Why Don't American Students Strike?
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Coming from Occupy Philly — which is deciding whether to continue to have General Assemblies at all, and is working on a consensus-based process partially because some consider voting to be violent — the contrast was stark.
Occupy’s “step up, step back” anti-oppression policy and radical horizontalism calls for participants to favor underrepresented voices by taking into account how privilege embedded in their identities affects their language, manner, and ideas. The assembly at L'Université du Québec à Montréal, which was governed by principles similar to Robert’s Rules, simply asked that no one speak twice before everyone got a chance to speak once, that speakers alternate in gender, and that nominated facilitators be approved by a vote.
The structure is designed for efficiency and accountability all the way down. Students belong to unions in their faculties and departments, which send delegates to a congress, where any decision made must be ratified by each departmental assembly. Occupy exerts great effort to ensure that all participants feel like their concerns have been heard, while Montrealers focus more on productivity and yet few seem to feel hurt or excluded.
Quebec’s particular culture of solidarity, or syndicalism, engenders the trust necessary for a union structure to function well. The culture also fosters a sense of inclusivity and understanding that makes the movement more inviting to all students.
“It’s not about tuition for me, and it never was,” said Mehreen. Both Mehreen and Noemi Stern, an activist at McGill University in Montreal, have political visions that extend far beyond a tuition freeze. Stern hopes for small, autonomous, democratic communities, while Mehreen wants an end to privatization of public services.
But the manifencours (a name for the protests meaning “manifestations in the streets”) are not about dismantling the system, and these radical-leaning activists are okay with that. “We went on strike on those demands, so we want a resolution,” Mehreen declared. Even if a tuition freeze feels inadequate or social change based in the political system seems reformist, they remain committed to their classmates.
Mehreen personally convinced students that striking works, and that the 75 percent tuition hike was the reason to strike now. Mehreen’s sense of obligation and respect for the student union’s decisions makes her want to include students with a range of political views, including those counter to her own.
“We just want to go to school,” cried Zupa Semitego, a protester without particularly radical aspirations who has been shocked by police repression. She claimed, “[The police] made this into a bigger thing than it is.” According to Mehreen, once involved, many like Semitego have become radicalized through the experience of participatory democracy or the sting of pepper spray.
On American campuses, most students are not attracted to activist groups, and some feel alienated or even attacked by them. Is such solidarity even possible in America, particularly with its plurality of identities?
According to Wall Street Occupier David Murphy, it’s not. “Shared identity. We don’t have that in America,” said Murphy, who came to Canada for the protests.
“There are so many different cultures in the US that they fractionalize,” Murphy claimed, pointing to splits in Chicago. “Occupy Chicago is now the college students which are mostly white. Occupy El Barrio…is mostly Latin American, and Occupy the Hood…is predominately African American.”
I went to Montreal’s culturally mixed Côte-des-Neiges for a neighborhood assembly, to see how Quebecois solidarity dealt with diversity. Despite a few instances of interruptions and overbearing speeches, the meeting was marked by smiles and excited conversation. This included an international student’s declaration that he identified as “a part of Quebec society until [his] last day in Canada.”