The University as a Site of Struggle: On Occupying in a Midwest College Town

A short reflection on the meaning of democracy and our experience at Occupy organizing at a large “public” university in Michigan.

Occupy Detroit's general assembly meeting Friday evening in Grand Circus Park.


The three of us first began organizing together under the aegis of Occupy in 2011 at the university where we work (though we were also involved in other regional/local Occupies). While the GAs on our campus initially drew more than a hundred students, our numbers quickly began to decline and we ultimately turned into a sort of affinity group that, while consistently active, became a closed space with little potential for movement building. Looking back, we remain convinced that universities are an under organized space in anticapitalist struggles but that the dominant organizing models, in particular their emphasis on democracy, require some fundamental rethinking. In what follows, we detail our experience with the GA and sketch out some of the reasons why it failed to serve as the organizing space that we had initially hoped for.

The GAs were one of the most visible and emblematic features of Occupy and were frequently celebrated as consensus-based decision-making bodies both based on and dedicated to principles of radical democracy. GAs helped to introduce thousands of participants to numerous practices that, while well known to anarchist organizers and professional activists (facilitation, stack, consensus, committees/working groups, etc.), were unfamiliar to many newcomers. Compared with the dismal charade of “politics” characteristic of the electoral system, the experience of “real democracy” was in many ways captivating. It created widely circulable images of protestors and offered a tangible way to imagine what they were seeking when they themselves refused to issue precise demands. These practices were quickly drawn into the everyday language of Occupy, most often in the form of “prefigurative” politics.

While GAs in New York, for example, seemed to draw large numbers over long periods of time, the GAs on our campus quickly became an exhausting and draining burden. First and foremost, they were really, really long. Open conversations often take a long time and at times can end up doing little more than going over the same ground. At the same time, since we weren’t actually occupying a space on campus, participants weren’t already gathered in the same place for an indefinite period of time—folks had other places to be, struggling to find enough time to study and work to pay to study. Second, as numbers dropped at the meetings, the bureaucratic structures of the GA began to seem a little ridiculous. When there are only 20 people in a room, there simply is not a need for such a formalized structure. Given that our meeting size varied so much, planning appropriately was a problem. Third, in part because we were not holding space, our meetings tended to be unfocused. Too much time was spent discussing demands and formulating principles, and not enough on planning actions. It was frustrating to attend a three-hour GA whose purpose could not be synthesized and which often had no product. Ultimately the long, drawn out, romantically declarative GA felt like a fetishistic performance of what we imagined politics to be.

We see these problems as arising not from inefficient or otherwise flawed procedures that impede the GA’s democratic function but rather from the obsession with democracy itself. Neither “better facilitation” nor “bigger GAs” would have changed the political valence of the Occupy model or, for that matter, the objective conditions of struggle on our campus. Democracy is synonymous with a liberal politics in which politics as such is defined as speech and individual rights take precedence over collective missions. Below we offer a series of hypotheses about how the GA conceived of politics and democracy and lay out some questions that, we think, might help us develop new ways to organize.

Democracy and the GA

Hypothesis 1: GAs are based on the notion that speech is equivalent to democracy and, as a consequence, politics. The structures of democracy that are embedded in the GA form (participation is showing via hand signals or voicing your opinion about a given topic, the human mic and repetition of speech, and so on) will always tend, despite strong disavowals to the contrary, toward a form of politics as speech. The GA absorbs direct action into itself, coordinating and distributing speech acts that come to stand in for the anarchist politics from which the GA emerges. So people talk about how Occupy has “already won” because it “changed the national conversation” about inequality. The premise is that speaking aloud comes to supersede and in a way replace structural change. Talking has to lead to action—the two are intertwined and there must be space for both, but mere denunciation is not enough. In our Occupy, which was not holding space, we spent far more time talking than doing. Meetings can be great, and can generate the social bonds that form the basis of solidarity, but without direct action that potential solidarity withers and dies before it can be tested, strengthened, and deployed.

