the most minor event becomes universally significant in its theatrical novelty and theoretical strength; on the other hand, the most significant of actions seems unable to escape the university form, trapped in the very structure it seeks to shatter, incapable of situating itself beyond itself. In other words, people all over the world understood and contemplated the occupation of a university on Fifth Avenue, but this did not necessarily help the later occupations expand beyond the walls of academia.

This contradiction will only be resolved when the struggle in the universities is no longer limited to the universities, when the buildings and knowledges that compose universities are used in struggles that have nothing to do with education. If the social relations that confine us to the set of behaviors that make up the university aren’t completely destroyed, if the space is not opened completely, and if the act of disrupting existing social relations is not expanded, then our struggle will not be successful.

What is the significance of these occupations?

AN: At UCSC, the occupations have provided the foundation for building a community against capital. More generally, UC-wide occupations have given Governor Schwarzenegger reason to consider a realignment of priorities, with important consequences: a shift of funding has been considered from prisons to public education. Occupations have also been recomposing the discourse on violent versus non-violent direct action, and resituating the terms of the debate in terms of private property on a wider scale than before.

These occupations have confused university administrators. They have been unsure of how to respond to these situations, and on several occasions have even preemptively shut down several administrative buildings for fear of another occupation. This shows the political presence established by the occupations.

DL: The significance of these occupations lies in the limits of struggle they reveal: the division between those who want to manage struggles for their own activist capital and those who want to release them in every unpredictable way. They reveal the ability to use and abuse spaces and the extent to which we are used and abused by them.

How does the movement transcend the dilemmas and failures of earlier student movements? How does it not?

ACP: The will to act as a single bloc – in the manner of, say, SDS in the 1960s – and according to procedural logics of assembly and voting appears increasingly hollow to many people, even though many vanguard groups try to push this political form. There is no real possibility for this kind of unity of action anymore: the commonalities that seem real to people are subterranean ones, based upon resonances and friendships, common tactics, and common targets. Of course, the collapse of faith in formal organizations has both advantages and drawbacks – it makes coordination harder and it’s not as easy for people to plug into these kinds of actions. But we’re better off as an informal, anonymous group of actors. We can’t be as easily targeted, infiltrated, or neutralized.

The current occupation movement remains isolated from the moment of value production and employment proper, from the formal working class under the chains of trade-unionism and the restructuring of the capital-labour relationship over the last 40 years. There are attempts now – by more moderate groups within the student movement, in coordination with teachers unions and public sector workers – to coordinate a general day of student-worker strikes and school walkouts across a broad swath of the public sector (March 4 was the first attempt but there were far fewer strikes outside of those by students than many of the organizers hoped for). A general strike seems like a worthy goal to many activists in the US only because they are so infrequent here. We are a long way from Rosa Luxemburg’s mass strike, and most activists here seem unaware that the one-day general strike, common in other countries, is often not very effective at winning anything, let alone questioning the nature of the mode of production. To do that, we’d need an indefinite, unbounded general strike organized outside of the unions, and in open opposition to them. If such a thing plays a part in social upheaval in the US, it will probably come in response to riots and conflicts caused by the unemployed, by students, by immigrants cast out of the workplace. The restructuring of work and the workplace over the past 40 years has been too effective at fragmenting, neutralizing, and subsuming labour actions – and too few workers in the US are organized, in any case. As a result, we are forced to attack first in the spheres of circulation and reproduction. This is where the initial victories will come. The university is just one of those fronts.

AN: We think it’s a bit too early to say how this student movement might transcend previous failures, considering that the future of the movement is ahead of us. While the widespread use of occupation as tactic is the biggest difference with previous struggles, at least within the US, the student movement is still rife with decaying forms of activism pushing their own agendas and framing the movement narrowly as a “student” movement. The biggest problem at this point is to engender effective modes of collective decision-making.

The contemporary student movement is unique in that it is responding to a particular crisis of capital that affects the student populace directly. This provides a chance for students to fight for themselves instead of for others.

DL: Social movements are like economic bubbles: they rise and
  fall, predictably to some, unpredictably to others. Movements today resemble too much the rhythm of the market, the physiognomy of the state, the language of the church, and the tactics of a cult.

