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CRISIS IN CALIFORLORNIA: CREATIVE PROTEST AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA

  • L. M. Bogad

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A lovely stream flows through the campus at UC Davis. While it is widely believed to be filled with dangerous agrochemical runoff, this stream offers an idyllic place for students, staff, and faculty to stroll or sunbathe. One day toward the end of the spring quarter of 2010, a young man stood in that beautiful but toxic water, protected by hip-high waders. He wore a cowboy hat and overalls and looked like a character from the 1849 Gold Rush. With a pan in his hands, he called out to passersby to watch as he demonstrated his solution to student financial problems. A sign planted in the ground near him said: gold: the tuition solution. He cried out to passersby, “It's an old California tradition, and it's the only way I can pay for school!” He had several gold-painted rocks to prove that one could still strike it rich, and he offered them to passersby. As a small crowd gathered around to observe this Swiftian “modest proposal,” he made his point about the desperate situation students have found themselves in at the University of California.

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1. In Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal, he ironically suggested that the starving Irish, victims of British imperialism, eat their own children to survive. See Swift, Jonathan, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of the Poor from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country . . . (Dublin: Printed for S. Harding, 1729).

2. Alan Duke, “University of California Students Protest 32 Percent Tuition Increase,” CNN.com, 19 November 2010, http://articles.cnn.com/2009-11-19/us/california.tuition.protests_1_tuition-increase-angry-students-ucla-building?_s=PM:US (accessed 11 January 2011).

3. Solomon, Debra, “Big Man on Campus,” New York Times, 24 September 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/magazine/27fob-q4-t.html?scp=1&sq=mark%20yudof%20manager%20of%20a%20cemetary&st=cse (accessed 14 December 2010).

4. To see Christina Noble's video of her “Mark Yudof's Thriller,” go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-GZ-hrciBk (accessed 13 October 2010).

5. Noble, Christina, “Mark Yudof's Thriller: A Performative Protest,” SOTA (State of the Arts) 1 (27 July 2010), http://ucsota.wordpress.com/2010/07/27/mark-yudof%E2%80%99s-thriller/ (accessed 14 December 2010).

6. I have coined the term “tactical performance” elsewhere, to refer to the use of performance (be it satirical, ironic, disruptive, surprising, and/or sincere) as a tactic for social movement campaigns.

7. Alinsky, Saul, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1989), 130; Tarrow, Sidney, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 109.

8. Proposition 13 was a referendum passed in 1978 that froze county property taxes at 1 percent, with small adjustments for inflation. The value of property is not reassessed until the property is sold. This means that many companies have extensive landholdings that have not been reassessed to their true value in decades, costing the state billions of dollars in income.

9. For more on “sociodrama,” see Lewis, John with D'Orso, Michael, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, 13th ed. (New York: Mariner Books, 1999), 86; Duhamel, Philippe, The Dilemma Demonstration: Using Nonviolent Civil Disobedience to Put the Government between a Rock and a Hard Place, ed. Pearson, Nancy L. (Minneapolis, MN: Center for Victims of Torture, 2004), www.newtactics.org/en/TheDilemmaDemonstration (accessed 5 February 2011).

10. “Student Occupation at UC Santa Cruz Ends,” CNN.com, 22 November 2009, http://articles.cnn.com/2009-11-22/us/california.student.protest_1_student-protesters-angry-students-police?_s=PM:US; Angus Johnston, “Student Occupation of Berkeley's Wheeler Hall Is Fifth in Two Days at UC,” Studentactivism.net, 20 November 2009, http://studentactivism.net/2009/11/20/wheeler-hall/; Asimov, Nanette, Berton, Justin, and Garofoli, Joe, “UC Berkeley Students End Occupation,” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 November 2009, http://articles.sfgate.com/2009-11-21/news/17181267_1_trespassing-charges-campus-police-protesters; Goodman, Amy, “As UC Berkeley Investigates Police Brutality against Students Protesting Fee Hikes, a Report from inside the Takeover of Wheeler Hall,” Democracy Now!, 24 November 2009, www.democracynow.org/2009/11/24/as_uc_berkeley_investigates_police_brutality. (All sites accessed 16 November 2010.)

11. As UC Berkeley graduate student Zhivka Valivacharska points out, these different forms do “not necessarily stand in opposition to each other. . . . They have actually worked in solidarity. . . . The question becomes even more complicated when we consider the conditions of possibility or the actual realities that these actions need to conceived in. . . . Student-activists have been confronted with a reality of police surveillance and control, and lately, repression and intimidation which has escalated to an alarming degree.” E-mail to author, 14 December 2010.

12. I have addressed the challenges of the set-piece demonstration in Bogad, L. M., “Tactical Carnival: Social Movements, Demonstrations, and Dialogical Performance,” in A Boal Companion: Dialogues on Theatre and Cultural Politics, ed. Cohen-Cruz, Jan and Schutzman, Mady (London: Routledge, 2006), 4658.

