March 4, 2010 Public Education protest/Criticism

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In retrospect, over the last couple of days, several of my comments regarding the March 4, 2010 Public Education Protest and its protesters have been harsher or more sarcastic than necessary. I apologize if I offended anyone; that truly was not my intent. I intended shock value to express my frustration with the whole thing, but I had no desire to hurt any feelings. Please keep in mind that when I use "you" in here, I am speaking generally to those who fit a category and, while I do quote a couple of people to illustrate my points, I don't mean to target anyone individually.

Rather than go on with the back and forth with all of its cross-posting between different threads and trying to draw out answers to my questions, I thought that I would compose my thoughts in a relatively coherent way. I'm going to try to respond to a number of the statements, comments, ideas, and attitudes with which I have taken issue, and to lay out my general feelings on the topic. Because it's so long, I thought I'd give it a separate page. Please feel free to respond to any or all points.TomGarberson

My issue with demonstrations
I'm not categorically opposed with demonstrations/protests/strikes, not by any means. I am opposed to them when I don't think they've got a reasonable chance of doing any good, however. When the activities planned for a protest have no rational relationship to promoting a solution to the problem, it's not going to be a good thing. This becomes far, far worse when the "protest" involves violence, graffiti, or major disruption to the lives of others.

My issue with the attitudes of many protesters
I'll use the following quote for the purpose of demonstration, since it so perfectly embodies the attitude with which I'm concerned:

The arrogance of this statement had my jaw resting on my desk. In essence, it is saying that anyone who A) Does not agree with the protesters; B) Agrees with the protesters but feels that the issue should be addressed differently; or C) Is unaware of the protest actually DESERVES whatever happens to them at the hands of the protesters. I have no issue with you thinking people are lazy or inactive should they choose not to join in your movement. That's fine! But when you go so far as to say that they deserve to lose out on education, be unable to get to the hospital, or have days or weeks worth of research destroyed by whatever you might choose to do during a protest, you go waaaaaay too far. Not to say that the two situations are equal on any level, but the rationalization is identical to the one used by terrorists the world over to excuse killing innocents unassociated with their targets. Bystanders deserve what they get! Just something to think on.

Why I disapprove of many of the actual demonstrations I come across
The fundamental problem with any situation where you have a large group of emotionally charged people out to say "screw you" to authority is the potential for things to go downhill rapidly. Again, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying it's always bad! But the propensity for otherwise intelligent people to do painfully stupid things has been illustrated since time immemorial. All too often, all it takes is one rabble rouser to turn a great event that brings people together, educates, and garners positive publicity into a fiasco—or worse. To illustrate, I'll copy over my experience as a freshman here at Davis which I posted elsewhere:

Whether because of simple recklessness once people get excited or some Durkheimian totemic religious group experience, the fact remains: things have a tendency to get ugly when riled-up groups take to the streets. As such, I strongly feel that great caution needs to be taken in organizing such events. The tendency of protesters to deny responsibility for the consequences of their actions is both saddening and infuriating. If someone gets hurt, it's always law enforcement's fault. If someone's research is harmed or their education interrupted, it's their own damn fault for not participating.

Take a little responsibility for your own actions.

Why I disapprove of this particular protest

I can only think that this protest was counterproductive. It made students seeking action from politicians on the budget and fees look bad. A lively, educational protest that didn't do anything stupid would have been a good way to raise awareness—positive publicity. A march on the capitol, where you'd be getting the attention of people who could do something about the issue would have been a great way to take action. Hell, even going in to Oakland would have been a good idea—that is, [WWW]UCOP in Oakland, where you'd find people who actually have some say in the matter. I don't think city hall or 880 fit the bill, sorry.

Moreover, when I've asked (repeatedly) what rational relationship exists between the actions of the protesters and their ostensible goals, the only reply I've heard is: "ummm, the protest was for education." The other obvious possibility is publicity but, for reasons I think I explain clearly here, I find that all but impossible.

It was also diluted by all the causes for which the protesters were apparently demonstrating. All of the budgetary stuff, sure... but Israel, homophobia, racism, the war, and police brutality? Come on, now. The only thing all of that is going to do is undermine the primary message.

This is the one that gets me the most angry, even though it's probably the least substantial. These people claim that the goal of the protest is to lower student fees and return funding for programs, but they WASTE UNIVERSITY MONEY. It's beyond infuriating. It's beyond stupid.

It's like a child running to mom and dad, demanding a bigger allowance, and when he doesn't get it, throwing a fit and starting to break his toys. To quote from one of the supporters, "costing the University system money is precisely in keeping with the goals of the protest, especially if the students continue to be active and pursue it, because it sends the message that the tuition increase isn't going to be a fruitful way to increase revenue." Are you kidding me? Money doesn't grow on trees! Mom and dad can't afford to give you everything you want. When you break your toys, your best case scenario is that the money that might've upped your allowance is going to be used to replace the crap you broke.