We hope, with our small gesture, to have contributed to subverting the standard activist model of outreach to the “masses,” building a “movement,” and finishing with some symbolic actions that are “heard” by power. We did the complete opposite by starting with a strong, concrete social action with groups of friends who are fighting for nobody but themselves. This action itself is a form of communication to others, a form that needs no propaganda. No prior waiting, no slow building, no abstract audience – we build, and speak through the activities themselves, which need no social movement to make them intelligible.

Do those outside the university sector hear it? Those inside the university will be outside soon enough, and those outside return inside during times of crisis. The point is not merely to have communication between inside and outside, but to repeatedly confuse this boundary. When a thousand students, non-students, workers, and non-workers from all over New York City stood   outside the NYU occupation and fought the police as a small number of people inside held down the floor, the inside/outside barrier began to crack. Those outside the university do hear the action and come with their force, yet the action itself has not expanded across the social terrain. But does that mean it won’t?

Our victory can only be assured when the university no longer holds a monopoly on knowledge and no longer reproduces the capital-labour relation. What could possibly make that happen? The suspension of wage-labour in general, an event that opens up the material possibility of reconstituting our lives without the mediation of exchange-value. We will fail, but in doing so we point to the limits that revolutionary struggle must overcome. These limits cannot be seen in theory until they are breached in practice.

How does the movement break out of the confines of the campus and connect with other struggles?

ACP: First, by realizing that the participants are already outside of the confines of the campus. We are workers and renters and people with credit cards and massive debt and people shaped by the dead rationality of the present. The moment of break out – if it comes – will probably occur through an inter-campus generalization of the struggle in which people realize these other moments of common antagonism and stop being “students” in order that they can stop being “workers” or “renters” or “debtors.” Then will begin the rent strikes, the debt strikes, the barricades and auto-reductions. Or not. There is a question of timing here. One wants to let the student movement reach its limits, run its course, and produce as much antagonism as possible before shifting to other sectors, in order to increase the force brought to bear by this transfer of power.

Housing is one place where this common struggle emerges, since everyone involved in the student movement is forced to pay rent. We can also focus on the banks that profit from both student loans and other kinds of debt. These discussions about how to break out of the confines of the university are currently underway, but objective conditions will probably play as much a part as any decision or choice that we make. The linkages, if they appear, will probably occur because a moment of conflict breaks out alongside this one, a moment of conflict that, because it bears on our lives, we can plug into and connect to the university conflicts.

AN: The current discourse of individuals having no future has been our point of departure, emphasizing the complete emptiness to individuals of a seemingly alien economy that is nothing other than the “unconscious” activity of individuals themselves. This crisis has been generated not by “the economy,” but by our very own self-activity. Of course there are a multiplicity of factors that combine and individuate bodies, but the total critique of the society of capital has to come from all fronts.

Within the student movement there have been traces of this connecting of different struggles. The recent series of racial attacks across the Univeristy of California system makes possible critiques of race, gender, and sexuality that could have an impact beyond the material confines of the university. On this particular issue, what is necessary now is an analysis of race, gender, and sexuality that is able to overcome the limits of identity politics.

DL: Ours was never merely a campus struggle. The campus is the meeting point for the sharing of our hostilities that we take advantage of simply because we can: the buildings are large, the populations are sympathetic, and the consequences are trivial. However, the more one fights, the greater the punishments become, and unless the party expands, it will inevitably collapse. Through the social self-defense of occupied spaces, we bind ourselves to others, forging new material solidarities. We make friends, we make enemies, we make partisan that which before was banal. These friends and enemies might be born through the campus, but they are not necessarily tied to it. Struggles are never by their nature merely insular, but rather contain within them the reflection of a totality of general contradictions in class society.

We blend into struggles over housing, work, and against budget cuts all over the city. We act as accelerators. For instance, when we heard that striking workers in a local factory were thinking about occupying, we went to the picket line to offer what we could: our bodies, technical skills, willingness to get arrested, media contacts, tools, and passion. They needed no convincing. Unfortunately, the boss locked them out before the scheduled day of action, and our potential sharing of force was preempted. In this failed process, we learned our strength and our weakness as well. This situation was external to the university as a particular place, yet linked, as all struggles are, by the totalizing orbit of capital that runs across the entire terrain of everyday human activity.

