February 11, 2007

Athens SDS score victory marked by pinkie swear

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The Ohio University campus has been rocked this year by a decidedly anti-democratic, unaccountable administration, pushing unpopular policies wthout any student input whatsoever. Free speech zones on campus attempt to shut out discourse and protest. Arbitrary fees around popular student parties and holidays, the sudden cuts of Athens Varsity Sports teams, and indulgent pay bonuses for Administrators have left students feeling alienated and without control of their college. Ohio University is being run like a corporation rather than an educational institution.
SDS has risen up to advocate for student syndicalism and a radical vision of a democratic university, and built an impressive coalition in the process. The SDS free speech demonstration on Friday, Feb 2nd, was attended not just by activists, but students most activists groups wouldn’t think to try to organize – including athletes and Frat boys.
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I was invited to come to OU in Athens by their SDS chapter and the umbrella activist group InterAct, to do workshops, trainings, and other action support, both as an SDSer and also as an organizer from Rainforest Action Network (RAN). Trainings with SDS ranged from sustainable organization building to campaign strategy, while I got to connect with InterAct about collaborating on a few RAN-related projects including shutting down a corporation called TXU building dirty coal fired power plants (but that is a separate entry entirely).
We woke the morning of the demo to a new blanket of snow coating the campus. It was beautiful. We met in a nearby coffee shop early to tie up loose ends. Somehow a PBS news crew found us an hour early and interviewed Olivia and Sarah.
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The snow was falling as students gathered around the civil war monument – an area NOT in a free speech zone. A student read the plaque outside the monument - one that discussed liberties that we’re supposed to have in this country, and about 150 students gathered around the SDS banner hanging from the monument.
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Initially, energy seemed low. Some folks didn’t even want to chant. I soon realized this was a good thing; about 90% of the people there had likely never been to a demonstration before. Despite the lack of racial diversity, in other respects the diversity of students there was staggering. SDS managed to mobilize a wide cross section of campus, including students with a wide range of interests and backgrounds - people who would have never come out to a demonstration if it werent for Athens SDS’ strategy to simply be relevant.
After the president of the Graduate Student Union spoke, Will Klatt gave a speech about the corporatization of our universities:
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I was also invited to speak about Free Speech Zones:
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After which I convinced folks that chanting can be fun and it doesn’t make you a hippy:
Rosemary Esch announced SDS’ demands on the administration:
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And Dylan spoke about SDS being inspired by Malcolm X and organizing students AS students:
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People were fired up and marched to the presidents office. Energy was high, people were dancing and chanting and whoopin and hollerin.
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We reached the chief of police and demanded entrance.
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And got it.
The cop actually turned out to be a pretty nice guy. Most of his background in stopping “civil disturbance” had been shutting down KKK rallies, so he seemed pretty down that we were actually trying to do something positive. Always important to remember to try to get inside the head of the police if you confront them - on campuses at least, they usually just don’t want to look bad in front of their bosses. If you can challenge their power and authority and get what you want, while still making it so they can play it off to their superior like they had control over the situation, then not only do you win and alter the power dynamics, but you usually eliminate the chance of arrest.
When we found out the president was in hiding, we decided to have a spokescouncil to see what to do next.
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Strategically, it was useful for a lot of reasons. Not only did we want to democratically decide what to do next, but it helped all the participants in the demo - people with very different backgrounds and experience levels in activism - feel ownership over the march. Part of the strategy of the demo was to engage and activate people as much as possible. It worked (I’ll explain how in a minute).
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We decided to march to a meeting of Vision Ohio - where administrators were proposing additions for the campus to business leaders, without student input.
We danced:
And went inside the new student building and shook things up:
And tracked down the Dean.
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A student issued the demands:
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And he pinkey-swore Sarah that they would be responded to by the president before the deadline that SDS issued.
