Where we go now at SFSU

December 14, 2009

A building occupation at San Francisco State University (SFSU) to protest fee hikes and budget cuts was broken by armed police early on December 10 (see SocialistWorker.org's "Police attack SFSU occupation"). The occupation began less than 24 hours before in SFSU's business administration building. A hastily organized support demonstration outside drew several hundred students, faculty and staff from SFSU, as well as other Bay Area campuses.

The occupation was another in a series of protests against the tuition hikes and cutbacks that are hammering California public education in the wake of the state's budget crisis--but it raised questions about organizing for the future. Here, members of the SF State International Socialist Organization state their thoughts on the occupation.

Dear SFSU Students, Faculty, Staff and Campus Community,

We first want to express our solidarity with and support for the occupation of the business building on Wednesday. Our movement must confront the authorities and escalate our tactics through civil disobedience and direct action to have any impact.

We take inspiration from the students who made the California education crisis a national issue by confronting the Regents at UCLA and standing up to police repression at UC Berkeley. We are outraged by the violence perpetrated by the police against peaceful protesters, and by the refusal of the SFSU administration to even consider the grievances. We join with others in demanding that all charges be dropped against all of the activists and that no disciplinary action be taken.

We do want to raise some concerns and critiques about Wednesday's action, and how it was organized.

First, this action was kept hidden from a big chunk of leading and trustworthy budget cuts activists on campus. Why? Why not involve other trusted activists to get more people inside and supporting the action? When a group of activists organizes a major action secretly, intentionally excluding other activists, it tends to not build trust, and instead breeds a sense of disconnectedness. We don't think that was the intention, but it is the result.

Protesters show their solidarity outside the occupied business administration building at SFSU
Protesters show their solidarity outside the occupied business administration building at SFSU (Luz Clemente)

The very positive response to the action shows that there are whole layers of students who would have participated more directly given the opportunity, and a more robust solidarity effort could have also been assembled. Instead, the secretive action ended up with a smaller number of occupiers and a hastily organized support effort, which made it easier for the police to break it up.

The barricades were well-constructed--but barricades, no matter how clever, are relatively easy for police to deal with, particularly when the number of occupiers and supporters is small. No amount of technical savvy in barricade construction can substitute for a mass mobilization, which can effectively challenge police repression. We should give at least as much thought to linking campus struggles--uniting faculty, staff and students, and building mass support--as we do to the precise arrangement of chairs and tables required to block a door.

In addition, this action disorganized the General Assembly that had been planned for Wednesday, and had to be put off because of the occupation. Faculty and staff as well as students openly expressed their dismay at this unilateral overriding of the democratic process. Building a genuine democratic assembly that unites students, faculty and staff is a sometimes difficult, but definitely worthwhile and necessary project. The action on Wednesday set that project back.

Democracy and direct action are not exclusive to each other; in this instance, however, the occupiers did in practice counterpose the two by precluding the General Assembly. We instead are in favor of direct actions that are in sync with and complementary to the development of a real democratic process and movement on campus.

Occupations like Wednesday's are just the first step. This movement will need to organize more occupations, sit-ins, speak-outs and strikes to even have a chance of scaring Sacramento and the trustees into thinking twice the next time they hike fees, furlough workers and give themselves raises. But in order to move beyond small actions of a couple hundred students and get to mass actions of thousands, we need to build a democratic movement based on trust, openness and collaboration.

The day of strikes and protests on March 4 is shaping up to be a crucial first test of strength for the statewide movement. Building (and respecting) a General Assembly at SFSU is the best way for us to achieve what we all should aim for: a strike of thousands of students, faculty and staff that shuts the campus down.

We look forward to working with everyone who participated on Wednesday (inside and outside), and we hope that people will consider our critique in the spirit of solidarity.

SF State International Socialist Organization

Further Reading

From the archives