Furthermore, many of our direct actions—such as interrupting a regents’ meeting or a speech at the Business school with a mic check—in fact took the form of vocal denunciations, of political speech. The most common reaction to the mic checks seemed to be mild irritation. Other than short delays, our speech had few material consequences. In fact, it could be argued that our actions served to improve the university’s image as a “site of free speech.” After we disrupted a regents’ meeting, the president of our university published an open letter to President Obama the next day beseeching him to address the issue student debt. Shortly after that, he appeared on campus for some photo ops. Tuition still increased 2.8% for in-state students and 3.5% for out-of-state students the following year.

Hypothesis 2: Given the dominance of the notion of politics as speech, the GA has a problematic tendency to become the primary site of subjectivization. In its presumptively prefigurative model, the forms of democracy it enables and proliferates come to stand as the embodiment of a coming “democratic” community. But the GA is a horrible site for introducing people to a movement, changing their minds, convincing them to get involved—don’t you want your life to be more like an unending series of 3-hour long meetings? In sites like ours where there is not already a significant level of radicalization (more than 10-20 students and faculty) finding ways of building a group of people to undertake actions and protest is critical. Equally important is having multiple points of entry and forms of involvement. What this means is that the structure of governance (a GA, a meeting, a spokescouncil) ceases to be the place we bring people to try to convince them that they should care more deeply about student debt, go on strike, or occupy a building.

Hypothesis 3: The GA is a weak organizing model because it doesn’t think of itself as an organizing model. This creates a problematic overlap between the “form of governance” and the “structure of movement.” These have to be separated. Take the following three cases. In Occupy Oakland, there was initially a dialectic between subjectivization in the streets and containment in the GA, but once this dialectic broke down (coming to favour the GA over the streets) there was no other structure supporting the movement. In Occupy Wall Street, there was a shift from the GA (form of governance) to a dual model with both a GA and a spokescouncil as a parallel organizational structure. Here, the separation between structure and governance is too pronounced and results in a form of shadow governance—the spokescouncil wields the real power and the GAs turn into performance art. In the Occupy at our university, this overlap between governance and structure led to the group’s transformation into an affinity group. Sensing the hollowness of the GA as an organizing model, we shifted to friendship, which is a firmer organizing structure, but which had high barriers to entry and few points for subjectivization.

Hypothesis 4: The most powerful GAs are tied to actions or called to determine if a group of people is willing to undertake a large-scale action (“large-scale” being a scalar term, depending on where and how many you are). If we stop thinking of the GA as either an organizational structure or as a site of subjectivization, we can then ask ourselves what it is they do well. In our opinion, the GA works best under two conditions: 1) it involves a decision on an action (in other words, it operates not as mechanism of containment but rather in a dialectic with direct action), and 2) the decision and process of making the decision has a profound effect of supernumerary collectivity (even if it is marked by intense disagreements with other participants). This does not require perpetual repetition or a reconvening as a general meeting structure, but is more of a collective beginning for a very tangible, visible struggle. It does not rely on a notion of politics as speech, but rather links speech and action.

Next Steps for Campus Organizing

While over the last few years we have seen significant examples of police violence and repression on campuses across the country (especially in California and New York), university administrations more often engage protesters in less direct ways which are highly effective in generating burnout. The denial of confrontation, which while possibly dangerous is at the same time useful for mobilization, ultimately leaves us inaudible. Coupled with the bureaucracy of endless meetings, the administrative response exhausts enthusiasm for movement building. Changing the university requires bringing a halt to the “business” of its everyday operations, something that will actually require the university to publicly confront protestors. For this to happen on our campus, we will need to build support for more militant direct actions.