What is the relationship between occupation and intensifying social conflict?

AN: Occupations are inherently antagonistic since they are active seizures: direct expropriations of another’s property. The level of intensifying social conflict can vary in its duration, but overall this is immanent within the very concept of occupation itself. During an occupation, the feeling of enmity toward those who attempt to dismantle it (usually the administration and police, but sometimes activists as well) tends to increase. Within the Kerr Hall occupation, for example, the question of the police’s entrance onto the scene always lurked in the background since we had taken over an administrative building. This generated immediate connections and bonds formed against this possibility. However, when the police came the discourse of non-violence was unleashed, preventing the implicit escalation of the occupation from fully actualizing itself into a direct confrontation. The problem of developing this opposition in-itself into a for-itself form of direct conflict remains.

This past fall, the movement made a show of force through a series of occupations interconnected both spatially and temporally. Occupations spread throughout California and globally, resulting in a chain of dispersed conflicts. This gesture of repetition is where our strength lies. Occupations and other forms of disruption should be constant, shaping new openings, and instilling new rhythms of attack.

DL: In itself, an occupation is nothing but an abstraction, a form decontextualized from its particular conditions of emergence. In this way, the project is neutralized, barred from being a necessary intensification of social conflict. Rather, the intensification of social conflict, which is the permanent state of class society, finds potential expression in occupation.

Between December 2008 and May 2009 in New York City, a whole series of actions expressed this intensification. Besides the occupations of the New School and NYU, there were marches, acts of vandalism, solidarity actions, street parties, rooftop riots, and anti-police demos. New risks were taken and new friendships were made outside the boundaries of political organization or university identity. The complicity, coordination, and discipline formed through the occupations and actions of that season were the ground upon which future actions were taken in the winter of 2009 and the spring of 2010.

However, the irreversible intensification of social conflict will only come when the occupation of space as a form becomes a self-reproducing dynamic whose content knows no bound, when said space becomes a vessel for negation, a place of refuge, and a staging ground for fresh attacks. Occupied spaces can become centres of activity, sites for reproducing the energy, knowledge, and capacity for people to further their action. Despite our own struggles and the impressive force of our Californian comrades, no action has come close to truly intensifying social conflict. This potential, nevertheless, still haunts the present.

ACP: Forgive our geometry here, but we have too long understood the world as an equilateral triangle inherited from the New Left wholesale: a “few at the top, the rest of us at the bottom.” For them, the only direction of a social movement was bottom-up. What we’re beginning to understand is that the world is a multi-axis shifting-shape of forces. The triangle exists in this multi-axis, multi-form cloud. Through market expansion, states of emergency, democracy, commodity exchange, labour, social movements, the triangle moves, inverts itself, loses and wins ground, expands, destabilizes and stabilizes, and changes shape. The world is more complex than a triangle, and relations change. Conflict momentarily changes the relations of the triangle into the unpredictable reality of the cloud. When we operate as “student protesters” we operate within the triangle. Through conflict and antagonism in the triangle, students can begin to recognize the triangle for what it is: certainly the polarization between the two “sides” (the students versus capital, the state, and the university administration), but also the “social movement” sector of the triangle and its attempt to assimilate more of the multi-axis world into its linear, equilateral logic.

An occupation is a moment of rupture in this relation. In those brief moments we are not entirely subsumed by the triangle’s categories or relations: we create openings. There is no guarantee as to its effects, no necessary causal relationship between the act of occupation and its further unfolding. As always, social conflict within the triangle is met with batons, Tasers, jail time, media campaigns – we do not celebrate this but understand that in the past 40 years the realm of “the political” has been a site where social movements have been subsumed by adopting the logic (and thus the desires) of the triangle. The agents of the previous mass exodus are now, depending on their place within the triangle, either serving multiple life sentences, sitting on the boards of NGOs, or they are our professors. We have an opportunity to avoid this process of capture when students take over buildings, highways, and destroy property relations in the cities and in the administrative offices. These acts speak to us as much as to those agitating in other sectors, and based on the number of solidarity messages and actions transmitted from around the world, it is a useful language. On our end, we intend to keep the conversation going.

What does it mean to organize without any demands?

