Welcome to a New Student Movement: Dispatch from a Liberated Library

It’s just past one in the morning, and in the UC Berkeley Anthropology Library, students squint at their laptops, scratch out equations in their notebooks, and chat in hushed voices. It’s midterms weekend, and some students are just now catching up on a half-semester’s worth of work.

The scene almost looks typical for a weekend reserved for studying. But an impromptu snack bar sits in the corner – three chairs pushed together, piled with boxes of bread, homegrown vegetables, Cliff Bars, hummus, and nuts. The sound of a human beatbox travels over the stacks: across the room, a student raps in front of a large group of his peers, who laugh and shout at his rhymes about the library, the law, and the university president, Mark Yudoff. After him, another student stands and reads an original poem about racial privilege and the police.

This is no typical late-night cram session. This is a liberated library.

In the spring of 2008, I was invited to sit on a panel on the topic “From Vietnam to Iraq.” As a master’s student and one of the organizers of a week-long series of protests and events related to the war in Iraq, I had been asked to address the state of youth activism today. Looking out at the audience, largely composed of veterans of the 1968 Columbia University student uprisings, I could think of only one thing to say: “I am a pallbearer.”

Today, a year and a half later, I’m writing to say that that has changed.

Today, I’m writing to you from a liberated library, a space reclaimed by some 300 members of the University of California, Berkeley – students, faculty and staff who have come together to take hold of public education, to tell the administration and the state, This is OUR university!

Our university – recognized as the best public university in the world – is in peril. While a proposed 32% fee hike for undergraduates threatens to limit our student body to a privileged and wealthy few, faculty and staff face pay cuts and imposed furloughs. Many departments no longer have phones or voicemail. Others only have access to administrative staff four days a week. And all but one of the libraries – the heart of a vibrant research university – are now closed on Saturdays.

The reaction on the part of the campus community – certainly in Berkeley, and perhaps across the state as well – can only be described as a movement. No isolated group of activists is left to perform their necessary protest duties. Nor is political action on campus dominated by or limited to the often-stifling and self-serving partisan politics of student congress.

What characterizes this movement (or maybe, what characterizes this as a movement), is the readiness of students, staff, and faculty to mobilize, as well as a diversity of tactics and strategies, coming from a myriad of organizations, bodies, coalitions, and mutually interested individuals who may be involved in none of those at all.

This is the face of a new student movement, a movement invested in our spaces of learning, and one which demands to control the terms and conditions of our education. For tonight and tomorrow, we have transformed the space of the Berkeley Anthropology Library into one of study, learning, teaching, and community-building. During the 24 hours that we’re holding the library, there will be five faculty teach-ins, two student teach-ins, an open-mike poetry slam, numerous study groups, and a long-overdue open discussion on privilege and inequality in the context of this struggle.

That this was organized and pulled off with success in under a week is testament not only to the hard work of the organizers, but far more to the general state of campus and the eagerness on the part of the community to take action.

The show of civil disobedience in the Anthropology Library this weekend follows on the footsteps of the university-wide walkout and rally on September 24 – said to be the largest protest in the bay area since the Vietnam War – as well as the student occupation of the graduate commons at UC Santa Cruz. And there’s more coming: a planned conference on public education on October 24 sponsored by the General Assembly, a jazz funeral for the university on October 30, and certainly, there will be more direct actions of the sort of this weekend’s library action. At the same time, many choose to direct their efforts towards Sacramento.

The repercussions of this reach far beyond California. The threat to public education in this state may make headlines as far as London, but there can be no doubt that California is but a canary in a gold mine.

At the same time, our burgeoning movement has also received its fair share of attention. From solidarity strikes in Arizona to classrooms in Utah, to letters of support which have poured in from students in every part of the country, students are taking note of what is happening in California.

Welcome to a new student movement.

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