Last night, a collection of students from various organizations or not affiliated with anything other than their own desire to be free seized the pyre intended to serve as the focal point for the annual “Beat ‘SC” bonfire and rally.
The students who blocked the pyre on the November, 20th sent the message to administrators and students that business as usual will not continue at the privatized university.
The action, which took place last night over the course of three hours, can be described as an occupation, a reclamation, sabotage, performance art, or all of the above.
Students in this action braved insults and hostility from thousands of surrounding students including a few bottles thrown, promises and veiled threats from administrators who wanted to clear the pyre and later warned “we can’t protect you from the other students” (see what they were hinting at there), and an attempt by one angry sports fan to light the pyre despite protestors sitting on it and marching around it. The student who was intent to answer other’s calls to light up the pyre as well as the protesters was given a friendly warning by UC management.
In social media and in conversations around campus many have been asking, “Why attack a Bruin tradition?” “Why take something away from fellow students?” “Why not protest somewhere else?” “Isn’t this going to turn students against you?”
There are no singular answers to these questions, and attempts to find them or provide them risk simplification of what is a long process of resisting the university and life under neoliberalism, or serving as justification for something that should not be justified – only reproduced – over and over and over again. Students gathered and responded to the tuition hikes in the way that felt natural to them. Perhaps the idea of school spirit was offensive on Thursday, November 20th. As it should be, at the very least, every time November rolls around.
Answers aside, the action gestures toward a way forward. The action forces engagement with questions about our lives, our expectations as components of the university, and how to fight back. Already, hundreds (if not thousands) of UCLA students are having conversations about the most effective way to oppose management, even if only asking “why not pick another target?” Such questions would not enter into the consciousness of a vast majority of students if the target in question was not chosen. Only a direct disruption of so-called “community” life at UCLA could have produced such a result.
So fuck the question of “why?” The interesting question is “what?”
The action challenged notions of Bruin Pride and shared community that are far too easily held. A community does not exist where its alleged members are assaulted, marginalized, and increasingly excluded for decades. A community does not exist at all at UCLA and perhaps only did in its early days as a kind of pre-country club for white students who were either already wealthy or who were looking to fulfill all the promises whiteness had to offer, before increased access to people of color was granted after years of struggle which is also the precise moment that tuition was instituted at this “great” university. Management seems to long for the “good old days,” as they continue to undertake actions which they know will bleed students of color from the university like an open wound.
UCLA community is a myth. Bruin pride is a disease when to be a Bruin means to be under constant assault. WAU reserves pride for those who are not proud.
The myth of the UCLA community does nothing but facilitate internalization of the UCLA brand. It generates loyalty and pride in the operation of the campus. The internalization of this brand operates much like W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the “psychological wage.” In the case of UCLA, the brand generates a sense of belonging and superiority to those who do not hold the brand. It serves as a stand-in for benefits and connections that might have otherwise been made without the brand, such as free education and decision-making power in university policy. The brand facilitates obedience: to the hikes, to UCPD, to the myth of our futures as the special elite who somehow deserve to be here more than others, to management – and ultimately to proudly paying our loan bills. The brand both obscures and facilitates the violence of the university against its students and workers, regardless of whether one does or does not internalize the brand. The feeling of belonging that the myth of community provides is a tremendous benefit of the brand, one so powerful that students will fight to defend it even against their other interests.
There may be thousands of communities within the boundaries of this institution – coping, benefiting, struggling in a myriad ways. But this institution is not a community and there is no singular encompassing membership that does, or perhaps even should, benefit us as individuals or discipline and police our behavior. That is why management has its own private reserve of state troopers: UCPD. UC management’s private army enforces obedience on the fringes of the brand, where the brand’s disciplining effects fail to operate. More often than not the mythical figure of this community, which our student loan bills or labor and inadequate paychecks buy us the “right” to internalize, is evoked precisely to prevent struggle and disruption of university operations.