One of the challenges to organizing on campus is getting undergraduate students—many of whom are being buried under mountains of student debt—to realize that their degree will probably not result in the comfortable middle class lifestyle that they’ve been told awaits them after graduation. This runs counter to their day-to-day experiences in which they do not yet find themselves in the uncomfortable position of not being able to pay back their loans. In a way, we are asking students to anticipate their own future failure. We need to think through the temporality of what people are being asked to act on and how that impacts participation. This requires a longer term relationship with students that may even extend beyond the time it takes them to graduate. Community involvement needs to include alumni and a more intergenerational approach to thinking the figure of “the student.”

With regards to graduate students and faculty, we need to dispel the notion that your scholarship can be your activism. Participation in university-based activism means material risk for individuals whose careers are tied to the institution in such an intimate way. Many of our colleagues, while championing anticapitalist, antiracist, and feminist politics in their work, routinely fail to participate in an open struggle to change the structures that govern our lives. While our writing and research can feed, nurture, and illuminate our struggles (and vice versa), the two should not be conflated. As scholars, we need to put our bodies where our theory is.

Given the current state of student debt, a vicious administrative class, and the prevalence of idealism and creativity, we believe that university campuses are logical and essential sites of struggle. That being said, the university is a trap—only university-based struggles that aim at generalization, at escaping the university and becoming part of wider social condition of refusal (as in Quebec), will have a shot at avoiding either recuperation or reformism. For us, this implies a two part, long-term organizing problem: first, organizing enough students to form a powerful bloc capable of acting on the terrain of the university, and second, organizing the communities that surround us.


Archipelago Issue 0

Recently we posted an essay, “Please Don’t Move to the Bay,” from Issue 0 of the new journal Archipelago. Now you can read the whole issue online. It’s on Issuu and available in imposed/readable PDF forms here. Check it out. And to get you started, here’s an excerpt from the Editorial Notes, copied from Anarchist News:

We’re pleased to present the preliminary issue of Archipelago, a journal of Midwest anarchy. We do this, not to affirm some idea of the Midwest as a strictly-bounded geographic area or to affirm ‘the anarchy’ as a static ideology– rather than align ourselves with a political position that bases itself on a program or utopian vision (read: anarchism), we want to engage with and subvert the chaos, the anarchy, that exists around us. Furthermore, we wish to acknowledge what ties us together: our separation from the coasts, our relative isolation from one another, our penchant for troublemaking, and our desire to overthrow everything in this terrible world. And, although we often find ourselves adrift at sea without a navigable course, lines of affinity occasionally appear to us with startling clarity, contributing to a burgeoning collective intensity and helping our islands seem a little less distant from one another.

While this journal will mainly focus on points of conflict that present themselves around us and that we involve ourselves in, we also want to draw lines between our struggles here and those in other places; coast to coast, across borders and oceans. We conjure inspiration and strength from our comrades everywhere, however, we don’t want to place them on a pedestal just because their actions appear more spectacular to us. We’re waging war on the existent here and now; we continue to experiment and process, to understand and convey these things as well as we can. There isn’t one way to overthrow empire or for us to see our cities in flames, but rather a multiplicity of positions and approaches that can bring us closer to the moments of rupture we long for.

[Certain] questions remain dear to us: how, in places where we are few and spread out, can we contribute to ruptures that feel necessary for our survival? How can we share tactics and analysis and compare notes in a manner that doesn’t revolve around cliquish counter-cultural circles and already-present points of contact? How can our struggles not feel so isolated to our individual locales, but relay off of and amplify each other? On this note, this issue-zero focuses primarily on acts and evaluation originating in a few midwestern cities. We hope that this won’t always be the case and, as this publication disseminates, those both known and unknown to us will contribute articles, critiques and conversations.

In putting our thoughts and analysis out into the world on paper, our intentions are multifaceted. The obvious tension between how things appear on the internet and how we engage with them in the world is rife with potential and pitfalls. We can’t begin this project without asserting our commitments to the printed word, but not solely as a reactionary position against the internet. We want a record of our thoughts and movements to exist in various forms, for careful consideration and fond recollection by history, and we want these records to exist on our own terms. We hold nothing but contempt for the media and place no trust in their (lack of) representation of our struggles. Let our direction be clear: we write for those whom we hold in our hearts, and for those who hold us in theirs. For those we have met, and the future comrades we yearn to encounter, and to anyone who is enraged by the tyranny of capitalism.