AN: While demands will inevitably be part and parcel of any struggle, the first occupation at UCSC and its slogan of “no demands” should be seen within the context of an ever-widening fragmentation of material interests.

Generalized demands, while immediately universal, are vague and oftentimes ridiculous: “stop the cuts,” “stop the war,” etc. On the other hand, particular demands correspond to a select portion of the populace. They are also potentially endless, tied together by the conjunctive ‘and’ (“we want this AND this AND this…”). In demanding nothing, we sought to cut the Gordian knot of overwrought demand-making procedures. “No demands” gives us a strategic perspective that can be adapted to the many shifts within the movement.

DL: Bread and butter demands will exist as long as everyday struggles exist – that is, as long as the class struggle exists. “No demands” arises out of the normal pulse of capitalism when the room to negotiate and stall misery narrows to almost nothing. The great failures of demands and movements is what characterizes this historical period: the spectrum ranges from American labour unions fighting over whose wages to cut in order not to be fired, to German workers self-managing their way into strike-bike.com, to Indian workers bashing their bosses’ brains and then going home to sleep and look for work the next day. What is there to demand when your office can be relocated to a country you haven’t seen, your home can be taken away by a conglomerate of faceless investors, and the government can’t even pay the bills it owes to god knows who?

Still, it is meaningless to actually prescribe “demand nothing” outside of a revolutionary crisis; we can only hope to accelerate struggles that are already around us on the ground, of which demands are a part, and then push the obvious, if and when that time arises. This in turn requires very little soapboxing.

ACP: The relationship between a struggle and its demands is complicated. We recognize that struggles do not typically begin from a stance of having no demands but rather reach such a development at a crucial point when enough force within the movement has been constituted. Our position of no demands can be seen as a challenge to the broader movement and to ourselves: when do we stop asking for what they can give to us and instead initiate acts of appropriation?

We are tired of a radicalism that speaks only to our victimization and not to our strengths. Historically, we gained social services because the federal government wanted to sustain capital expansion. We know their empirical failures, we know that the state cannot dole out resources equitably or make reparations for our histories of genocide, displacement, and forced labour. We were born into a social arena where victimized narratives are accepted and tolerated. We want a radicalism that carries with it the knowledge of very real oppression and pain, but strategically wields the strength of a social force, and leads with joy. In this way, there is literally nothing to demand.

Interestingly, the discussion of demands has not addressed what might be our primary potential: winning that which allows us to continue to fight. Not every victory in struggle need be a recuperative one. Instead, such victories might put the forces of order on the defensive, strengthen us, and allow us to make sense of why we fight at all.

What is the role of organizers in relation to the police in the context of the current crisis?

DL: The crisis of capital in which we live has crossed the university gates to sit in our classrooms; it has wandered amongst our workplaces and laid us off; it has traversed our homes and raised our rents. Crisis is a lived experience and in these situations there usually emerge two coeval forms of social enforcement: the policeman and the activist. The former contains, threatens, and arrests anyone who seeks to challenge the normalized state of emergency that crisis conditions impose; the latter urges everyone around to act to challenge the situation, but does so in a way that only manages the crisis. The means by which the activist urges one to resist are the means of reintegration. That is: petition, rally, press conference, and symbolic speech. None of these are wrong in themselves. Still, they become tools of neutralizing escalation when such a sequence of struggle follows the same exact process of the last 30 years, a process known to all and thus easily accommodated before it even begins.

When the time comes for action, leftists are no better than cops. Recent history is rife with examples. At the New School, it was the student activists who were the strongest obstacles to the occupation: wanting to delay, make consensus, appeal to the long-term movement. At NYU, the activists were both the cause and limit of their struggle. In Los Angeles, the activists succeeded in blocking the students from storming the Regents meeting. In Berkeley, the activists blocked the entrance to an empty building. In Santa Cruz, the activists evaporated into the struggle itself.

The abolition of the social roles of the activist, the professional organizer, and the enforcer of property relations is inextricably tied to the abolition of capitalist social relations, but cannot wait for the latter. The destruction of specialists in struggle is one task within the struggle itself, a task that can’t be achieved by retreating to the public at large. On the contrary, when there are no more specialists, neither will there be a ‘public.’

