When words aren’t enough — mourning Kelsey, Phil, and too many others

I was at the annual California Federation of Teachers convention in Sacramento last weekend, when I heard about the loss of Phil Ejercito. As I read the news on my phone, union officials were announcing the Campaign for Quality Public Education, which may be one of the most impressive offensives to defend and improve public education from K-12 to Community Colleges and Universities in many years. It was hard to contain my emotions, in a room full of members, officials, and staff, because in many ways it’s hard to think of organizing in a world that Phil is not a part of.

I met Phil at UW-Madison. I was involved in the Student Labor Action Coalition and the Associated Students of Madison, and he wasn’t a stranger to either organization. Phil was always the guy we called when we couldn’t figure out how to do something technological. More often than not, he was a megaphone for others: he would handle campaign emails for ASM slates, and during one of the funnest SLAC campaigns, he sent a fake facebook “friend” invite to all 40,000+ students at UW, asking them to befriend then-Chancellor John Wiley. Of course, Wiley’s facebook page was made by SLAC, calling on the UW administration to improve its enforcement of labor standards in the production of licensed clothing. I spent most of the following day just approving the friend requests that came in, before facebook shut down the account.

After everything that has gone down in Wisconsin over the past two years–the capitol occupation, the passage of Act 10, loss of so many jobs and my parents’s collective bargaining rights–it’s hard to believe that one of the fixtures of Madison activism, someone who almost every young activist comes into contact with and is inspired and mentored by, is no longer with us. It’s even harder to believe that, without him, we stand a chance of righting all the wrongs committed by Walker, the Kochs, and all of our well-intentioned friends and relatives who supported their campaign against social justice. And it reminds us of the psychic turmoil of all those events–all those painful losses–on someone as dedicated to justice and democracy as Phil.

This is even tougher because of the loss of Kelsey in the Fall. Kelsey was known to many in the Chicago anti-war and queer liberation circles. She was also, for a time, a close friend, who I have fond memories of spending time with between Orange County and Santa Barbara, during a vacation to see her family in Thousand Oaks. She’s still missed by many, but had struggled with a number of problems for some time. Maybe it could have been avoided, maybe I or another friend could have helped her through it. But what Kelsey put her time into fighting–a system that seeks to destroy all of us, that tries to separate us and wear us down–likely was what made life too difficult to live.

Mourning Kelsey and Phil is more difficult than mourning Brad Will or Tristan Anderson or Scott Olsen (the latter two weren’t fatal, luckily), because their deaths weren’t on the front lines, but in private.

Too many of us are struggling against Capitalism–not in the streets but within ourselves. I know the depression and isolation and pain all too well. I’ve been fortunate to have a community around me who supports me even when I can’t understand why anyone would. They’ve helped me make sense of things about myself that I can’t otherwise comprehend, that threaten to push me towards the edge. Even still, it’s difficult to wake up in the morning, to get out of bed, to find some purpose in my life or convince myself that it’s worth continuing to fight what so often feels like a losing battle, against capitalist exploitation and myself. Those who know me well or who were with me at UCI in 2009/10 have a good idea of what I went through, from the police to my department and other activists.

I know there are many, including some of you reading this, who have been through much worse. I hope we can all be there for each other. I want to be there for you, even if we haven’t spoken in 5 years.

It’s tough writing even this much, and I’m not really sure how to end this on a positive note. I’m not sure there is one to end on.

If you’re having a tough time, please talk to somebody (including me!) about it. The Icarus Project also has a lot of resources for those “navigating the space between brilliance and madness” (i.e. dealing with mental health issues) from a radical, anti-capitalist perspective.

Another resource I’d like to share deals more with my own experiences with mental health challenges. You can read it here. I’m sharing in case it is helpful to anyone who’s been through similar.

More on Phil:

Dane 101 tribute

Isthmus tribute


Phil’s Photography portfolio


Macktivists, Brocialists, and Manarchists are We All: Exorcizing the Demons in Our Movement and Ourselves

[This could probably go without saying, but for good measure: TRIGGER WARNING!]

