Tag: Student Movement

Friday Roundup: Student Movement Stories

Originally published on March 1st on at Student Activism (http://studentactivism.net/2013/03/01/friday-roundup/). This occasional roundup of student movement stories is put together by Isabelle Nastasia, a CUNY undergrad, New York Students Rising organizer.

Rest in Power, Trayvon Martin:

The Acts of Courage and Kindness that Came After Trayvon Martin’s Death – Colorlines

Marching to Sanford  (a short documentary featuring the Dream Defenders, a coalition of black and brown youth fighting for immigration reform and an end to the school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex.)

Updates on educational injustice:

[Trigger warning: racist costumes and racial exploitation] USC Frat Planned a ‘Racist Rager’ Until a Mexican-American Students Put Them on Blast – Colorlines

Batraville and Lew Dod are Shortsighted, Unethical – Yale Daily News (Sneak peek: “As early as this April, Yale plans to welcome a training center for interrogators to its campus.”)

The Latest Education Craze Could Very Well Worsen the Achievement Gap – Colorlines (Good analysis of whats wrong with MOOCs)

[Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault and sexist university policy] UNC Sexual Assault Survivor Faces Honor Code Violation after Speaking publicly about Abuse – HuffPo (Think Progress wrote more about this, too)

Harvard Helps the Less Fortunate – Socialist Worker (Do not be deceived by the title…)

The Next Hate Fest  – NY Post (Alan Dershowitz sets his sights yet again on CUNY as he targets an upcoming Queer conference on “Homonationalism and Pinkwashing”)

Day Laborers Group Respond to Syracuse University Immigration Analysis – Syracuse

Don’t Be Misled by Tuition Equity – Daily Tangrum

Examples of radical student movement-building, tactics and strategy: 

Oregon House Passes Tuition Equity  – Oregon Live

Whither a Russian Student Movement? – The Nation

Quebec Students Protest Fee Hike – HuffPo

Les Bureaux De Leo Bureau Blouin et de Pierre Duchesne Vandalises – La Presse (In French but can be easily translated via google translation)

Les Medias Et la Hausse des Frais de Scolarite de 2005 a 2010 – IRIS (In French but can be easily translated via google translation)

Students Occupy University President’s Office to Protest Naming University Stadium After Private Prison Company – Think Progress

Games of Theories – Inside Higher Ed

A Protest Resignation – Inside Higher Ed

N.C. Students Sieze Power – Technician

Too Radical or Too Ineffective? Lets Just Tackle Apathy  – Technician

Building an Inclusive Climate Movement – The Nation (Report from the divestment and climate conference at Swarthmore this past weekend)

A Culture of Resistance: Lessons Learned from the Student Liberation Action Movement

Originally Published on Upping the Anti @ http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/08-a-culture-of-resistance1/.

By Suzy Subways

In March 1995, 20,000 students from City University of New York (CUNY) were attacked by police after surrounding city hall to protest a draconian tuition increase. This protest, organized by the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts, marked an upsurge in student movement activity that continued into 1996, when the group transformed into the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM), a multiracial radical organization. Before disbanding in 2004, SLAM established chapters at CUNY colleges in all five boroughs of the city. This roundtable focuses on the chapter at Hunter College in Manhattan and explores SLAM’s legacy of building a left culture in New York City and across the country.

SLAM’s legacy is bound up with the evolution of CUNY, which became the primary route out of poverty for the city’s Black, Latino, and immigrant communities starting in the 1970s. Prior to that, despite offering free education since 1847, CUNY was predominantly white. In 1969, Black and Latino students at City College in Harlem, with support from the Black Panthers and Young Lords, occupied CUNY campus buildings and won an open admissions policy that made CUNY accessible to students who needed remedial classes because they had attended substandard high schools. By 1976, the year CUNY started charging tuition, the student body was predominantly people of colour. The policy of open admissions was reversed in 1999, despite SLAM’s militant opposition.

This roundtable is part of a larger and ongoing SLAM oral history project (see http://SLAMherstory.wordpress.com). While many people helped build SLAM, this article highlights the voices of some of the women of colour members. These women represent different generations of SLAM, from founders to younger leaders. Their insights convey their experiences in SLAM and draw out lessons about building organic leadership and creating multiracial, feminist organizations that are accountable to communities directly affected by the issues.

Lenina Nadal was a founding member of the CUNY Coalition Against the Cuts and SLAM. Having graduated in 1997, she returned in 2000 to help create SLAM’s organizer training institute. She is a filmmaker, playwright, and poet, and works for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. Visit http://www.performingprofound.com

Rachèl Laforest was president of Hunter College’s Black Student Union in 1995 and SLAM’s first student government president in 1996. Before leaving SLAM in 2003, she defended open admissions and worked on SLAM’s High School Organizing Program and the Mumia Youth Task Force. She is Director of Organizing for New York City’s Transport Workers Union (TWU, Local 100).

Luz Schreiber worked on SLAM’s open admissions campaign and other projects between 1998 and 2000. Co-founder of Ollin Imagination (a cultural circle of resistance of parents, artists, students, and educators of colour), Luz is a creative writing major and Hunter Student Union organizer.

Suzan Hammad was president of Hunter’s Palestinian Club before joining SLAM and becoming a lead anti-war organizer in the early part of this decade. She is a painter (see www.cafepress.com/LailatiNar) and continues fighting for a free Palestine.

Tamieka Byer organized college and high school student walkouts against police brutality and the Iraq war as a member of SLAM between 2000 and 2004. She currently works with Amnesty International USA as the Board Liaison.

How did student clubs at Hunter come together in 1995, work in the CUNY Coalition, and start SLAM?

Suzan: Pre-SLAM, some of the first CUNY movement meetings were happening in the Palestinian Club. It was like we were all saying the same thing: “Oh shit, they’re raising our tuition! Oh shit, they’re bombing Palestine! Oh shit!”