What do you expect the university to do? Lay off professors? Staff? Close buildings? Drop graduate programs? End subscriptions to all of the library resources? Cut internet? Yes, there are a variety of ways they can save costs, but the previous times they've tried to do so, other children have locked themselves in Mrak in another fit. I'll bet a lot of them were even the same damn children.

It's also quite ironic that a group that's protesting hate spewed at the LGBT center in the form of graffiti would use graffiti themselves. I recognize that the objection is to the hate and intolerance, not to the use of graffiti; the ironic parallel simply illuminates one more poor choice made by the protesters.

Another disappointing facet of the March 4 events is the simple fact that I can't even write any of it off as that propensity for people to get too fired up. Showing up with good intentions and getting a little overexcited doesn't make spray paint magically materialize in your hands. And the fact that other groups at other universities were equally stupid with the freeway obstruction likewise makes it obvious that that foolish stunt was planned ahead, presumably by the organizers.

The problem with self-described "Activists" (pardon the tangent)
I am referring here to statements like, "it's difficult when you're a student trying to be an activist." This is common. Way too common. When you're "trying to be an activist," rather than "trying to accomplish X," you're focused on the means, not the ends. A protest has no inherent value. I know there are those who will hate me for saying it, but it's true. If a protest doesn't make progress toward a valuable end, it's worthless. By trying to "be an activist," as evidenced in this discussion, it's all too easy to simply dismiss other avenues of trying to reach the same end. When you find yourself dismissing those who share your goals, those who write letters to their representatives, those who discuss the issues with their friends and try to get them out to the polls, simply because they didn't attend a protest, you are doing your goal more harm than good. It may make you an activist, but what good is that doing you or the other people whose interests are at stake?

One additional problem: Fringe groups
My final point is about "activists" who do outrageous, inflamatory, or high-profile disruptive stuff. Do you not realize that you're just like any other fringe group? Being loud and in-your-face doesn't always help, as upsetting as that may be. Fred Phelps holds lots of protests. Should the police block off freeways for him and his followers to stroll down? Am I a "scab" when I choose not to participate in his demonstrations? The fact of the matter is that when you draw negative publicity, you make your movement look bad. Phelps hurts the nation's perception of evangelists among those who don't know enough evangelists to realize that they are (generally) real human beings, not hate-bots.

By being violent, by vandalizing, or by creating problems of the sort this group tried to create, they identify themselves as a fringe group and cast a negative light on their goals. This doesn't just harm you! It affects all UC students.

Conclusion
I'm not sure which bothers me more: the stupid things the protesters did, the hypocrisy inherent in their doing, or the blithe and arrogant attitude of the participants and supporters whose sense of entitlement frees them of any notions of personal responsibility whatsoever. I'm disappointed, but I do hope that the protest was at least cathartic for those involved. I honestly believe that, all too often, catharsis is the primary value of these things.

Signed (ish),
TomGarberson

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Comments:

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2010-03-07 21:20:58   Bravo! Really, truly I would love to see this (perhaps modified slightly due to word length limits) as an op-ed piece in any local/national paper. Wonderfully done.—OliviaY


2010-03-07 21:23:18   It's times like these when I wish that the Wiki had the equivalent of Facebook's "like" button.

Very well said. —IDoNotExist


2010-03-07 21:30:30   tl;dr —TomGarberson


2010-03-07 21:34:40   Thank you — I think most people wholeheartedly agree with you. —MichellePalmer


2010-03-07 21:37:03   Hahaha —IDoNotExist


2010-03-07 21:42:29   I agree wholeheartedly. —MattBlair


2010-03-07 21:51:58   excellent. —ARWENNHOLD


2010-03-07 22:22:00   OK Stayed away from this a bit as I was not personally involved and am still conflicted on my thoughts on all of this but this critique was too obvious to avoid.

"Oh, and when people who are protesting the graffiti on the LGBT center spray paint crap on other school buildings, you know there's something wrong. Seriously."

There is a MAJOR difference between homophobic hate being written on a wall and criticism of the university. Do you really think they were mad about having to paint something over? I'm not even defending their graffiti here but your missing the point of what happened. Seriously.

Note: the this thread of comments refers to the original version of the text which I have since corrected. CraigFergus correctly points out that the use of spray paint graffiti wasn't the grounds for protesting; rather, it was the message contained therein. You can check out the phrasing he critiqued [WWW]here. My apologies for the implication. —tg


2010-03-07 23:33:08   As you probably would gather from what I've written concerning the protest so far, I agree with almost everything you've said. One exception: I agree with Craig that the issue with the LGBT center has everything to do with the message and nothing to do with graffiti. They could have written it in chalk and it would still be offensive. The other exception: I'm really pleased to see students take charge of their own destiny like this, even if it was a bit counter-productive. For years I taught students who were sure that they couldn't make a difference about anything — that life in general and politics in particular was just something that happened to them. So to see students who think they can make a difference makes me smile. There's hope for this generation. Ok, sorry, one more — I think the administration could be making a better case to Sacramento, and to the public at large, than they have been. We need to explain why the UC/CSU is so important to California, since people seem to have forgotten. So, protest to Sac, yes, but I think it's relevant to protest locally, too. (Just in a different manner). —CovertProfessor


2010-03-08 12:40:03   I'm all for protesting and disruption. For the last few years, as I've learned more about them, I've looked up to people like Gandhi and Dr. King for their abilities to bring about major change through nonviolent means. As a rule, though, I tend to think that a protest should be either peaceful, symbolic, or both. Yesterday's was neither, and there were parts of it that were more contradictory than anything.