Several months ago, I learned that a comrade and friend was raped by Seth Miller, a member of the Progressive Labor Party.  I was shocked to hear, but as glad as one can be in this situation that a group of activists and friends were standing up with her and charging PL to hold Miller accountable.  At the same time, because of my own history of grievances with PL and its members, I worried that this demand would fall on deaf ears.  Initially, several members of PL seemed to take it seriously–they promised to bring it to the leadership and see to it that there was justice.  But over time, it became clear that PL as an organization, from the senior leadership to these members who originally promised to help, were doing everything in their power to not bring Miller to accountability but rather to shield him, justify his actions, and attack his accuser.  With communists like these, who needs capitalists?!

This is all the more troubling because I know some of these members who are defending Miller.  It should be clear enough to anyone with half a sense of decency, much less feminist or leftist politics, to understand that telling a rape survivor that what she suffered wasn’t rape, that it’s just “gossip,” that the attacker is too important to the movement to be kicked out creates an environment where rape is excused ahead of time–where it is made clear that nothing will be done to prevent members from raping others, and that nothing will be done to punish them.  But what is less obvious, but just as present, is the culture of rape within PL (and, indeed, many other leftist organizations and circles) that enabled Miller to rape my friend and, likely, other women.  Unless PL takes an active stand against rape and rapists, one can only assume that their vision of revolutionary utopia is one in which women have little control over their own bodies, where party members can terrorize others with no consequence.

Shortly after the first public statement was released about Miller and PL’s coverup, I was asked to write something about PL and my experiences with them and their members at UC Irvine.  Aside from recounting the events with broad strokes and offering an elementary analysis, as I’ve done above, I have little more to contribute in those areas, which others have written extensively and beautifully about already.  And, as a man who no longer lives in Southern California, nothing I could write can or should equal what the women (and male allies) actively organizing against Miller and PL have already written and will continue to write.  What I hope to contribute is additional history of PL’s culture of rape and misogyny and some personal experiences relative to the culture and defense of rape and sexual assault in activist circles, and social circles more broadly.  In what follows, I don’t name names.  As much as it is about these individuals and their actions, it is also about something much larger; it may be clear to some who I am referring to, but I don’t want their individual personalities to draw from the larger issue of sexual assault in our communities.

PL, Behind the Curtains

I came to UC Irvine several years ago as a grad student, after spending all four years of my undergraduate career involved with various activist groups and primarily organizing around workers’ rights issues and international solidarity.  Searching for a continuation of this work, I sought to get involved with the only group at UCI interested in workers’ rights, and, in reality, the only group that was radical or organizing.  What I found, I soon discovered, was not at all what I was looking for.

The group was dominated by older men, primarily grad students (including several in my department); but the gendered power dynamics were addressed by pushing women into public, formal leadership positions.  As one could expect, this resulted in a cloaked power structure, where the men made decisions, while the women would face the responsibility for those decisions.  Additionally, as exists in many (all?) other groups, there was a gendered division of labor: men take part in the “intellectual” work and claim publicity (writing, speaking at rallies, choosing which films to see and what articles or books to read in discussion groups), while women took on more rote work while staying in the shadows (working with the administration, outreach to other groups, making sure everyone does what they promised to).

But merely a gendered hierarchy and division of labor do not equate a rape culture.  That’s where a lot of the interpersonal relationships come in.  One of my strongest recollections from my short time in that group was an incident of one of the male leaders slut-shaming the women when they wanted to go out dancing one weekend.  There was much more wrapped up with this incident than just inferring that these women were promiscuous because of an association of women going dancing together where there would be men, taking a paternalistic, Austen-esque view that women needed to be protected and chaste.  What this was about, fundamentally, was controlling the bodies of women in the group.  Whether it was understood by them as such, the men didn’t really want the women to mix with outsiders, much less outside men.  By attempting to attack and undermine their sexuality, the men sought to control women’s sexuality.  Men also used relationships with women in the group to control how they voted on things or carried out actions for or within the group.  Men also used relationships with women outside the group in order to recruit them.

Along these lines, there were a number of actions I witnessed, designed to isolate group members from other social structures, so that they would be reliant on the group, and especially the leadership, for socializing.  Frequent group dinners would be expected of any student club to build camaraderie among members, but this group went further, such that the group itself was the encapsulation of its members’ social lives.