Lenina: There was a lot of anxiety among the students, because tuition was going to be raised by $1,000. The Black Student Union had members who were responsible for some of the major takeovers of the Hunter campus and other CUNY campuses in 1990 and ’91. The other clubs that had political consciousness included the Palestinian Club and the Arab Club, which were very strongly affiliated. And right across the hall was the Puerto Rican Club, which had some progressive membership. Those were the organizations that solidified people of colour on the Left.

The only alternative we were being offered was from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), which was like, “Let’s lobby our representatives to see if we can change it from within.” But the frustration was already building up and working class students were feeling like this might be the last chance they would have at a CUNY education. The stakes were very, very high. It was really a mass movement. It’s like most movements – the leadership can claim it, but they have to claim it after the masses have already said, “This is what we want.” Those of us who had been part of organizations, or who grew up with leftist parents, started to get to know each other and see that we had something to offer to sustain a movement. That’s how some of SLAM’s leadership started to come together.

SLAM was a student group. Why did it fight for political prisoners, visit Zapatista communities, bring medical supplies to Iraq, and protest police brutality and the navy occupation of Vieques?

Tamieka: CUNY doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I mean, you talk about a tuition hike – which seems like a strictly CUNY issue – but you have to ask the question, “Why the hike?” The first thing I learned in SLAM was that tuition was free until the first year people of colour forced their way in. SLAM always made the point that tuition hikes were forcing out lower-income New Yorkers, while the government was spending more money recruiting these same lower-income people of colour to join the military.

Lenina: Despite the fact that SLAM had new leadership every year as people graduated and moved on with their lives, the last group of people in SLAM were still talking about police brutality and saying, “We can’t forget what’s going on in our own neighbourhoods.” It was really amazing for me to see that a radical movement can be sustained if certain values are maintained. Instead of just a political organization, we developed our own culture to pass down.

Rachèl: There were a lot of young people on Hunter’s campus who wound up being attracted to SLAM because we were speaking their language, politically and socially. Our Mumia Youth Task Force concert was a really dynamic event. We packed the entire 2,000-seat Hunter College auditorium. Mos Def and Dead Prez performed. People in the Mumia Coalition knew how valuable SLAM’s level of organizing and sexiness was. Young people wanted to be around folks who really had their finger on the pulse of what was happening in terms of hip-hop. That’s what made SLAM an easy thing to gravitate towards. Once you heard people talk about what they were really about, folks stuck around to listen and had ideas of their own.

I think the Amadou Diallo1 issue made it easier to pull young people into the Mumia stuff. Even though young people had heard about Mumia, he wasn’t a New Yorker. He wasn’t someone that you might have seen when you left the house to go to school that morning. Amadou was. Especially for young people in the Bronx who lived right next to him, Amadou’s murder and the acquittal of those cops allowed them to look at a situation like Mumia’s, and really believe that he was framed for killing a cop.

There are serious lulls in organizing work, and sometimes events like this are catalysts. We realized that folks were angry because there were so many spontaneous gatherings throughout the city. Now, I have to tell you, I was very disappointed, because I think those mobilizations also showed how much people had gotten used to things. The response was angry, but I don’t believe it went far enough. There were young people just running through the streets. But nothing really happened. When a community finds itself completely backed into a corner and is angry, fear drops away. Flipping over a police car, setting something on fire, rawly expressing the rage that you feel – there’s nothing to hold it back. It showed SLAM that young people were so lulled by the system that they were angry, but they weren’t angry enough. We weren’t angry enough.

How did people bring in traditions of resistance from their own communities?

Lenina: People learned about who they were. A lot of people came out of the closet and started to engage in queer political theory by bringing that analysis into the organization to challenge people. We had a Cambodian member who was taken out of Cambodia during a very repressive time and brought to the US. She was discovering what the repression in Cambodia had to do with US foreign policy. Another member taught us how Mao used pop culture to create cultural resistance. He was saying, “how can we have our cultural resistance?” That’s what helped feed Mao’s revolution, and that was going to help feed our revolution. The Puerto Rican students and Black students had access to institutions created in the ’60s and ’70s by young revolutionaries like ourselves. Together, this created a very sensual space: it wasn’t a clash of cultures so much as a joint discovery.

Rachèl: I was a red diaper baby. My parents were an interracial couple at a time when that wasn’t popular in any way. My mom’s parents had been union organizers; both were involved in the Communist Party during the 1920s and ’30s. When I was younger, my mom was a tenant organizer. My father participated in one of the first formations of the Communist Party in Haiti. His family was asked to leave the country because of it. I learned that if there were liberation struggles that affected your life, you participated in them no matter what. SLAM was unique because most of the core group came from that kind of background.

Luz: The village in Oaxaca where I’m from has a great spirit of resistance, dating back to the Mexican revolution in 1910. I came to New York in 1998, four years into the Zapatista rebellion against neoliberalism’s economic policies. People in Chiapas and elsewhere are displaced by these policies. The struggle in CUNY to keep admissions open was also about stopping students being displaced from the university. I was surprised that people in SLAM knew about the Zapatistas. From that, I knew that this was a group of people that cared about what was going on in the world and were eager to learn how indigenous people resisted. The Zapatistas declared, “We want a world that can fit many worlds,” and that resonated with people everywhere. In New York there are many worlds, but the people in power don’t want to make room for all of us.

How did SLAM develop leadership?

Luz: I think I was only able to imagine myself as a leader because I saw powerful Latina and Black women – leaders, intellectual, strong – doing stuff. They said, “We have to make you speak. There’s a rally, and you have to testify because you’re a remedial student.” So they made me get up on top of a desk and recite a Nelson Mandela poem. It wasn’t the most orthodox way to teach public speaking, but it worked. If someone had just said, “It’s important to have women of colour leadership,” that wouldn’t have clicked as much as seeing it in practice.

Tamieka: Lots of trainings! Doing readings and coming back to the group to discuss them. And we were doing the readings while simultaneously doing the work: it was easy to look at something we had just read about imperialism and see how it was still relevant to how we interact with each other, and how America interacts with the rest of the world.

