On October 1st, Speak out for a Just Transition: Denounce the UC Administration’s Hypocrisy Around the Free Speech Movement
An Op-Ed by the Cal Progressive Coalition (CPC)
At first glance, it may seem to many of Berkeley’s numerous environmentalists that organizing around the Free Speech Movement’s 50th anniversary is a bit outside of our normal scope. However, the importance of engaging in this struggle becomes clear when we reflect on our collective experiences in trying to convince the Regents and the Administration to support sustainability efforts on our campus, and the general futility of “free speech” when it is directed toward an unaccountable and undemocratic institution.
It is clear that the Regents have no real interest in truly making the University of California a force for sustainability and justice. They have given concessions on the environmental front here and there–but only as long as it is a feel-good story that they do not need to back with real action (i.e. President Janet Napolitano’s“Global Food Initiative” and “Climate Neutrality by 2025”). The protracted efforts of Fossil Free UC has resulted ina vague and fuzzy recommendation by a rushed and sloppy Task Force, which advocates for future investments to include “holistic measures”. Similarly, beyond the trite “feed the world” rhetoric of the Global Food Initiative, UCOP has yet to deeply contend with global issues such as corporate land grabs and the peasant and indigenous uprisings against industrial agro-food systems currently taking place across the world. Meanwhile, the Regents actions locally–like paving over historic farmland at the Gill Tract Farm, and refusing to provide basic benefit agreements to the environmental justice community around the Richmond Bay Campus–show just how hollow their words really are.
The Regents are obvious representatives of the forces in our society that benefit from the status quo. The Regents are composed of business elites, with strong affiliations with billion-dollar corporate sponsors, and whose professional and social networks include those very people who fight against grassroots mobilizations for change; this is why fossil fuel companies like Chevron and British Petroleum are prominent partners of the UC. Even seemingly progressive programs like the Global Food Initiative are advanced in partnership with dominant agricultural mega-corporations like Mars.
Given this history, should we really continue to negotiate in good faith with the Administration on environmental issues, despite clear empirical evidence that the Regents have no real reason to listen to us—and that whenever they do make concessions, the programs that they advance will ensure the preservation of state and corporate power?
We environmentalists should also recognize that other constituents of the UC have had similar (if not identical) experiences with regards to their inability to have a real voice in the governance of the university. During the last Regents meeting, when the decision around fossil fuel divestment was postponed yet again, it was also decided that administrators should receive yet another pay raise. In addition, the Regents decided to pour $250 million into a new, UC-sponsored venture capitalist firm. And all this during a period of deteriorating working conditions for graduate students and a culture of repression for UC service workers.
Indeed, the only people that the Regents seem even less blithely unconcerned about than students and workers is the wider community—it is clear that all their talk about “practicality” in terms of divestment is purely from the perspective of their own elite, privileged positions in society. But for the population of frontline communities, who must deal with constant, systemic violence from the fossil fuel industry in the form of air pollution, political corruption, and even military repression, the Regents notion of “practicality” must seem like some kind of twisted joke. A similar dynamic holds in the Regents’ policies around the UC Village, a university-managed student family housing complex with high numbers of residents who are burdened with poverty and food insecurity. The University has seen fit to remove the word “affordable” from the complex’s mission statement, turning it into simply another revenue-generator for the UC; consequently, rents have skyrocketed, with petitions and task forces gaining Village residents little to no concessions .
What is evident from all of this is that the Administration has a policy of silencing dissent—whether this is accomplished by actively repressing efforts to organize, or simply by the very fact that there is absolutely no reason for the oligarchy of the Regents to listen to or empower students, workers, and local communities, or to include them in any decision-making process. It is this latter fact that should be emphasized—after all, what is the point of “free speech” if nobody is listening?
And yet, the Administration sees nothing bizarre or hypocritical about painting itself as a progressive and popular institution via its celebration of the Free Speech Movement. This hypocrisy is not lost on the FSM veterans who will be attending this semester’s commemorations; as a recent op-ed by an FSM veteran puts it:
“A university that had nearly 800 of us arrested in December 1964 is welcoming us back by hanging Free Speech banners on the building we occupied. We’re coming home like a victorious football team. But it’s not a real victory, because the same forces that tried to shut us up in the 1960s have a more chilling form of control over U.S. college students today than they ever had over us.”
Berkeley’s environmental community needs to take an active stand against the hypocrisy of the Regents, and this Wednesday is a perfect opportunity to mobilize. And we should take note that we will not be doing this alone, but alongside allies, comrades, and neighbors, all of whom have had similar experiences—and reached similar conclusions—about the Regents, the Administration, and what needs to be done in order to get all of our rightful seats at the decision-making table. Thus, this action should not be seen merely as yet another protest, but as an opportunity to plug in to an existing (and growing) coalition of various environmentalists, student groups, labor unions, and community members who are coordinating their efforts to undermine the Regents’ efforts to white-wash and reappropriate the narrative around the Free Speech Movement, and advance their own struggles in a collaborative and coordinated fashion.
Furthermore, recognize that this type of coalition-building–particularly between environmental and labor groups–is critical to advancing a movement for a “just transition”, and ensuring that environmental protections and the development of a green economy is not done in a manner that maintains or deepens exploitation on grounds of race and class. The need for a just transition was one of the overarching themes of the People’s Climate March, when labor unions and climate justice groups marched hand-in-hand, and bringing this type of unity to Berkeley is the best way we can maintain the momentum from the march and mobilize it locally against the Regents and the status quo. And like Flood Wall Street the day after the march, as environmental groups, we should be turning our attention to the corporate and financial systems within our very own university.
[Read more about the UC Extractive Economy in the Disorientation Guide]
So come out on Wednesday, link up with the Cal Progressive Coalition, and resist the repressive nature of the UC Administration and their desire to pretend that radical organizing against systems of oppression and exploitation are a thing of the past.
Nothing would honor the memory of the FSM movement more than keeping the struggle alive.