Of course, as I discovered, the group was little more than a front for PL.  The two oldest men in the group, who largely ran the group, were members of PL.  Let’s call them “D” and “F”.  D was a high-level leader in PL, while F was only really associated with PL at the time but is now more active.  Most of the decisions of the group, while voted on at meetings, were either decided ahead of time by D and F and their allies, or vetoed afterwards.  In one case, after I proposed and took on the responsibility for a film screening, I was told just a few days before that “they” decided to cancel it; telling me was more of an afterthought.  But this is to say that the mechanisms of power and control didn’t exist isolated within that group; in reality, the actions of men in the group, especially D and F, were intended to make sure the group’s decisions were in line with PL’s, and to screen and recruit students to PL.

There were actually instances in which student activists who didn’t toe the PL line within the group were forcibly purged.  One such student was a freshman my first year of grad school, and, I thought, had a tremendous natural potential for organizing.  Unlike others in the group, especially D and F, she came from a poor family, and was working in addition to going to school; as a result of this background, she had a rapport with the workers that no one else could match.  Despite this potential, which everyone acknowledged, she (actually her relationship with the workers) was seen as a resource to be exploited, and there was little effort to nurture and mentor her as an organizer, and even her efforts to seek this experience as opposed by some in the group.  She ended up dating a campus groundskeeper (which was also, similarly, exploited), but when they broke up following her discovery that he was cheating, other members of the group (especially D and F) continued to maintain a relationship with him rather than her.  They would invite him to group functions that were kept secret from her — despite her still being active in the group — and she actually found out that, while they were dating, D and F and others would hang out with him and his other girlfriend.  Eventually, after the break-up, she was pulled aside by F and one of his other male allies after a meeting, and told that she was being kicked out of the group in a way that was, at a minimum, unintentionally threatening, violent, and patriarchal.  The two of them told other group members who weren’t part of PL or the inner circle that she chose to leave.

Because the group was focused on campus workers, it’s also important to examine the group’s (and PL’s) intentions with those workers and their unions.  In retrospect, most of the group’s interactions with workers were dictated by an interest in developing a relationship of dependency.  A main reason why the film screening mentioned above was canceled was that the film, and my planned discussion afterward, emphasized worker agency and a vision of unions of, by, and for workers — that is, a union not controlled by bureaucratic leadership or an outside political party.  The group often held meetings and events only for workers, and it was really a one-way flow of knowledge.  The workers were to be evangelized into communism and recruited for PL if they passed some litmus test; it was not believed that student activists could learn from workers.  If anything, workers’ experiences were cannibalized and forced into the PL narrative.

Many of the workers felt uncomfortable with this political proselytization, and those few who actually attended PL meeting were put off and didn’t go back.  F would often take the role of speaking for workers, and managed to get himself onto the bargaining committee of one group of workers, where he dictated their strategy and decisions, and even turned the committee against the union that was representing them, during bargaining.  Thus, and ignoring many other reaffirming examples, the group’s interest in workers’ rights did not translate into direct action in solidarity with workers (a la USAS or other groups), but was only something to be leveraged in order to trick workers into feeling dependent on students, with dreams of a power/party structure such that PL, viz. D and F and other student activists, would be at the top of the pyramid, with workers as their foot soldiers at the bottom.

Obviously, the workers never fell for it, and in many cases used D and F and the student group to get what they want; they were smarter than the student group gave them credit for.  And, ultimately, it’s of no surprise that this should happen, because there is little incentive to join a political party unless you have come to believe the dogma or have a high-level position.

It’s More Than a Women’s Problem

While PL is marked as a target here, their treatment of Miller is just the most recent occurrence of a repeating phenomenon on the left.  What I’ve outlined as my observations with this PL front group at UCI illustrates the mechanisms of hierarchy and patriarchy that allow a rape culture to form within organizations and communities.  This culture makes it such that when one member is injured by another, whether by sexual assault or other means, there is an economizing that is done by the leadership, to determine which of the two members is more valuable.  If the rapist, as in the case of Miller, is found to be of value to the organization, then that person is kept while the survivor/victim is purged.  This goes far past simply blaming the victim, to treating the victim as a cancer that needs to be excised, rather than holding the perpetrator accountable.  Or, the survivor may become convinced that it’s better to just stay quiet, because speaking up would mean more attacks against her (accusations of lying, etc) and removal from the space and therefore from her social circle.  Within these structures, it is often preferable to pretend the attack didn’t occur.  The rape-supporting structures within many of these organizations and communities resembles those of caricatured college fraternities; however, because these groups claim to be fighting against the very thing they are perpetrating, avenues for recourse and accountability may be even more tenuous and frightening than they are in the rest of society.