SLAM helped develop new leaders by actually having leaders that represented me. I’ve been at three other organizations since SLAM, and not once has there been more than one strong woman of colour at a time in each organization. In SLAM, part of what developed me was knowing that these strong women of colour had done the same readings I did, made many of the same mistakes I was currently making, and were the better for it.

Lenina: When we started the organizer training institute, we used the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL) curriculum.2 We recruited about 25 students a semester, and taught them organizing skills like campaign development, power analysis, public speaking, media relations and messaging, graphic design and web design. We also did political education using current events and older texts to define imperialism, patriarchy, and capitalism. In the high school organizing program, we had a video instructor. The young people were looking into the Anthony Baez3 case, so they did a short documentary about that.

Suzan: I felt a very strong connection to our mentors from the Black Nationalist movement. They gave me good advice when I felt confused. I was mentored by their example of devoting their whole lives to the struggle for liberation and peace. They were experienced in organizing, and I really respected their anti-imperialism, anarchism, and Black Nationalism. Palestinians and the Black Panthers had worked together. To this day, not everyone works with Palestinians; we’re still marginalized in the movement.

Why and how did SLAM become a women of colour-led organization? How did SLAM deal with questions of whiteness and male leadership?

Rachèl: The white men did much of the theorizing and writing. The women of colour did much of the relationship-building. The number of people recruited into the organization by white men was very slim. They built relationships with new people who didn’t know them by having theoretical conversations about what was happening and pushed people little by little. The women – and mainly the women of colour – met people at a party or were handing out flyers and getting into a conversation about food or an event. They developed many more relationships at a time.

Internally, the women ran the show. Because we had a better understanding of the population we were dealing with and what folks were going to respond to, we made decisions about what should happen. While some of the white men in SLAM had some great ideas, sometimes people said no for the sake of saying no, just to not move on another idea the white man had put forward. People were angry about not hearing their voices come through in the work. It was in the second year that people started to shut them down, and it came out angrily at first, but eventually it came out respectfully and it was for the right reason. It wasn’t to shush up the white man but because, “Actually, we genuinely don’t think that’s a good idea right here, right now. But we love you, and we want you to keep putting ideas out on the table.”

Luz: I learned to become aware of power dynamics within the group. We called out white privilege, sexism, and homophobia during meetings or any kind of gathering. All these forms of oppression persist because we internalize them. At times it was challenging and even painful. But if a man spoke for too long, someone would ask, “So what do women think of this?” I wasn’t used to seeing a man following a woman’s direction or being challenged for his behavior, and that was amazing. Many men preferred to only engage in theoretical work, write articles, speak at meetings, and argue ideas. For a lot of men, it’s easier to take on the role of the intellectual and leave the organizing and networking to women. The men in the group acknowledged that women were better at organizing. But sometimes it was a cop out: men aren’t good relationship-builders because they don’t practice or try hard enough.

Lenina: SLAM allowed people of colour to have their voices at the forefront by teaching people public speaking, writing, and documentation skills. For white people who have had some level of privilege, who are good writers or speakers, or who have had a good education, their role is really to be a trainer. And they can continue to write because if you’re teaching someone how to be a writer, but you’re also writing yourself, that person feels like, “I’m being taught by someone who really does this stuff and takes it seriously.” You have to see if you can play a role in helping somebody who is afraid that what they say or how they’ll say something won’t be accepted. Historically it hasn’t been.

How did Maoism and anarchism shape SLAM’s decisions and goals?

Rachèl: Those ideologies were interwoven in the work. Anarchism shaped our involvement in the global justice convergence protests against the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. What we learned from Maoism showed up in the more institutionalized organizing work we did in the High School Organizing Program, the Hunter clubs, and our community anti-police brutality work. All of the folks involved had a genuine desire to be led by those most affected by what was happening. Sometimes it was SLAM members, and sometimes it wasn’t. And I think our struggle to be a multicultural, multi-ideological group allowed us to ask about the needs of a particular community and figure out what role SLAM could play.

The anarchists leaned toward Maoism because the majority of the group leaned toward a Maoist tendency. Folks that subscribed to more Maoist ideas felt safer playing on both ends and were excited by a lot of the anarchist ideas that were put on the table. However, the fact that we had this institution to run that was university-based and had rules and regulations played a role in quelling the more anarchist activities. The anarchist notion of tearing things down and resisting any structure that was not built by us was important. And where Maoism came into play was that it wasn’t just tearing down for the sake of showing outrage. Institution building was meant to replace what we were tearing down with a different approach, new ideas, and a new way of relating to people. I think the two played hand in hand.

Luz: It was amazing to learn theory and see it applied. I remember a demonstration against Herman Badillo, a man on the Board of Trustees that wanted to end open admissions. This was someone who fought for education for minorities early in his political career, and then he made racist statements to the media about Mexicans. Coming from a Latino, it was internalized racism. He said things like, these short people from the hills are coming here and taking over our schools, and we can’t allow this to happen. I was like, “fuck, this shit is real, this is not something from a book.” We needed to challenge the ideology that people of colour were intellectually inferior, culturally inferior, and therefore had to be segregated and denied a right to education.

You can hear all you want about theory, the masses, and how class relations work, but it’s experiences like this that really bring it home and make you understand not only intellectually, but with all your senses. Mobilizing people to fight police brutality and for Mumia Abu-Jamal put ideas into practice. It wasn’t just preaching. Because then Mao only becomes a gospel; it’s not something you can live. I lived it with SLAM. Not only “What does it mean that women were disempowered systematically throughout the centuries?” but also “What does it mean to have women leadership? How does that look, how does that feel?”

Lenina: SLAM’s Little Red Study Group brought together a group of radical teachers and community organizers: people who wanted to have a more radical nonprofit space. We decided to study Marxism seriously. We studied a lot of Mao, a little queer theory, a little feminism. That group evolved into the New York Study Group, which includes former members of Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM).4 We felt a kind of identification and connection with STORM because it had the same goals around women of colour-led organization.

