Occupations are read the Riot Act by havens of free thought

Call for 'safe protest zones' as demonstrators face violence on US campuses. Jon Marcus reports

December 1, 2011

Credit: Reuters
International outrage: a campus police officer at the University of California, Davis, deliberately aims pepper spray at seated, unresisting protesters, resulting in calls for the chancellor's resignation

Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan has become familiar as the epicentre of the American protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street.

But when demonstrators left the site last month, their destination was not the financial district, City Hall or the neighbourhoods where the city's wealthy "1 per cent" (the protesters call themselves "the 99 per cent") live in buildings guarded by doormen.

The marchers headed instead to the City University of New York's Baruch College campus, pledging on the way to stop repaying their student loans, and trying to interrupt a hearing at which the university's trustees were considering yet another tuition fee rise.

Forcibly evicted from the public parks it had occupied for weeks in cities from Boston to Oakland, California, the boisterous Occupy movement shifted suddenly and dramatically on to university and college campuses. At the same time, it added to its many grievances the skyrocketing cost of higher education, complaining about everything from student-loan debt to lofty presidential salaries and benefits.

Its shift of focus, physical and ideological, has not been welcomed.

Students at the University of California, Berkeley, long synonymous with the free-speech movement of the 1960s, were jabbed with batons by police in riot gear when they tried to set up an Occupy encampment.

At the University of California, Davis, a campus police officer doused seated protesters with pepper spray in an incident caught on video that instantly went viral, inciting international outrage and calls for the chancellor's resignation.

At Harvard University, campus and specially hired security guards locked the gates of Harvard Yard to avoid people joining a demonstration there, shutting out even Harvard students.

At Baruch, hundreds of protesters were forcibly pushed outside, and 15 arrested, after trying to get into the public hearing and refusing to leave.

'Hitting a nerve'

Even hard-pressed city mayors gave the protesters more latitude than the universities.

And organisers, whose message has received a huge media boost as a result, could not be happier.

"We saw the violence that happened in Berkeley, and that coupled with the tearing-down of [protesters' tents in] Zuccotti Park is what really energised the college movement," said Natalia Abrams, a co-founder in Los Angeles of a new national organisation called Occupy Colleges. "The silver lining is that we must be hitting a nerve."

The shift of attention to university and college campuses - more than 120 had Occupy chapters at the last count - is also simply because, once protesters were evicted from city parks and plazas, "university spaces became a natural new place for them to, for lack of a better word, occupy," said Robert Self, an associate professor of history at Brown University who studies politics and social movements. Another factor is that many of the Occupy protesters, from the outset, have been students.

But there is also a broader reason why universities are the new targets, according to Professor Self.

"There are probably a handful of institutions in the United States where what I would call the neoliberal shift - as a larger term for a move away from social welfare democracy to a greater kind of free-market structure - is evident and dramatic. One of them is Wall Street. Another is higher education."

CUNY, for example, was free until 1975, and most public universities remained very inexpensive until states began to cut their allocations and more and more of their costs were shifted on to students in the form of higher tuition fees.

This has shut out some low-income students, and forced two-thirds of the rest to take out loans - average graduate debt is now $25,250 (£16,300) - in a cycle that has grown much worse since the start of the economic crash in 2008.

"That's a transformation that has really pulled access out from underneath the middle class in ways that simply wasn't true a few years ago," Professor Self said. "People are starting to feel it."

The New York protesters are demanding that CUNY scrap tuition fees and are calling for students nationwide to stop repaying their loans once a critical mass of a million people has agreed to do so.

University administrators, Ms Abrams said, "deep down know that what's going on is wrong. They know that our quality of education is getting worse while we're paying so much more. Maybe they looked at the 1960s, when millions of students sat down and stopped going to class. There's this fear (among administrators) that students are discovering that they have a lot more power than they realised."

Stifling of debate

While the loan strike is largely symbolic, and universities are unlikely to stop charging for tuition, students involved with the Occupy movement said they have had some tangible successes.

The union representing janitors and cleaners at Harvard, for example, credited the Occupy group there with helping it win a favourable new contract with the university.

"The occupation is a tactic. Rallies, protests, sit-ins are all tactics that are part of this expression of discontent," said Gabriel Bayard, an Occupy organiser at Harvard.

"While these occupations of campuses will eventually come to an end, that doesn't mean I'm going to step back and say, 'I'm not interested in economic equality any more.'"

For now, the students' greatest cause is freedom of expression, which they say has been a casualty of crackdowns by police at, of all places, universities.

"We're trying to foster debate here. We're trying to stir the pot and say, 'These are the issues and this is how we think they can be fixed,'" Mr Bayard said. "For the administration to say, 'That's great, but we prefer you keep it in the classroom' - that's disgraceful."

But university officials' skills at dealing with popular uprisings are rusty, Professor Self said.

"Mayors and public officials have a greater sensitivity to public perception, and they have more experience dealing with questions of public order," he said. "University officials, at least in this generation, have almost no experience with that."

They also serve boards of trustees that are often made up of wealthy alumni and supporters, political appointees and corporate executives.

"There's sort of a corporatisation that has occurred," Professor Self said. "Universities are not run and managed for the public."

Ms Abrams agreed: "We've become a commodity to these schools. We're just the people giving them the money."

She said students were particularly angry about six-figure salaries and housing allowances for presidents of universities that are significantly raising their tuition costs.

Academic staff have not been particularly evident in the Occupy movement, although many seemed galvanised by the UC Davis incident. Matthew Noah Smith, an associate professor of philosophy at Yale University, started an online petition for colleagues nationwide, calling on their chancellors and presidents to make university campuses "safe protest zones".

Social media will keep momentum

The Davis Faculty Association demanded that the chancellor, Linda Katehi, resign, as did tens of thousands of people who signed another petition. Instead, Dr Katehi placed two campus police officers and their chief on leave, and appeared before students to apologise, telling them that she had participated in protests that were violently stopped by military forces at the National Technical University of Athens when she was a student there in 1973.

"I was there," the chancellor said, "and I don't want to forget that."

Some observers wonder whether the students' momentum can survive final examinations, winter holidays and other conflicting obligations. Ms Abrams, a 2009 graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, said the movement is already planning to use those breaks for training, and its followers are fluent in social media that can keep them connected even when their universities and colleges are closed.

But a bigger question, Professor Self said, is whether public sympathy - which peaked after the UC Davis incident - turns out to be fleeting.

"Students in Europe have been better at positioning themselves in alliance with things like the labour movement in ways that have been more difficult here," he said. "It's relatively easy, as we've already seen [in the 1970s], when it's just students and college campuses, for opponents to dismiss them as elitists or rambunctious youth."

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