As few of my friends know, I unfortunately have first-hand experience with how these structures can work (albeit outside of leftist circles).  I apologize for how this information is being conveyed–it is something I wish could have been dealt with properly, on its own, and I don’t mean to detract from what PL and Miller have done.  It is something that has, for a long time, been difficult for me to come to terms with, but I decided I need to share in order to help others understand what is happening now.

When I was about 15, I was sexually assaulted.  I was molested by a peer during a Boy Scouts camping trip, while I was in my tent.  What was most difficult was that I was not alone in my tent, but that I was sharing it, at the time, with 4 other friends.  And they watched, laughing, as it happened.  Some of them were also classmates, while the rest I only knew through the Scout troop.  The way that I internalized this all, as I assume anyone else would, was that I believed it was my fault, I convinced myself that this wasn’t sexual assault but a joke.  I was afraid to speak out about it because it was my friends, because I was ashamed, and, most importantly, because I had no other social or support structure to fall back on.  To cope with my inability to address what happened to me in any meaningful way, I blocked it out of my memory for 5 years, until it painfully came back and since hasn’t left.

Still, women are by and far much more likely than men to be targeted for sexual assault or rape.  But it does happen to men, and rather than intending to make this, yet again, just about men, by recognizing that it doesn’t just happen to women, it’s easier to understand that sexual assault affects everyone, and that the burden of fighting sexual assault in our communities does not fall only on women.  It is important also to recognize that sexual assault is not exclusive to hetero communities.

What I have come to understand from that experience, and what I have seen too many times since, primarily within activist groups, is how sexual assault comes to be seen as permissible: how perpetrators think that it’s ok or that they won’t be punished; how it’s excused, ignored, or reinforced by others in the group; and the psychology of victimhood and roadblocks to even seeking justice or accountability.

We Need to Kill the Monster Now, Not Later

What needs to be done would take too long to describe here in full, and has already been done articulately in too many other places to list.

In short, we need to fight patriarchy and sexual assault right now, not after the revolution.  We need to examine our communities and our own behavior to see those aspects that contribute to a culture of rape and sexual assault.  We need to make sure that sexual assault is discouraged, not permitted, and take preventative action rather than waiting until the unspeakable happens in our community.  We also need to make sure that our communities practice real processes for accountability and justice — this means the right to confront one’s attacker, the right to be taken seriously, and the right to be included in any accountability process (none of which were respected by PL).  This also means that, if the attacker is not cooperative, not willing to meet the reasonable terms of the person they attacked, etc., that person needs to be removed from the community, forcibly if necessary.  They don’t need a drinking buddy or to write self-critical reflection papers — they are a danger to the community, just as Seth Miller still is, and need to be prevented from attacking anyone else, by whatever means are deemed necessary by those who they endanger.

Anything short of this is counter-revolutionary, and demands immediate consequences.

Not A-MUSE-d: Some Thoughts on Revolutionary Chic in Music

For well over a year now, I have been thinking about the British rock band Muse and their album The Resistance, particularly the song “Uprising.”  I’ve offered quick critiques and analyses whenever I hear someone suggest Muse as a political band, and after hearing “Uprising” on the radio this morning, it seemed like high time to write out a longer analysis and explanation of why I have been so dismissive of a song that encourages us to “rise up and take the power back.”

You’d think that lyrics such as those would appeal to someone who openly advocates revolution and militant struggle, identifies as an anarchist, and has been listening to music like Rage Against the Machine, Dead Kennedys, Dead Prez, The Coup, Bob Dylan, David Rovics, and so on since the eighth grade.  But it’s politics is deeper than just pronouncing the same buzzwords as others who are political; and, as I intend to argue, Muse attempts to do little more than engage in aesthetic pseudopolitics and revolutionary chic, whereas the other bands and musicians I mention have demonstrably attempted to actually engage in politicization processes, if not directly aid liberation struggles.