Afterwards we found out where the Vision Ohio meeting was, had a spokescouncil, and headed down there. The cop asked us to not be disruptive, and we thought that was appropriate. We pinkey-swore that we wouldn’t, and we kept our end of the bargain. Tactically, it was a great move, as in any action you need to make sure to exit on your own terms. We had already gotten what we wanted, and we decided to push it further - but if we had ended up getting kicked out it woudln’t have been useful to us at all. It would have killed the energy and disheartened all the new folks involved. Instead we just ate all the cookies and soda at the Vision Ohio meeting and did interviews with lots of press.
Like I said, SDS is trying to be relevant. It’s actually quite a revolutionary thing to do, given how most “radical” groups on campuses are content to build exclusionary, elitist subcultures and regress into them (and then wonder why all the other students are “apathetic” since they can’t relate). Building on the anger from the recent sports cuts and other assaults on campus, the whole demonstration was cultivated to activate people and give them a sense of ownership over the demo.
At the end, we pushed that idea even further. We announced that we were going to have a strategy session workshop, and it wasn’t just for SDS - everyone was invited to come shape SDS’ strategy. If SDS is supposed to be building a student movement, their vision and strategy has gotta be shaped by real students, not just a small section of them. We wanted it as participatory as possible.
I was asked to facilitate the training/workshop. Some of the best ideas came from people who had not only never thought strategically before, but had never thought about activism period before. In the session we identified clear concepts about what it means to strategize campaigns – differentiated between campaigning for change or simply protesting it, between specific goals, broader vision, and the difference between being guided by a strategy rather than a random assortment of tactics. We identified power holders in the administration, how they were related to other power holders, what their points of weakness were, and how to leverage our own power to target them. We identified what the different kinds of tactics are, how to build and escalate them, and brainstormed on how to use them to connect with allies, be accountable to other students and student groups, build power, and win concrete victories each step of the way.
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I left the strategy session feeling like Athens SDS is really experimenting with models of organizing that are pretty new for our generation. The push for genuine participation by the general student body in their strategy - indeed thinking strategically at all - is a welcome change to the alienating subcultural elitist bullshit that seems to confine a huge part of the student left (the mostly-white sections of it at least). The need to be open minded, to be positive, to build up rather than tear down, and to be open to other “nonactivist” voices is a huge step in the maturity and sophistication of the activism at OU.
Until we can organize students in their own interest as students, we will be stuck in the thoughtlessness of doing self-congratulatory actions simply to “piss people off.” OU activists are realizing that militance is about strategy, vision and goals, about being serious, grounded, thoughtful and long-term. Often times young radicals get confused, thinking that tactics themselves can be militant or not. Tactics are only as militant insofar as they are strategic to achieving radical goals - and often “fucking shit up” is the clear road to marginalization and impotence. Athens SDS is building power on campus for real, being relevant for real, and being in it for the long haul. And they are doing it with concrete victories.
Nothing builds a movement like winning.
We live in a generation of cynicism. Students nowadays are perhaps (legitimately) more skeptical than any other generation in history. It’s not “apathy” so much as its grounded in an assessment that ‘we don’t have the power to make change’. When you organize on campus and you WIN - you show people that they are powerful, that they can make change, that win is enough to shatter the illusion of impotence. The shattering of that illusion is often aradicalizing process. It so deeply rocks the way we have been taught to view the world that it forces us to shift our perspective just to make sense of the things around us. That’s the process that I saw in Athens, Ohio. While SDS chapters across the country are thinking about how they can radicalize their campuses, Athens is providing a useful (if situationally specific) model.
As is important with every victory, its crucial to celebrate. So after the punk rock dance party, activists were gonna head over to the fraternity house, to which everyone was invited by a frat boy in the march. Unlikely alliances indeed!
(here is a little bit of media around the event. From Speakeasy Magazine and The Post:
http://speakeasymag.com/index.php/campuslife/article/news_020407_001http://thepost.baker.ohiou.edu/articles/2007/02/02/news/17457.html )