How did SLAM’s militance relate to issues affecting its members’ communities?

Suzan: I really am glad we were very loud when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq broke out in 2001 and 2003. I wish a lot of people had stayed that loud, maybe because I related to it so much, because I’m from the Middle East, and there’s been a lot of war in my history. What happened in the Nakba 60 years ago is happening today in Afghanistan, it’s happening today in Iraq. When we took over the Hunter president’s office in February 2003, we just wanted to make a really bold statement. We met people that day who would later become SLAM members. Did we expect to stop the war that day? No. It was an expression of a lot of people’s feelings of “Fuck this!” I think in America today, there’s a lot of people suffering under the surface. I think people were feeling it, but nobody was saying anything.

Lenina: We believed we had to find the most revolutionary way to react. And that was being more militant at a time when this society was constantly encouraging us to be comfortable, passive, and do things without accomplishing anything. Militant action feels good because you’re connecting and doing what’s in your heart, despite whatever the state says. If you have a supportive community, why not take over a bridge? A lot of younger people tell us, “I wish I was around when SLAM was around.” We used to say that about the Young Lords, and the Young Lords probably said that about somebody else. Just do the best you can, you know?

What were some of the contradictions in SLAM becoming student government at Hunter College?

Tamieka: Trying to appease the administration and still hold true to our politics at the same time. Making other student groups and clubs feel welcomed and not like SLAM was a special club that benefited from student government while they were given crumbs. Feeling overwhelmed with hard, emotional, full-time jobs at 20, 21, 22 years of age, in addition to SLAM work.

Lenina: I think you’re hitting at the core of the nonprofit industrial complex. Any time anything becomes institutionalized, it loses a certain amount of energy. It’s like running a small country like Cuba or Nicaragua, where you’re no longer an outside guerrilla. All of a sudden we had money and power within the structure of our college. We had access to CUNY by-laws and knowledge of important meetings where real decisions were going to be made for students. We received this information in memos and we would raise hell in all those meetings. We had unlimited photocopying, and basically anything we needed for organizing (walkie-talkies, things we needed for rallies, for security), we could purchase with student government funds as long as we put it on the books. Plus, several organizations that weren’t funded at the time – groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and the Taxi Workers’ Alliance – could freely come in and use our copy machine, space, computers, and web access. Hunter was a hub for organizing work.

As time went by, we became a top priority for the Board of Trustees, which wanted to get rid of us. There were very explicit conversations about our organization. We took a very strong stance on Palestine in a city where, to be honest, it got us into a lot of trouble. And taking a stance on police brutality was very important to us, and we didn’t give a shit. If it was going to mean losing student government, then F-it, you know?

Rachèl: We really did capitalize on a moment of a lot of young people being pissed off and wanting a space to channel that energy. You build institutions to try to carry people through the valleys until the next peak of movement activity arrives. People have to be better prepared, and have stronger and tighter language for how to talk about the peaks when they get there. But as far as our organizing capacity, I think it was a double-edged sword. SLAM could not have done the things we did without the resources student government provided. And I think the obligations to run the student government prevented SLAM from doing some of the greatest things it could have done. I lived in the office. I got caught up in so much of the financial bullshit that it didn’t allow me to really go out amongst the students and talk about what SLAM did, why I was a part of it, and how important the issues we were dealing with were.

What do you think led to SLAM falling apart?

Rachèl: In 2000, it was easier to link police brutality to CUNY students. At that time, Hunter was still a majority of people of colour college, so students went home to the very communities we were talking about. Tuition was going up every year, so the class and complexion of the school changed. It became more of a challenge for SLAM to link the antiwar organizing with the student body because students didn’t see the connection between undocumented immigrants being detained and CUNY students being targeted. They didn’t see it as their struggle.

There was also a stigma tied to SLAM being in student government for eight years, as if it had been a dictatorship. Sometimes the student body didn’t want to hear shit anymore.

Lenina: In the end, we were an institution getting money from students. A lot of the people who were getting a salary in SLAM didn’t want to work on student issues. They wanted to work on issues in their communities. It wasn’t too hard for the administration to tell the students, “These people aren’t really serving you.” The problem when you get money from any particular source is that you’re beholden to that source of funding. Because open admissions ended, you began to see more middle-class students that were easily persuaded that we were a little too radical.

Also, when you have a job, it’s no longer really a movement for you. It becomes your 9 to 5. You almost get sick of it, like any job. And it’s funny, because small businesses are encouraged to constantly make people feel a sense of the team and a commitment to the cause. We didn’t really do that, because we didn’t know how. So we were functioning the way you would in a grassroots movement, where it’s like, “You’re not holding up your end of the stick here, what’s wrong with you?” as opposed to “Let’s go back to our mission, our values.” What were we doing to heal ourselves, to reinvigorate ourselves, to keep ourselves excited and to be engaged and understand why this was so important? When you don’t have that consistently, it’s difficult. Especially when you have an administration connected to mayor Giuliani, and they’re mobilizing against you, and you’re doing your darnedest to stay in there, but you don’t have as strong a connection to the student body that was initially so all about you being there.

Tamieka: The older generations of SLAM did the best they could with transferring information and skills to the incoming generation. Looking back, I see that there is a problem if the organization is unable to function without some of its founding members. If we can’t survive without a member who has been in the organization for over eight years, then we’re lacking the self-sustaining part, right? I look back and think, “Boy, if we had those contacts… I didn’t know we had a contact in X organization! Wow, that could’ve been helpful.” But folks get burnt out and are ready to wrap it up. We had a haphazard transfer of institutional knowledge. I’ve seen it everywhere; it’s not just a SLAM problem. How to effectively pass knowledge and history along, and make sure new folks are receptive to this kind of learning. We all have such huge egos. I think too often we wanted to work on our own; we could’ve shouldered some of our work better if we partnered with more organizations, in my generation at least.