My fascination with Muse goes back to their performance at the 2011 Grammy’s, held on February 13, 2011, in Los Angeles, as British students were amidst a wave of mobilization that included the occupation and vandalism of 30 Millbank, the Conservative Party headquarters, with even a bonfire set at the building.  During this performance, as Muse gave lip service to the difficult task of revolution, dancers dressed as riot police and black blockers performed a choreographed police riot on stage—or, at least, a mass media-induced caricature of one:

(for some reason, the video is mirrored)

It’s also worth looking at the lyrics:

Paranoia is in bloom
The PR transmissions will resume
They’ll try to push drugs that keep us all dumbed down
And hope that we will never see the truth around
Another promise, another scene
Another packaged lie to keep us trapped in greed
And all the green belts wrapped around our minds
And endless red tape to keep the truth confined

They will not force us
They will stop degrading us
They will not control us
We will be victorious

Interchanging mind control
Come let the revolution take its toll
If you could flick a switch and open your third eye
You’d see that we should never be afraid to die
Rise up and take the power back
It’s time the fat cats had a heart attack
You know that their time’s coming to an end
We have to unify and watch our flag ascend

Everything in the song seems to refer first to revolutionary imagery, and less to revolution itself.  It also seems to take a very superficial approach to politics that can be best termed either pseudopolitics or revolutionary chic.  “Pseudopolitics” is a term utilized by Christian Bay (and likely others before, albeit perhaps differently) in his critique of the field of Political Science, “Politics and Pseudopolitics” [1], to mean “activity that resembles political activity but is exclusively concerned with either the alleviation of personal neuroses or with promotion of private or private interest group advantage, deterred by no articulate or disinterested conception of what would be just or fair to other groups.”  Bay also describes pseudopolitics as “the counterfeit of politics.”  Conversely, Bay describes “politics” as “an instrument of reason, legitimately dedicated to the improvement of social conditions,” existing “for the purpose of progressively removing the most stultifying obstacles to free human development.”  For our purposes, I will hold to Bay’s conception of politics, amending his definition of pseudopolitics to include a feigning of politics for individual status purposes.

Radical chic, then, is a nuancing of pseudopolitics, taken to its narcissistic limits.  Coined by Tom Wolfe in his essay, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” (later published in Wolfe’s 1970 book, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers), described later by Michael Bracewell in his review of Wolfe’s essay as “an exercise in double-tracking one’s public image: on the one hand, defining oneself through committed allegiance to a radical cause, but on the other, vitally, demonstrating this allegiance because it is the fashionable, au courant way to be seen in moneyed, name-conscious Society.”  Bracewell also writes, “and while the cultural dynamics of the early 21st century are more confusingly elastic than were those of 1970, there remains an attraction for artists and curators in appropriating the mythic impact of political or counter-cultural extremism – often selecting the agency of those causes or personalities that come fully embossed with the glamour of sub-cultural ‘chic’.”  There’s even an emerging trend of “militant chic” or “terrorist chic” fashion that extends well beyond the stereotypical Che Guevara t-shirt, to include keffiyahs, combat boots, military caps and jackets, even bandanas.  The brand names you can find in a department store themselves indicate a pseudopolitics: 7 For All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity, Free People, Theory (just to sample Nordstrom).

Muse is hardly the first musical act to skirt radical chic; from Alicia Keys coming out as an anarchist to Rage Against the Machine to any other number of music videos or lyrics incorporating radical or dissident imagery, music has been closely intertwined with the political and the pseudopolitical.  Looking at the great political songwriters casts a sharp divide between political music and the pseudopolitical music of Muse’s The Resistance, but we can bring in other bands to show the stark contrast even in politics.

It’s hard to get more political than the folk music of the 60s and those who have followed in that tradition.  Phil Ochs’ “What Are You Fighting For”, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”, Pete Seeger’s “What Did You Learn In School,” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” and “The Death of Emmett Till” all serve as good examples of music that points to specific instances of social injustice, connects that injustice to the broader social structures of oppression, and pays attention to social and political contradictions.  They accomplish what organizers often refer to as “breaking down” how society functions, in order to educate the public on a mass scale and introduce them to liberatory politics.  “Hurricane,” about the arrest and conviction of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, drew attention to the case and was used to raise money for Carter’s defense, ultimately leading to his acquittal and freedom.

