Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Cal: Whose univeristy?

The Occupy Cal crowd has decided to set up camp on the campus of UC Berkeley, despite the UC administration's vows to disassemble it. No doubt the protestors will feign surprise/outrage when the police try to evict them.

As indicated by the chants of the protestors, the issue comes down to this: whose university is it? The protestors claim some sort of democratic authority (on behalf of both the university community and the broader public for whom the university was nominally founded), yet for all their democratic/consensual formalities, they are incapable of representing those groups. They are only capable of representing those people who are willing to spend their time participating in those primitive "General Assemblies" and who are willing to lend legitimacy to the Occupy movement by participating. In the end, the Occupiers have no democratic legitimacy.

Still, the Occupiers are attempting to declare themselves as the legitimate government/owner of the university, or whatever other location they decide to occupy. This is bound to draw a forceful response from the other institutions that claim ownership/sovereignty over those sites. In some situations, that conflict may be intentional and necessary, yet I don't see how the demands of these protestors justify such conflict. Their main message is that they want the state to provide additional funding to the university -- but their tactics delegitimize those very institutions that they are seeking to expand. WTF?

In the end, these skirmishes have come down to establishing "the right to occupy" as part of the first amendment right to assemble and petition the government. I don't see the point in picking this fight. I don't want to live in a society where any mob of political activists can just set up camp in any public space -- thereby excluding everyone else from using that space.

I'm not even sure why tents matter -- except that some of the more theatrical activists like the symbolism (even as they ignore the substance). There may be some issue with people traveling great distances to participate in the protest, and not being able to afford proper housing in the area. However well this logic applies to Washington D.C. or Sacramento, I don't see how it could be relevant to these local protests (unless homelessness were some major part of the agenda). My suspicion is that these protestors are simply seeking to emulate the occupation of Tahrir Square without acknowledging the conditions that prompted Egyptians to use occupation as a tactic -- both their vulnerability to kidnapping if they dispersed, and eventually their demand for the overthrow of the government.

In the end, the university does not belong to a bunch of protestors (especially when most are the recipients of services), and declaring an "Open University" does not in any way make the benefits of the university available to the general public.

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