SLAM was great at movement building and leadership development, but not so successful at winning immediate victories. The loss of Open Admissions was especially painful. Why do you think SLAM lost so much, and how much do you think it matters?

Lenina: In 1995 they raised tuition by $750 instead of the initial threat of $1,000. Of course, the reformist groups took a lot of credit for that, like the threat of 20,000 young people showing up out of nowhere and running around Wall Street had nothing to do with it! The administration also didn’t cut financial aid as much, but our vision was so much larger. We wanted a school where we didn’t have to pay tuition, period. Some of the most amazing, transformative experiences are experiences where you lose. Those anti-globalization protests were so deeply transformative in terms of like, wow, we could actually build sectors of society with just who we have. We could build a little media sector and a little law sector, and a little sector of doctors, and we could really make this happen on our own. And we didn’t win crap in that, you know?

Rachèl: SLAM chose issues sometimes that we knew weren’t winnable, but were core issues that people could be unified and gathered around. And the strength built by people learning about each other and building that community was a kind of victory. If you are a longstanding organization, and you come down from a peak and you’re in a valley for a while, there are times when choosing small, winnable issues is important for the morale of your members. People have to know that the organization has the strength to win things, even if they’re tiny. But even if the issue itself is not winnable at this point in history it’s a win to bring people together around it, especially if they’re able to stay stuck together around that issue and grow outward. They say to pick your battles wisely, even in interpersonal relationships. And yeah, sometimes you only want to focus on the battles you know are significant to the relationship. And then other times, you just want to have the battle for the sake of making sure that something that’s important to you doesn’t just die by the wayside.

Suzan: Unfortunately, it’s a very unfair power dynamic. The forces against us have a lot of power. But our spirit is stronger, and what we want is greater.

What can SLAM teach the CUNY movement and the Left today?

Rachèl: The one-on-one relationship-building approach to organizing. The internet makes it so that you don’t have to be in human contact with anybody anymore, and that’s not such a great thing. My first boyfriend at Hunter became politicized because every single time I saw him by the cafeteria, I would stop to have a discussion with him about what was happening in the Black Student Union, and how he might be able to get involved. You sort of met a friend and didn’t let them go. Working at Jobs With Justice, they had me running around East Harlem, door-knocking, and they had this whole laid-out script that I never used. That Alinsky5 style is devoid of any real, genuine investment in the issue. Because of SLAM, I had learned how to look for the elements in it that I identified with personally, and let that shape the discussion. And to sit down and try to figure out who folks were, where they were coming from, did this affect them, and if it didn’t, why? Did it move them, and if it didn’t, why? You’ve got to deal with people where they’re at if you want them to move forward in another direction. I brought what I learned in SLAM about the relationship-building approach into my work at the transit union also.

Luz: One of the core philosophies in SLAM was the personal is political. We really took time to build relationships. Sometimes people think that part is not really organizing, because it’s just social. But that’s the foundation of organizing. If you cannot build personal relationships, how can you build organizational capacity? When people set up 1,000 barricades in Oaxaca in 2006 to protect themselves against the government, it was instinctual, because in Oaxaca people have really large, closely knit families. That is a natural social network. People were guarding all the entrances of town and if they said, “Go get your family,” your family means like 200 people. In Oaxaca, those relationships are already built; you just have to tap into them. Here, you have to start from scratch.

For students who come to Hunter now, there’s a student government in the service of the administration. Just knowing that there was this other alternative for so long is amazing. Some people can’t get over it. They ask me, “How did it happen?”

I see less intergenerational work happening now. SLAM really had these mentors from older generations in the community; they weren’t scholars. People who are active now at Hunter have a professor they look up to. Right now, everybody learns from each other, but I don’t feel like there’s leadership. Horizontalism is more attractive, because everyone gets to participate, and more ideas are exchanged. But I think it’s equally important to have systematic accountability. Some people are very repulsed by the idea of leadership. But if there hadn’t been true leadership in the Cuban revolution, it would have failed.

Lenina: We were visionary, because we weren’t just about the economic revolution and the political revolution. It wasn’t just about these capitalist pigs, and socialism was the answer; it was about how the hell does that relate to hip-hop? It’s like, we’re going to take this boring message, something you’d read in a newspaper, and present it in a way that you can understand, like something that happened to your mom or could happen to your best friend, and make it that personal and real for you. It was about love and kindness and getting excited, not just about a new, different type of social order.

Notes

1 Amadou Diallo was an unarmed 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, Africa, who was killed on February 4, 1999, by four New York City Police Department plain-clothed officers. They fired a total of 41 rounds at Diallo, mistaking his wallet for a gun when he reached for his identification.

2 SOUL works to lay the groundwork for a powerful liberation movement by supporting the development of a new generation of young organizers, especially young women, young people of colour, queer youth, and working-class young people. See www.schoolofunityandliberation.org.

3 Anthony Baez was a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. He was killed in 1994 by asphyxiation during a chokehold by Officer Francis Livoti, after his family’s football hit a police car.

4 STORM was a multi-racial, internationalist, left cadre organization based in the Bay Area from 1994 to 2001. See leftspot.com/blog/files/docs/STORMSummation.pdf.

5 Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals and has inspired many neighbourhood activist groups like ACORN that have single-issue campaigns. The Midwest Academy is a training center that draws heavily from Alinskyism.

“Indignation is Only the First Step”: A Discussion with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titleman

by: Zoltán Glück

Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman are two of the most prominent leaders of the Chilean student movement that has been seriously challenging the established political order in Chile through its mass mobilizations, university occupations, and broad popular support. They were invited to the Washington, DC to accept the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award and made a brief stop-over in New York City to meet student organizers from the US and Quebec. I caught up with Camila and Noam in New York after their talk at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Zoltán Glück: What is the relationship between the student movement and broader expressions of resistence against Neoliberalism in Chile. Would you say that the student movement in Chile an anti-capitalist movement?