13. E-mail to author, 9 December 2010.

14. Asimov, Nanette, “Students Sharpen Attack on UC Costs with Satire,” San Francisco Chronicle, 16 February 2010, www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/02/15/BA6A1BUGLU.DTL; Gallagher, Conor, “UCs Look for Solutions to Solve Increases,” Golden Gate Xpress, 9 March 2010, http://xpress.sfsu.edu/archives/arts/014605.html; Kingston, Gwen, “UCMeP Plays with Humor and Art to Draw Attention to UC System's Issues,” Daily Californian (UC Berkeley), 1 March 2010, www.dailycal.org/article/108467/ucmep_plays_with_humor_and_art_to_draw_attention_t; “Using Humor to Criticize U. of California Leaders,” Inside Higher Ed, 17 February 2010, www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/02/17/qt#220439; Rees, Kelley, “Group Shines Spotlight on UC Administrative Actions through Use of Satire and Irony,” The California Aggie (UC Davis), 24 February 2010, http://theaggie.org/article/2010/02/24/group-shines-spotlight-on-uc-administrative-actions-through-use-of-satire-and-irony. (All sites accessed 11 November 2010.)

15. E-mail to author, 10 December 2010.

16. “I found the TOOL award to be very successful because it drew attention to what was becoming a very big problem at UC Berkeley at the end of the fall semester last year, particularly the UC administration's and California state government's discourse that the activists at Berkeley ‘were criminals, not activists’ as Chancellor Birgeneau declared in December 2009. The leading voice of this discourse was UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof who throughout the fall semester of 2009 repeatedly gave out false information to the media about actions on campus which painted student activists in a misleading light. By the time UCMeP wrote Mogulof's award letter that December, there was tremendous anger among activists towards him. But considering the fact that he was the official spokesperson of UC Berkeley and had a literal monopoly over what was passed on to and reported in the SF Chronicle, the New York Times, the LA Times, etc, many people—even sympathetic faculty and alumni—took what he said to be true. Judging from all the responses we got from the TOOL award from the media, website visits, emails, etc, I think our intervention pierced a hole in the authority of the discourse.” Shane Boyle, e-mail to author, 9 December 2010.

17. Bogad, L. M., Electoral Guerrilla Theatre: Radical Ridicule and Social Movements (New York and London: Routledge, 2005).

18. As we brainstormed, other ideas for the acronym were Supporting Clean and Accessible Buildings, Supporting Clear Avenues and Buildings, and Schtupping Collective Approaches to Being.

19. E-mail to author, 10 December 2010.

20. For more on the use of play in activism see, Shepard, Ben's Queer Political Performance and Protest: Play, Pleasure and Social Movement (New York: Routledge, 2009); and his forthcoming Play, Creativity, and Social Movements: If I Can't Dance, It's Not My Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2011).

21. See the video associated with “UCMeP Rolls out the Red Carpet for Scabs on the March 4 Nationwide Day of Action to Defend Public Education,” March 2010, http://ucmep.wordpress.com/projects/ (accessed 21 January 2011).

22. The Red Carpet Shaming Device is an innovation that I hope will catch on more broadly. It has already been borrowed from my garage and used on a picket line against a homophobic employer in San Francisco.

Another interesting side effect of this kind of ironic installation: when we got to the picket line, there was a solitary right-wing extremist marching around in front of the picket line with a sign that showed Obama with a Hitler mustache. He was enjoying upstaging the hundred or more people on the picket line and blocking the sightlines of some of the media cameras, etc. When we showed up, he tried to continue upstaging us, announcing that he thought the red carpet was great and he should march down it. Naturally, we agreed and said, “You're just the sort of fellow we need to support our cause!” He marched down the carpet with his sign, we applauded . . . and he had nowhere to go from there once he realized he was adding to our dramaturgy rather than distracting from or sabotaging it. He walked away. This may be a useful lesson for similar situations in the future.

23. See UC San Diego Professor Who Studies Disobedience Gains Followers —and Investigators,” Los Angeles Times, 7 May 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/07/local/la-me-ucsd-professor-20100507-53; and “Academic Freedom Under Attack at UC—A Public Statement by UCR Lecturer Ken Ehrlich,” posted 8 April 2010, http://ucaft.org/academic-freedom-under-attack-uc (both accessed 6 February 2011).

24. See Duncombe, Stephen, Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (New York: New Press, 2007).

25. Ensemble, Critical Art, Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2001), 1415.

26. Bogad, Electoral Guerrilla Theatre, 43 and 66.

CRISIS IN CALIFORLORNIA: CREATIVE PROTEST AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA

  • L. M. Bogad

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