First, there was no clear message for the protests. A lot of people I talked to, and myself included, thought the protest was all about the budget cuts and the inefficiency of the California Legislature and the UC Regents to provide enough funds for education. People I talked to that were part of the protest included the recent acts of hate and vandalism—swastikas found around campus, the hate speech vandalizing the LGBT center—as reason for protesting. If you don't send a clear message, what can you accomplish? The purpose of a protest should be to get a message across to bring about change, and if no one knows what that message is, it simply looks like unbridled rage. Not only was there not a clear message, there were clear contradictions to the message I believe they were trying to send.

It's one thing to create disruptions and disturbances, to encourage students to come out of the classroom and join you. But to protest your right to an education and then pull fire alarms, literally depriving people of the option to stay in or attend their classes, actually takes away that right from your fellow students. The fact that there was no planning or organization with the fire alarms—if students were smart, they would've had people in every building pulling an alarm at the same time to shut down the ENTIRE campus—makes it look like they were impassioned students doing whatever they felt might be a good idea at the time, with no leadership or organization. Similarly, attempts to block buses that primarily serve students getting to campus to claim their right to an education sends a contradictory message, and even prevents students from getting to campus to protest.

Second, there was no clear leadership. A couple of people have told me there were a few people that did a lot of planning for this protest, but I'm willing to bet that no one knew who was in charge. They could point to a person with a microphone or a megaphone if they wanted, but no one knew the names of a single person (excluding Laura, who was arrested and then released) that had done any planning for the protest. It's so easy to pick up a microphone or megaphone and shout something inflammatory and enrage the students enough to do something like plan to take a freeway. But if no one knows who's ACTUALLY in charge, what's to prevent anyone from pitching an idea and having the entire crowd follow? In that case, all of the planning goes out the window, and it again looks like impassioned rage.

Once the protesters stopped pulling fire alarms and blocking buses—things at least related to their goals, however convoluted the message was—they decided to march to the freeway. I simply can't understand this. There was no symbolism in shutting down the freeway, nor any real common sense. Who would be the first person to step on? As I read Twitter updates from a California Aggie Reporter who was on scene and posting every few minutes or so, I realized that students were actually pushing against police lines and barriers. The decision to take the freeway probably made them more enemies than friends—anyone who had to sit in traffic, anyone who saw it on the news that saw it as a bunch of pissy students trying to do something ridiculous because they were angry—and a lot of students I've talked to don't understand how it made any sense, either. People argue that it would get media attention: it did. The media will give you about two minutes of time, but after that, the story is forgotten. It also detracted from what went on in Sacramento yesterday, which is where I feel the real energy and attention should have been devoted.

I support protesting, but you need to have a plan, a goal, and a clear message. Some symbolism would be nice, too. I also believe the most successful protests have defined leaders who can control the passions of their fellow protesters and prevent it from turning into a mob. The only thing that impressed me about yesterday was that the protesters left the intersection of Anderson and Russell voluntarily, without being asked. It's important to take the anger out of a protest. Passion is one thing, but anger clouds reason, and people don't respond well to it. A protest should be a positive thing to bring about positive change—and yesterday was none of those things. —AaronSamson


2010-03-08 23:06:23   You may wish to read [WWW]David Greenwald's very interesting & supportive take on the protest. —CovertProfessor


2010-03-09 01:27:31   A lot of people complain about how the protests had nothing to do with anything that could help things out. Consider the following excerpt from a booklet put out by some people at Santa Cruz

Everything is set up in advance to ensure that nothing actually changes. 
We are given options for managing the crisis and options for fighting the
cuts. We attend interminable meetings and plan symbolic actions. These
things change nothing. The problem is simple: no decision making body
has the power to give us what we want—especially during a crisis. The
deans and chancellors making the cuts are subordinate to the UC presi-
dent. The UC president is subordinate to the Board of Regents. The Board
of Regents gets its funding from the legislature. And the hands of the leg-
islature are tied by the the California constitution, which requires a two-
thirds majority to raise taxes.

We must reject all options on offer and demonstrate that without negotia-
tions, it is still possible to act. That is why we do not make demands. All
demands assume the existence of a power capable of conceding them.
We know this power does not exist. Why go through the motions of ne-
gotiating when we know we will not win anything but paltry concessions?
Better to reveal the nature of the situation: there is no power to which we
can appeal except that which we have found in one another.

[WWW]SourceWilliamLewis


2010-03-09 08:09:19   In other words, "Graaaaaaah! Annnngggrrrryyyy!"

I stand by my criticism. —TomGarberson

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