Please Don’t Move to the Bay

This post is an excerpt from a new soon-to-be released anarchy journal titled Archipelago and published by comrades in the Midwest. We repost it from Bay of Rage as part of a critical dialogue over the position of Oakland within the national context of social struggle and the necessity of maintaining a thriving and vicious network of hubs and nodes that spread far beyond the coastal metropoles.

The world isn’t as big as it used to be. Our ability to communicate and travel quickly over distance has created the illusion that place doesn’t matter as it used to. The internet is considered a realm where ideas can meet and intermingle, free of earthly burdens. While the ease of these interactions can be heralded as a breakthrough, what we’ve lost is context. The ways in which crisis unfolds and austerity is felt are not the same everywhere. Our regional differences create a much broader critique of capitalist infrastructure that is, in fact, global in scale. With our ability to disseminate information and material resources over a broad landscape, it could be argued that these diversified points of production are no longer a concern. We disagree.

Over the last few years, the San Francisco Bay Area (“the Bay”) has become a focal point for those wishing to do battle with the state in its varied forms. The clashes that continually transpire there are an inspiration to those fighting in other parts of the country. We sat with rapt attention as the nights and days following Oscar Grant’s murder unfolded. There were collective sighs of joy as BART stations were attacked and looted Nikes took flight down city streets. Frustration and delight filled us as a barrage of tear gas and cudgel blows rained on crowds that were adamant in their refusal to disperse.

The level of action and struggle that now appears commonplace in the Bay is something to be proud of. People have found one another and built the spaces, both real and ethereal, necessary for rebellion to begin to generalize beyond the obvious players. The process started decades ago with a consistent ebb and flow dependent on the proclivities and fashion of the decade. Discerning the exact methodologies or points that have created this current wave is impossible and unnecessary. Something that can be pointed to as one of many reasons has been the constant flux of anarchists from around the country both into and out of the Bay area. This shifting of bodies makes sense, and will continue to happen as long as places like Oakland hold the appeal that they do in this moment. In other words, we don’t blame you for thinking Oakland is hot shit.

At the same time, the situation in Oakland, specifically the Oakland Commune, does not exist in a void. It is not the exception to the inactivity of other cities and towns across the continent. Both the idea that other places are not active, or that Oakland has always been on the initiating end of the spectrum are common fallacies. A focusing of many of our attentions toward the west coast is one of the reasons it was able to create and strengthen itself for such a time. The back and forth between the street fights in Oakland and the solidarity actions that followed, both nationally and internationally, helped galvanize the widespread support that the Commune received. Locally, solidarity actions helped create a culture of responding to police attacks. The imagery of the ground war that unfolded in Oakland pushed many people out of otherwise pacified roles. They became active participants in a broader refusal to obey local law enforcement.

When tear gas ran through the air, and rubber bullets tore open the flesh of our friends it was not just us who called for the moments of solidarity. Occupy encampments in various cities were a large part of the call for passive solidarity marches, vigils, and other fairly detestable points in which fellowship could be shown. We may not agree with the tactics, rhetoric, or really very much of anything to do with these Occupy franchises, but the importance lies in the fact that they were paying attention. The gaze of the country was directed towards this one space, and in a moment it spun outward again. Marches, graffiti, small and large demos, new occupations, vandalism all happened in response to attacks by the OPD. And in that moment, the numbers swelled. All of our abilities to move forward became easier as we loomed larger on the horizon.

