November 18, 2011
I walked onto the UC Davis campus a few days after the infamous pepper spraying incident there. I wanted to see for myself who these students might be, and what were they now saying, doing and feeling as a consequence of the assaults on their fellow students who were and had been protesting the arrest of other students. Those earlier demonstrators had been protesting the continuation of the escalating cost of higher education, the dimming likelihood of jobs, and the general slide from democracy to oligarchy we have all been experiencing, rather silently, up until now. I wanted to see how events were continuing to unfold, but also to be in some way “part of” what may be a turning point in this battered America. This is what I saw and heard.
Many students with bags and backpacks were streaming out of campus for their Thanksgiving holiday. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Turning a corner onto the main quadrangle, however, I saw a circle of various tents, perhaps fifty, in the center of which several dozen students were conducting a meeting. Approaching closer and listening for a while, I came to realize that what I was witnessing was a “meeting” of a kind I had not quite experienced before. Although I had participated in the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” address, marched down Fifth Avenue alongside the ILGWU against the war in Viet Nam, was active in many other civil rights, pro-peace and anti-nuclear war movements, what I now saw seemed different.
A woman stood in the center of the circle and by way of bringing things to order, called out, “Mike Check” to which the other students replied; “Mike Check.” She/they did that twice, and continued with the agenda, in the call and response mode. When people spoke, everyone listened. A person from the Health tent described their services. A person from the Media group spoke of the importance of insuring that if anyone was interviewed by any news media, someone from the encampment should record the conversation. The Food Services spokesperson described what they had to offer and what they needed. The Safety committee spokesperson pointed out that if anyone saw someone needing a hand, be sure to promptly do so. Someone said there needs to be some consensus—if it at all possible—of the core objectives of the encampment protest, and urged each person and group to come up with a concise description of that and bring it to the General Assembly, which in turn would discuss and vote on the issues. Others spoke of safety issues in and around flammable tents and wires, others spoke of the importance of maintaining the integrity of the processes being employed, still others gave a calendar of upcoming meetings and events. A general strike was being set for the following week.
People spoke after, calling for a “Mike Check” and all the others assenting to their request by responding, “Mike Check.” No one was derided for their views, no one was hurried to complete their statements although all respected the one or two minute time line.
Walking around the encampment I saw large chalk boards that had, with schedules of meetings, itineraries of guest speakers, rotations of the safety patrol, various crews to clean, feed and take care of the members of the encampment. At the food tent, a woman welcomed a fellow who had just come just came in, “Hungry? Thirsty? We have hot soup, some bread and sandwich fixings, what can I get for you?” At the First Aid tent a fellow there explained to a student how they might care for a superficial wound.
Of the hundred people I saw, most looked like any student one might meet on any college campus. There were about a dozen or so older folks who might have been teachers or townspeople; they seemed to have little to say or role to play. There were some people who clearly were not students and not there for the exact purposes the students were, but they were treated as anyone else and no fuss was made about their obviously different intents and behaviors. There was no hooting, no hollering, no banging of drums, no chanting, no effigies. There were sayings hung from tents and taped to trees, reading more or less, “Invest in public education—not arms,” “This is a Drug Free Zone,” “Education must be made available to all of the people,” and, “All you need is love, love, all you need is love.”
Then Chancellor Katehi walked towards the group accompanied by two kitchen staff pushing tall containers of Thanksgiving dinners: 25 Vegetarian, 50 Turkey. A student aide to her called out, “Mike Check,” the students replied, “Mike Check,” and the aide said that the Chancellor was here, bringing Thanksgiving dinners for everyone so inclined. All the students became quiet. Someone who looked to be in her forties or fifties shouted (who I thought did not look like the other students; being in her forties or fifties and in distinctive dress), “Who paid for this?”
The aide replied, “The Chancellor.”
The same someone shouted, “Well, how about her sharing her salary?”
No response to that either from the rest of the students or from the Chancellor and her aide. A student said, “We don’t need her food, we have plenty ourselves. What we need is refrigeration.”
The aide, who seemed to know this student approached him and said, “We can work that out. Let’s talk.”
A majority of the students walked toward the chancellor and a small circle was formed around her as the students asked her questions. She responded quietly and directly. A question posed by the head of the Media Committee was, “Will she, as Chancellor, take back the encampment’s recommendations to the boards she presides over and to the president of the university system?” Her response was, in effect, that of course she would, but to understand that she is the chancellor of, not only this group or any other group, but of every group, all 35,000 students and 30,000 faculty and staff. Her job was to listen to everyone and to synthesize the entire converging and diverging viewpoints into a coherent policy affecting all stakeholders.
While this conversation was going on, a small group of students, about 5 or 6, again led by the woman who had asked that the Chancellor share her salary with the encampment, began a chant accompanied by hand clapping, “The people, united, will never be defeated.” They drew closer to the small circle around the chancellor, trying to have others join them, and to break up the conversation between the chancellor and students. None did. A person from the commercial media, with mike in hand, sought to interview the chancellor. She denied his request saying, “I’m here to talk with students today,” and continued her conversation with the students. Both parties seemed to listen carefully and speak carefully. No posturing, no shouting, no vilifying; just looking at each other eye to eye and talking straight.
I continued my walk around the tents for another half hour and a young man who I had heard speaking several times at the convocation passed close to me and I said to him, “Good work, I wish you well.” He paused, we looked at each other, and he said, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” He continued on his way, and I continued on my way back home.
During my brief visit, tears welled up several times in my eyes, and I found it difficult to speak. It had been an all too rare experience for me, one that gave me hope in the intelligence of the emerging generation. A hope for our future that I had all but given up on with the corrupted and defective system of government we now have and our incompetent governors. I was impressed at the sophistication of the students’ political strategies, their decorum, their care for one another, their devotion to their process, to open discussion, to openly-arrived-at positions, and the appreciation that they were being severely scrutinized for any excuse to dismiss them and their causes.
I was impressed by the students’ commitment to stay the course of their causes. I believed I had a glimpse at a generation whose technological savvy empowered their evolved strategies, far eclipsing the modest array of skills and tools I used a generation ago. I believed I saw, hoped that I saw, a return to the great experiment at the heart of the founding of this country; to see if indeed such a confederation of diverse people might become a democracy, establish a commonwealth. I had thought that this grand experiment was running out of steam, giving up on our earlier convictions, reverting to an earlier, more primitive form of governance: Oligarchy.
I had seen a small encampment on the grounds of a school, a dozen or so students and the head of the school. They were talking with each other as if their intertwined fate depended upon a new civil outcome. It was only a glimpse, but I had been a believer for so long, I think after I saw and heard what was going on, I thought oh heck, we just might make it after all.
If love is ultimate concern for the well being of the other, well, love might be all you need, for without love…. you know the rest.
November 24, 2011
A half year has now passed since the events at UC Davis, and my earlier reflections. Since that time many hearings by many committees have studied and presented their reports, damning in no uncertain language the incompetency, the fear- induced, untoward, and illegal behaviors of the Chancellor, the Police and other chief administrators of the university. Changes have been promised, some have been accomplished, a few heads have rolled, more heads to come, expensive lawsuits are pending, divisions have deepened across campus, the mess is still to be resolved. Occupy Davis and Wall Street and other streets and squares continue. What might be learned? The emergent generation is watching us, they are savvy, they are impatient for their time to take over, see if they can’t make us whole. Let us hope the transition will be substantial, least costly and soon.
June 12, 2012