Camila Vallejo: Well, the Chilean student movement, and I think this is true of social movements in general, don’t usually define themselves as anti-capitalist in their slogans. Although in practice of course we promote the fight against capitalism. In our demands there is a social vision that is opposed to the capitalist system and its neoliberal expression in Chile. For example, when we say that the Chilean state should become a true guarantor of material rights, that is certainly antithetical to the neoliberal capitalist vision which turns rights into a business to be regulated by the market. We champion the redistribution of wealth; we don’t believe that a single group or class should control all wealth or appropriate all our natural resources and they certainly should not be allowed to concentrate all of the country’s financial capital. We believe there must be a redistribution of wealth as well as a diversification of the means of production so that they are not in the hands of a cadre of elites or transnational corporations. We contend that the neoliberal model is contrary to democracy because it concentrates all power in the hands of the few, in Chile that means in the hands of approximately 4500 families, while the rest lose out and struggle to get by. But our primary battle in Chile is not Capitalism in its totality. Rather, our demands articulate a proposal for an alternative model for education and a radically different social vision. I won’t say that we champion “Socialism” in some simple ideal form, but we are definitely talking about a radicalization of democracy and a radical departure from neoliberalism.

ZG: Many of us here in the United States have been following the movement for the past two years, we’ve seen the massive and impressive street protests and have been following your campaigns. In your assessment, where Chilean student movement today and where is it going?

Noam Titelman: Well, I think we’re at a decisive moment because we’ve been around for almost two years now. In 2011 with a lot of presence in the streets, this year perhaps with a little less presence in the streets but still with some really massive rallies (for example, over 100,000 just in Santiago). But this year we’ve gone to the parliament a lot more and to large institutions in a concerted effort to make some real changes through those channels. But really, I think we’re at a really critical point because we’re going to be forced to make some hard decisions very soon as we’ll be facing our first national elections as a movement. This year’s elections are perhaps not as important as the ones next year (this year being the municipal level elections). Another thing that has happened in the past year has been the veritable explosion of wide variety of different movements and organizing around Chile. Not only student organizations, a lot of people started to feel empowered to work on their future, on their lives. This has expressed itself in certain emergent forms of leadership and actual leaders that are very noticeably starting to transcend exclusively “educational” sector. Camila, Georgio and others and examples of this trend. The question now is how is that going to materialize in concrete change, because we’ve been around for a little while now, and that’s fine, to just be there—to be on the streets and everything—but people are starting to wonder: when will all of this start this bring results? It’s not enough just to prove a point and to say that certain things are wrong. And it’s been really hard as we’ve had a very resilient government that has been able to weather all of these critiques and not change course. Even though it has one of the lowest popularity ratings in our history, it has decided to maintain its agenda. We’ve  also tried to make push through some smaller changes and on this front we’ve had some small successes, such as lowering the tax rate, removing the banks from the system university financing…

ZG: What do you mean by removing the banks?

NT: Well, the students get loans from the banks and then the state worked as a guarantor, such that if the students defaulted on their loans the state would simply pay for it: so the banks really didn’t care if the students could pay or not. As you can imagine, this is good business for the banks: it’s a perfect circle…

ZG: So how did you remove the banks from this process?

NT: The government agreed to remove the banks from this system after a long campaign and the general pressure of the movement. But there are still so many things that have to change. For example at the school level there was virtually no change whatsoever, and even in higher education all of the structural issues are still practically the same. At least in Chile, the system still works on this notion that the state’s only function is to subsidize demand and let the market take care of everything. But as we’ve seen, the problem is that this produces growth in private sector, but only rather weak and artificial growth based on cheap credit which has become the way to finance what I’ve been calling “fast food universities.” You know, our universities are like the ads you see for burgers: on the billboard it’s big and juicy but then you buy it and it is small, shriveled up, and tastes like cardboard. The other problem is that, due to the availability of cheap credit, what happens is that these universities have large rates of people who enter but who don’t finish their degree. Or, they do finish but just to find that their degrees are worthless. Because even if they finish and get their degrees, they find that by the end of it they are so indebted that their chances for a good professional life are just lost.

ZG: I have a question which is about the concept of Horizontalidad or “horizontalism”. Here in New York, and particularly throughout Occupy Wall Street the concept of horizontalism has been quite an important part of the political language. For example, a lot of people have been inspired by the Argentinian example of Horizontalidad and how it functioned in neighborhood assemblies. I’m wondering how, if at all, the Chilean movement grapples with the concept of horizontalism.

CV: A part our organic maturation as a movement, and as political subjects, has entailed learning how to balance the use of representative democracy with more participatory or direct forms of democracy. Throughout, we have consistently worked to protect spaces for debate, like the assembly, which are horizontal spaces within our political structure. But remember, we also have to maintain our existing organizational forms that are more structured and perhaps hierarchical. I don’t think that it’s enough to simply maintain the spaces of horizontality without the larger representation-based structures: rather, we’re trying to reach a kind of synthesis. And I do think we have made progress in terms of knowing how to complement representative democracy with spaces of direct democracy. This approach has been more or less effective in terms of the attitude it generates within the movement, and it has also been effective in terms of how we approach leadership, maintaining bases, and avoiding a dissipation of political energy. I think it’s important to remember that horizontalidad (in and of itself) often struggles to bring about the kinds of united actions that voting at each step of the way can achieve. But we could also see this unity of action coupled with voting each of step and horizontal debate, as a kind of synthesis that eventually produces something like horizontal democracy.

NT: Yeah, I think that horizontalidad is a two way street. And you have to remember that it’s a means to an end and not an end itself. Why do I say this? Well, first let me say that I think the Chilean movement does place a special emphasis on its decision-making processes and does truly want to involve everyone in these processes. But one of the reasons that the movement has been able to build such strength has been its ability to concentrate its collective force in an organized fashion. That is, not just leaving decisions to the sort of ritualistic or experiential feeling of being in one place with a lot of people and discussing things, but actually putting them into action. And this obviously requires a high degree of organization. I think there is a danger that by criticizing institutions, we end up criticizing organization and that’s really a big mistake. I think that horizontalidad allows us to make sure that the decisions are made by everyone, but in the execution of those decisions we need to have some sort of organization, otherwise we are doomed to be in a beautiful, noble, and naïve movement but not a not very efficient one.