Local anarchist intervention into various occupy encampments helped shape the dialogue significantly. That being said, we have all been fairly disappointed by the American fall. Leave it to the Left in this country to take the momentum of the toppling of dictators and the mass occupation of public space and turn it into a symbolic Bank of America protest. The end result of the experiment that constituted taking space near Wall St. would have been much bleaker if anarchists had not positioned themselves at necessary intervals along the way. The intent never needed to be about strengthening the Occupy movement, or lending it support but about changing the terrain. Sometimes that looks quite a bit like disruption and sabotage. In the end, we found out that, for the most part, Occupy was just a hash tag, and the Occupation was, in fact, just a gathering. In the end, anarchists involved in many of the occupations were a primary source of the few redeeming aspects Occupy had to offer. The picture would have been desperately bleak had there not already been fairly well established anarchists dispersed around the country.

The circuitry of Occupations across the country have emerged as a weak, but discernible network of solidarity. One must ignore the pleas for non-violence, the unending consensus discussions, hand signals and wingnuts to get a picture of the more important themes revealing themselves. As anarchists we have poured ourselves into a thin layer, bunching up for certain moments and completely abandoning regions in another, often with little reflection beyond a personal interest in a summit or scene. It is in the spaces where this has been least prevalent, where people have called their cities home for more than 6 months, that the most exciting and interesting moments have transpired. They are minor in scale, but the ability to pull off street actions and building takeovers in places like Atlanta, St. Louis and Minneapolis can certainly be attributed to the influence of anarchists in those cities.

We want to recreate the feeling of reading about an eruption in places like Carrboro, NC and Memphis, TN that makes you yell out damn, even that place! When our presence is overweighted and the west coast starts to tip ever-heavier, we lose that possibility. We lose momentum, that feeling that we are a part of something larger. Not a movement, as we would never call for such. The idea of creating a platform, where our responses to the horrors that this world creates could be held to a standard or rigidly coordinated, is detestable. On the contrary, the possibility of a strategic positioning of ourselves and our resources, so that when a moment becomes hot we may strike, is what we are championing.

This is also not a charge for digging in, for stubbornly refusing to abandon ships as they sink around us. The small towns and lesser cities we occupy are not sacred spaces we dare not desecrate. They are often banal and devoid of the wealth of camaraderie we thrive on. But, this does not mean they are not home, and don’t move beyond the sentimentality that such a title can create. Indeed, they can become the places we love with such a passion that we want to burn them to the ground, where such destruction is the only appropriate conveyance of such passions.

There can be intention within the spaces we inhabit. A constellation of centers that information and bodies pass through, or places that reinforce them materially or politically. It is in fact this strategy that has created lasting focuses of rebellion across the country. The rapture that one feels at the eruption and escalation of revolt as it circles outward can’t be felt if we drain all the smaller cities and towns that dot the political geography. Instead, we must locate the important distinctions that can be made between areas known and areas lesser known and exploit them.

Distinctions between these two ideas do not need to be glaringly obvious, nor do they need to be static. Our towns can become strategic points for re-grouping, especially if there is already a precedent for such a thing. Conversely, the roads we do not tread as often are ripe for the execution of any number of plots. These contradictory stances can happen simultaneously, especially when multiple groupings share the same city. The concepts presented here are not particularly new or breathtaking; they are a reiteration and continuation of the methodologies implied in how many of us already live our lives. The difference in this permutation is intention. The conversations that materialize herein, particularly when discussing how major mobilizations and campaigns can effect our nighttime adventures, are ones worth having. Looking past the next season and into an idea of the future may in fact help create the force necessary to rip this future to shreds.

What if the organic way in which we separate the place where we play from where we work was more recognized? What if the tendencies we fall into, traveling to a certain city to get our kicks, while shopping and printing and eating big dinners together in another, had a greater level of intention? The last four years have shown that the war machine is possible, that we can care for each other and bandage the wounds that allow us to keep fighting, that we can procure the material resources necessary to move onto the next locale. The terrain is ever changing, the necessity we see before us is to become more equipped to change with it. More friends are going to be stolen from us, more beaten and bloodied. The edifices that hold them, that house their captors and those willing to tear open their flesh deserve our attention. We are going to lose this war, but the battles fought from here until then are open to all that wish to fight.