ACP: In California, the most characteristic tactic of repression shared by both the administration and the official student   movement is the rhetoric around “outside agitators.” After the Durant Hall occupation and street conflict in Berkeley in late February, “outside agitators” were blamed by activists, the administration, the media, and the police for most of the violence. We affirm this accusation and turn it on its head because a true student struggle, a socially-effective strike, would also have to include all those excluded from the university. As more and more people are turned away from the public campuses of California, it would be asinine to claim that anything else would expand the limits of the movement. Non-students have just as much of an interest in blocking the reproduction of class society as anyone else, if not more.

AN: The police have always been the police. Let’s not be too surprised. How do we counter these forces? While there is already an underlying anti-police sentiment rooted in many communities, it is isolated. What is needed is to assert our presence over theirs, preemptively blocking the deployment of police presence. Unfortunately, with the culture of non-violence that has become so pervasive throughout activist culture, many activists serve as an appendage to the police force. What prevents many individuals from attempting any illegal action is not just the police themselves, but also the possibility of a snitch, someone who decides to become an organ for repression. This breeds a security culture that is sometimes stifling and stops any movement forward due to suspicion of others.

On other hand, activist-organizers also serve as functionaries of politicians and university administrators. Within particular situations, these activist-organizers will attempt to regulate the situation and delimit its possible trajectories. In other words, most of the time they will strive for containment. Moralizing and paternalism aimed at instilling guilt are the primary weapons of the activist-organizers during these situations.

What are the broader implications of occupation?

DL: There are no broad implications of occupation, because it’s not simply a tactic. It is not purely either symbolic or concrete, not just a means or an end. It is a medium of action in which means and ends themselves are formed and tested. All occupations are particular to their conditions, their occupiers, and their police force.

Occupying is a way of extending, expanding, articulating, and expressing a struggle, a struggle which itself already expresses a certain contradiction of capital. Occupation as a form is empty; it is the content of the human activity that makes it happen that is to be evaluated, understood, and overcome. People can occupy something “in solidarity,” but solidarity is then not external   support for another’s “cause,” but rather the internal development of a power based on the sharing of a similar enemy across space. For example, our numerous marches in solidarity with the California occupations were as much for us as for them.

ACP: It’s not a means to an end but the basic principle of communism – seizure of the means of production. Still, occupying a university hall does not really qualify as such a seizure, and it’s sort of a problem that, under the conditions of the global market and its asymmetries, the means of production are located in Bangladesh, Iowa, and Mexico. It’s also hard to meet your own needs when you’re surrounded by cops.

In other words, we don’t think this is the revolution. But the elaboration of material connections between university
  occupations and other types of appropriation and disruption is one way in which the revolution might manifest itself. We hope to have put the immediate possibility of a living communism – one that does not depend upon the consolidation of hegemony or a conquest of state power – on the table.

On March 4, 2010, 150 people marched onto the I-880 freeway overpass in downtown Oakland. The result was a mass arrest, even though this wasn’t the intention of the participants. An uncanny resemblance to the anti-war movement and its representational actions has led some to critique the abandonment of the tactic of occupation. More than a few critics seem to hold a nearly mystical view of the transformational aspects of an occupied space. These critics miss a crucial point, though – that which is shared must be coordinated alongside that which is suppressed: value production and commodity exchange. Maybe next time small groups of proletarians will briefly seize the highways long enough to set alight a row of tires, in the style of the Argentinian piqueteros, rather than marching en-masse into a trap. Maximum damage/minimal risk, as some French hipsters once wrote. The highway action points in the direction of this elaboration, even if its execution was less than perfect this time around.

AN: What’s more important in an occupation: the building itself, or the experiments and relations that happen inside it? So far, occupations have proved to be a space for experimenting with new modes of interacting.

While foreclosed homes, abandoned warehouses, and the like are fertile soil for experimenting in forming new communities against capital, these can also lead to simply co-existing with   capital, as is the case with the various squatting movements throughout Europe. What is necessary in the long term is the immediate and direct expropriation of spaces already in operation, spaces that are (re)producing and circulating capital. This is, after all, what an occupation is: an immediate and direct offensive against capital. The problem is the scale of such an attack. It cannot be relegated to small-scale seizures of buildings, or lead to centralization in a particular territory. Is it possible to coordinate a widespread offensive of initiatives predicated on occupation?