ZG: Does the actual concept of horizontalidad come up in the discourse, or at your meetings, or in the ideas of student leaders in the union?

NT: Well, I think we had a different concept—similar but different—its called los bases. Los bases literally means “the bases,” the foundations, or the “grass-roots.” The idea is that it’s the bases that have to make the important decisions. So, for example, every time the government came up with some proposition or offer, we’d tell them that it would take us some time to answer because we would have to take their proposition back to our bases and discuss it. The form that this took was rather elaborate. You see we have the CONFECH which, instead of having a single president, is run by a sort of “round table” composed of about 10 presidents of different federations and around which everyone is supposed be equal. Those 10 presidents are, for example, the representatives that would go to a meeting with the government and when the government puts forward proposition it would be these 10 that would have to take the proposition back to the rest of the student federations, which in total could be about 40 federations. Those student federations would then take the proposition to the student centers in their respective universities—and usually there are student centers for every department.  Those student centers would then bring the proposition to their principle decision making body, for example a general assembly, where any student can go and vote.

Another way to put it is that each department has its own student center and its assembly which makes decisions. At the next level, the directorate of each of the student centers (e.g. the president, vice-president, general secretary, etc.) come together in a larger assembly in which they are meant to represent the will and execute the decisions made by the smaller department-level assemblies. The decisions then made at this level are taken to the Confederation which is where all of the federations come together and take a decision. Finally, this confederation elects certain federations (these are the 10 presidents I was taking about) as an executive group (that is, as the executors of the will of the whole confederation). So, you see, once a decision is made at the bottom level, it is taken all the way back up to this round table at the CONFECH which would be responsible for executing the decision. But of course there were other times when the round table had to make quick decisions and that was also very important—well, not the most fundamental decisions, but some decisions.

Anyways, I think we learned a lot. Of course, we have a lot of past experience with social movements—this isn’t the first time that we’ve had a massive rally or strikes or things like that. But on the operational level I think we’ve learned how to be more efficient and how to achieve what we want to do, while at the same time, not letting the most visible faces of the movement overshadow the importance of the bases which are our foundation.

ZG: What has the relationship between public and private university students been like in the movement?

CV: Before 2012 we began to elaborate a politics regarding the private system problem. This is an effort not only coming from the public universities, but one that has been forged in conversation with a number of organizations that have students from the private world, because the reality is that it’s actually quite hard to organize the private schools. They are prohibited from organizing in a number of ways, for example, they are all made to sign agreements before matriculating, etc. We think of what we’re doing as defending education—and this means from within the private system as well—as putting forward a counter-hegemonic conception of education that is opposed to the market-driven educational system; a conception that universities should have state regulations preventing them from turning a profit on the state’s resources in the form of grants or loans, that they should not be allowed to profit off of families that are going into debt, that they should be democratically run, which is to say that they should guarantee, at the very least, that students have the right to form associations. We also demand that these institutions maintain a certain of quality education, because for most private universities, education just about the paper you get at the end. The education is of poor quality, it leaves students with massive debts, and at the end of it they sell you a paper diploma that isn’t even worth anything. So, as we’ve been putting forward this critique and problematization of the private university system we’ve found that more and more private university students are becoming interested and involved with the movement. I also think that generally, because of the movement, more people have begun to see and understand the principle contradictions of this for-profit commercial-education model. Most Chilean families have a child in the private university world, and the abuses of power and profit in the private system are becoming more and more excessive. So, after 2011 some federations from the private system applied to be incorporated in the CONFECH, which, as you know, is the umbrella organization that brings together a large number of federations from the traditional universities. There was long discussion in the CONFECH and in the end we decided to include those federations whose leadership structure was democratically elected. Now we have about seven or eight private university federations in the CONFECH, which, of course, is a great step forward. The problem is that there is still a huge universe of students in the private world that don’t have real student organizations, or if they do they are really inchoate and are organized according to a different structure. What’s important to understand, though, is that private university students have played a pivotal role in the student movement. That students from the private system marched in the streets made a huge impact in terms of sheer number, but also in terms of politics. The government has always hid behind the private schools, saying that they would not respond to the demands of public university students because public university students are the “privileged” ones, and that they must continue with the same funding schemas for private institutions because those schools serve the poorest students in the country.  We fundamentally disagree with this line of argumentation. We believe that public education must be defended and that the private system must be regulated, and if the state continues to give these institution public resources, which belong to all Chileans and come from our taxes, then they should really be our universities. Anyway, we’ve made some large strides towards bringing the public and private worlds into the same fold. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us in the private world.

ZG: I’d like to ask a question about how the Chilean movement has politicized the student body. In some ways I think that the situation here in the United States shares important similarities with situation in Chile, in that the general privatization of education has been taking place for so many years in both places and the idea that education is a commodity is already seemingly deeply embedded within our cultural common-sense. I’m wondering how it was that you were able to counter-act this idea of education-as-commodity and build popularly within the student body a more radical conception of what education is or could be.

NT: That’s a very good question. I mean we could begin by asking: how can a student strike affect anything other than the students themselves?  It’s not like a worker’s strike where its obvious that the owner of the company is going to be affected if there is a strike. I think that a student strike is a really effective way to communicate a message. And the effectiveness of the strike depends on the effectiveness of the message. I think the big struggle (and it is still a big struggle) is to change what is taken as common sense in our society. And that has to do with the control of the media. I think that the media makes it very hard to force a change in the common sense. But there are ways to overcome those things. For example, as what really helped the movement become a mass movement was the creativity in the way we rallied and mobilized. Using things like flash mobs, “Thriller” skits for education and zombie rallies, massive theatrical suicides, or “die-ins” for education and so many other things that were done over the past year, like running 1,800 laps around the office of the president (representing the 1,800 million pesos it would take to fund higher education), and so on. And all of these actions contributed to communicating more or less efficiently the message, partly by using the media, and partly by directly showing that this is something that is close to the people. It’s not some fringe or radical movement, its just normal people asking for normal rights that they should have had all along.