Bruin “unity” is a shorthand for “shut up, sit down, and get back to work.” Bruin “unity” is a shorthand for you do not belong here. We do not belong here, that is made clear to us every day we spend embedded in the university. But we will not “love it or leave it.” We will take what should have been ours from day one. Starting with “pride.” We desire multiple communities and associations. We desire a university that is truly ours. We desire to extend “our” to as many people who would like it, rather than narrow it to comfort ourselves in our superiority as test-takers and admissions-statement writers.
The sabotage of the bonfire was not an attack on the UCLA community, which does not exist, but an attack on the easy reproduction of the myth. The success of this sabotage forces confrontation with the true, slow, and constant violence of the university itself.
Reclaiming, remaking, seizing, transforming, or otherwise changing the university to make it ours cannot be done without sacrifice. It can not be slotted in between already occurring events, in particular, those events which help to reinforce that the university is a good and beneficial place to inhabit. It can not be convenient.
To those who say the action polarized the student body the response is: right on. Pick a side. You can choose the side of students who devoted more energy to their anger towards students protesting the university because they interrupted a pep rally bonfire that was to be kicked off by a man who we pay over three million dollars to coach “our” team and join them in their anger or criticism, or you can choose the side of resistance and disruption and sacrifice and creativity and freedom. You don’t even have to join the students who were there – you just have to recognize that you are either allowing the university to continue as usual or you are not and act according to the side you have chosen.
Within the fire pit students were debating, singing, chanting, talking, sharing water and food, thinking through what it really means to be in this institution and making decisions that effected how the university was operating at the moment of their intervention. These students actively altered, in the interest of all students, what would have been the almost automatic reproduction of the management’s preferred marketing image of the university and its brand: “proud students” who are “excited to be here” – a fairly important message for them to publicize on the day of the hikes. Outside the firepit students were passively listening to pre-arranged speakers and performers who were inciting them to enjoy their day with no mention of the hikes. They were being spoken to by at least one millionaire, and they were being monitored by dozens of cops and managers who were there to make sure they behaved as planned. It is precisely that students must reject the schools attempts to discipline them as proud and interested observers. The model of the sports fan is the model for our participation in the politics of the university. Yesterday, observers were given a new model.
It is no wonder that at the point in which management removed its “protection” by disassembling barricades separating proud bruins from unproud debtors that the size of sabotage participants more than doubled. It is no wonder that for many in the crowd the experience of hearing students direct their anger toward a group made up primarily of students of color disrupting the pep rally itself generated action in solidarity, and it is no wonder that a majority of those who left the rally to join the disruption were themselves students of color.
Nobody loves students full of school spirit more than management. Nobody benefits more from you branding yourself with their logo and cartoon characters and nationalistic devotion to a sports team of unpaid athlete laborers headed by a millionaire at the expense of education spending than management. Fuck the brand. Fuck school spirit.
The sabotage of the bonfire kept the reality and violence of tuition hikes visible precisely at the moment when it was to be forgotten in a haze of brand-pride. It was undertaken by a group of those who have no option but to confront that violence every day, whether through working overtime to pay rent, leaving the university, or seeking counseling to deal with the stress of it all. It was taken on behalf of all those who are not only hurt by the cuts but by the pride and myth of special belonging that the rally reproduces and that ultimately justifies the narrowing of the university at the expense of all those who are not here, but would like to be.
All actions that help to ensure that the violence of the university against its students and workers is visible each time the university itself becomes visible must be supported. The knowledge of the university as antithetical to our needs and interests will not be compartmentalized and forgotten. It will not be the sole domain of those who are most immediately effected. We will not be constructed by those with the privilege to forget as a niche group that can be engaged or cast aside at a whim. We do not respect your right to not give a shit. We do not respect tradition, We do not respect your right to enjoy your time here at the expense of our lives. We will be an antidote to amnesia. We will highlight that all activity either strengthens management or disrupts it and we will continue to make people examine the priorities of their activity and to pick a side. We will grow. We will fight.
Solidarity to all those who declared that Thursday, November 20th is not a day of Bruin Pride. To those who were in the crowd, resist… or not. We will not stop anything other than business as usual.
We are everywhere.
Below is a collection of press coverage generated immediately following the action. Whatever else these stories say, management did not enjoy the free advertisement that they normally get on the day of the “Beat ‘SC” bonfire: