Inside the Barricades

Interview by Marc Bousquet

Marc Bousquet interviewed Christopher Barkan, a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a media contact for the student organizers, on September 28, the fourth day of the events at UCSC. The occupation ended on October 1.

Marc Bousquet: How many of you are there, and whom do you represent?

Christopher Barkan: There are several dozen or so occupiers, plus countless supporters on the outside. It’s been very impressive. For example, one first-year student, after being on campus for just one week, almost immediately organized food drives with students in the dormitories for us. We honestly do not seek to represent anyone or any particular groups. Rather, we’re emphasizing our message: we want students, faculty, and staff at UC to occupy and escalate to stop the destruction of public education in California, and we call on the people of California who are similarly and unfairly affected by our state’s fiscal crisis to escalate in their own communities.

Bousquet: What inspired you to occupy UCSC, as opposed to other tactics, such as demonstrating?

Barkan: September 24 was the first day of classes at UCSC. As you probably know, there was a systemwide walkout across all of the UC campuses on September 24. We did demonstrate that day; we walked the picket line with the UPTE and CUE unions [University Professional and Technical Employees and Coalition of University Employees]; we responded to the UC faculty call for a walkout; some of us walked in uninvited on the large undergraduate lectures of those professors who failed to honor the picket line to make an emergency announcement about the walkout.

Let us provide some additional context: The Santa Cruz campus of UC was already hit hard last year by steep budget cuts. The community studies program was gutted; minority student programs were cut back; faculty searches for departments desperate for replacements, such as the history of consciousness, were canceled; health-care costs for graduate students were forced up; family student housing rents were jacked up—just to name a few of the attempts to balance the budget on the backs of those least able to afford it and the most vulnerable in the system. Undergraduates, graduate students, and some unions organized to stop those initial rounds of damaging cuts through petitions, demonstrations, and other tactics, to no avail.

A dire situation only worsened over the summer, which prompted the faculty to get more involved at the system level. So many of us at Santa Cruz already realized by the end of last year that the nature and severity of these budget cuts required an escalation beyond those tactics of resistance that were attempted last year and failed. This is what we decided to do to jump-start a year of endless confrontation with the administration over its destructive logic that subordinates everything and everyone to the budget. This is only the beginning.

Bousquet: What are your demands specifically?

Barkan: Our primary message is directed at those who should be our allies within the University of California system, the public education system generally, and indeed throughout the state of California, as opposed to those who have power over us. We would like to see a broad social movement against cuts to education and all other state social programs and services. Thus we appeal to these groups to organize, occupy, and escalate at their schools and colleges and universities, as well as in their local communities. To sum up, demonstrations address specific issues. Our actions aim at a much broader struggle. Workers are losing their jobs. Students are unable to enroll in school. We have no choice but to occupy and escalate. We call on the people of California to do the same.

Bousquet: This is a movement that you hope will spread to other campuses, isn’t it? Any developments we should watch for?

Barkan: Not only the other UC campuses, but actually throughout the entire state of California and even beyond. The one-day walkout and our occupation are only first steps, the genesis of a yearlong or multiyear effort to take back the UC, to rewrite its priorities in the interest of public education and not privatization. The same thing needs to happen to protect K –12 education in California; did you know that one school district closed all twenty-eight of its school libraries due to budget cuts? Whose vision of a quality K–12 education would not include access to libraries? Our purpose is not to blame local school administrators but to show how the cuts affecting the UC are also having an impact on everyone else in the public sector of the state.

Bousquet: What will it take for the state government and administration to move in a different direction?

Barkan: This is a big question. Unfortunately, it may not be enough simply to focus on amending the state constitution, which makes it notoriously difficult to construct a reasonable budget, or simply to focus on the next round of state elections in order to put into power friendlier decision makers. These things might certainly help or be steps along the way.

Anyone who slavishly submits to a social logic that reduces social things to a line item in the budget might find it hard to comprehend how protests are part and parcel of the system, not roadblocks to its smoother operation. Protests on the level of the  UC walkout and now our occupation signify that this imperative to rectify accounts is determined by a grossly unfair set of priorities that must be rejected. A broad-based social movement that has the capacity to articulate an alternative collective vision to the narrow, corporatist special interests that control our budgets and strategic planning will be necessary. Nobody is sure what this will look like yet.

For now, we believe one of the first steps to building such a movement is to show that escalation and occupation are necessary and possible. We hope that groups of students, faculty, and everyday Californians can begin to see themselves, too, as people who can organize, occupy, and escalate to fight back.