ZG: How has the question of debt factored into the dynamics of the student movement?

NT: I think it was essential, especially at the beginning. Because debt was an issue that allowed the movement to have more than just a student oriented politics and become a movement about citizenship more broadly. It became a movement for everyday people because debt was something that everybody could relate to. People in Chile are deeply in debt, and especially in these last years most of the economic growth has been due to the growth of debt. And here I mean debt in many other forms: because we’ve had such strong privatization not only of the educational system but also of the health system, of the housing system, of the old age pension system, everyone went into debt just to survive. So when the student movement came along, people felt that the problem of debt was a problem they could relate to; it made a lot of sense to people and that’s what helped turn the movement into more of a mass movement.

ZG: What does solidarity mean to you? How do you see our struggles as connected, and how can we as students and activists here in New York stand in solidarity with the Chilean student struggle?

CV: First, we have to recognize that neoliberalism, and the capitalist system in general, is global in its reach. Its effects are not simply restricted to one country but rather worldwide in its repercussions and only a few countries have managed to successfully combat the neoliberal agenda. It is a general condition that affects us all, which is to say it strips us of our basic rights, our work, our vital energies, our natural resources, and thus creates inequality and generates an accumulation of economic power in the hand of the few. So when you look at movements, it’s a question of understanding both their particularity and their generality. The Chilean case is particular, but the things we are fighting against (and for) have global and general dimensions. Neoliberalism functions as a global system and for that reason we will always have a lot to fight against; not just locally, but at the global scale as well. So, in this sense solidarity is really important, but not the kind of solidarity that limits itself to producing declarations of support; rather, the solidarity which seeks to generate enduring spaces for long term organization and collective struggle. Because if you’re not getting down to the real issues, and only producing testimonials of support when mobilizations are already happening—I mean, that’s all well and fine, but that kind of organizing is not going to endure in the long run.

We must also be able to formulate proposals and elaborate alternatives to what we are criticizing. If we remain at the level of indignation I don’t think it will serve us very well. Which is to say that indignation is only the first step, the next step is taking action, and to take action you need to have a plan. In order to propose solutions one must be sure that these solution are effective, or rather that they can be materialized. And in order for such solutions to materialize it’s not enough just to march and demonstrate in the streets; I believe that our solutions need to be proposed and then supported by the broader social world in an organized and articulate fashion and must be expressed in spaces of power. When social movements are political, their politics will always have to contend with existing power; if you don’t wield power yourself in some way in order to realize your proposal, it will always be others who are speaking for you.

And this is something that the movement has not done yet. We’ve questioned the established order, put the dominant class in check, etc. But at the end of the day, if we are unable to take power we’ll end up losing perspective and become disillusioned, and this is how movements disperse, disappear and perhaps after ten years reemerge. I really think that we can’t afford to let this happen. And here, in terms of “international solidarity,” what we have to do is say to ourselves, “listen, we have identified the problem, but now we have to be responsible for the solution and actively begin constructing alternatives for my country, and all the while we must fight for a global perspective.” This means having a political impact in institutional spaces.

ZG This brings up another question that I’d like to ask: which is how has the student movement linked up with other movements in Chile? The Mapuche movement was mentioned earlier today by Camila, but I’ also curious about the labor movement. How has it been able to link up?

NT: I think it has been a long time dream for students to have stronger relations with other social movements. But I think its important not to be naïve. We have to remember that these kinds of projects, and not just in Chile but all over the world, have historically had major difficulties in bridging the two worlds. I think that one of the biggest challenges is for us to stay humble and for students to remember that we are not saviors—we may be able to help, like anybody else, but we are not saviors. But even that is harder than it sounds. You know, most of the time when students take this stuff on and start working in, say, inner city schools or with other minority groups, they have a tendency to take on a hero complex, which I think is actually really devastating for truly working with other sectors of society. I think that we’ve taken some important steps towards overcoming this kind of attitude but it is still a challenge. This year we went out and did work in the communities a little bit. But, you know, I think that the biggest thing that we’ve been able to do for other struggles is to use the media attention that we’ve received to try get their voices heard. But honestly, it’s been very hard and there are no easy answers. As for the Mapuche, yeah, we mention theme wherever we go, as we did today, but still it’s a very big challenge. I think that one of the most interesting cases of really trying to work across struggles were the uprisings outside of Santiago in the some of the farthest regions where a variety of social organizations (including students organizations) managed to have more a more transversal or “horizontal” kind of feeling. You know, no one is considered higher than another, no one is more important than another. But generally, I think that question of working with other movements, social sectors, and struggles, is still a massive challenge that we have moving forward.

ZG: What is communism for you?

CV: Well, to begin with, for me communism is a far cry from what became of the lamentable Soviet Union experience. The Soviet example has had such strong and tragic repercussions for communism and communists at world scale. But for me, what “communism” means, as I mentioned to you earlier, is really a process of radically deepening democracy. Communism seeks not only to guarantee human rights for all men and women, but also to guarantee equality in economic terms, and that in all such matters each individual should be able to contribute according to his or her capacity and receive according to his or her needs—this of course is the great theme that we share as communists. This is fundamentally a question of how to structure society in terms of its economic relations. It implies human emancipation in material terms, but in intellectual and moral terms as well. I continue to believe in the possibility of buidling communism in my country, as well as in any other country. And if they tell me that communism has never worked, I contend that we have not yet actually seen communism. What happened in the Soviet Union was an attempt at socialism, but it certainly never achieved communism.

I think that in most cases communism isn’t able to emerge under socialism because of the economic limitations of the given socialist society and, as we know, no true socialism can develop without international relationships that allow it to survive. And China is no exception. Anyways, I am sure that we’ll still have chances to experiment and more opportunities in the future to try to construct communism and a more democratic life.

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