More recently, the punk scene has been built around these same principles.  The Dead Kennedys’ music takes on political issues, especially “California Über Alles” and “Holiday in Cambodia,” in a sarcastic, pull-no-punches way to attack Governor Jerry Brown and expose the brutality of the secret war in Cambodia.  Rage Against the Machine, musically innovative even apart from the political message, has played free shows outside the 2000 DNC in LA and without a permit at the 2008 RNC in St. Paul.  Even apart from the message and nature of these shows, vocalist Zack de la Rocha has been vocal defending Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal and supporting the EZLN (Zapatistas) in Chiapas and the South Central Farmers in Los Angeles, and guitarist Tom Morello is a card-carrying member of the LA Industrial Workers of the World branch and over the past year has been performing labor songs at the Wisconsin capitol and Occupy sites around the country, in addition to advocating around a number of issues and organizing benefit shows.  Even System of a Down, which lacks the political following of RATM, still has made an attempt at political music—“Deer Dance” is clearly about the police riot at the 2000 DNC in LA, while other songs have been about the Armenian Genocide.  Away from the music, vocalist Serj Tankian has teamed up with Tom Morello to found the non-profit Axis of Justice, which was formed to promote anti-racism and anti-fascism in music and bring other musicians together to support progressive causes.

Hip-hop has also had a prominent lineage of political and social messages, though Dead Prez and The Coup have stood out for both their lyrics and their off-stage activities.  In 2008, police attempted to arrest a concert-goer outside a Dead Prez show at Evergreen State College, and DP got the crowd to unarrest the person.  Boots Riley of The Coup (who also plays with Tom Morello in Street Sweeper Social Club) has been a vocal leader of Occupy Oakland.

This isn’t to say that other musicians and artists shouldn’t be criticized or commended, or that otherwise moderate or milquetoasty political lyrics don’t still reveal something important about the banality or contradictions of everyday life under our exigent political and social circumstances—I’ve long professed (to anyone that will listen) that a great dissertation would be a Marxian class analysis of Taylor Swift’s music.  Or even that music and art must have an overt political (and decidedly leftist or communist) content, though one would hope that art would have something to say about reality or cognition and not deliberately obfuscate the political or social dimension of that reality or its influence on cognition.

What the point is, then, is that there needs to be some cohesion between content and action, and revolutionary discourse needs to be genuine, grounded and meaningful.  This means that there shouldn’t be a separation between lyrics and the performer’s own action, on stage and off; if you’re going to talk the talk, back it up by walking the walk.  It also means that deliberately political music (even pseudopolitical music appropriating revolutionary imagery) needs to connect to and support relevant causes, educate listeners rather than make broad pronouncements, and above all actually seek social change rather than exhausting itself pretending to seek change.

That’s where Muse falls short.  Apart from being Glenn Beck’s favorite band, their politics don’t seem to digress much beyond a confusing existential libertarianism.  More broad pronouncements detached from real struggle continue in songs like “United States of Eurasia” and “Unnatural Selection,” which has the lines “I am hungry for some unrest / I want to push this beyond a peaceful protest / I wanna speak in a language that they’ll understand.”  While such language is joyously reminiscent of a poster at LA City College that had occupiers feeling uneasy (it read “talk to cops in a language they understand” with a picture of an assault rifle), it falls shallow, as the rest of the lyrics make it obvious that frontman Matt Bellamy has never actually been to a non-peaceful protest, but has only seen them on BBC.  Even more annoying, he has waffled on being a 9/11 conspiracist [2].  Lyrics to the song “Assassin”—”War is overdue / The time has come for you / to shoot your leaders down / Join forces underground”—make you wonder if they know the history of the Angry Brigade, the British kin to the Weather Underground or Red Army Faction.

I should be the last to tell anyone not to listen to Muse; they are, of course, very talented, and I’ve listened to them since Absolution came out.  I sing along to “Uprising” and “The Resistance” when they come on the radio.  But they’re not very good as a political band.  There’s plenty of other musicians who are both very talented but also project real politics rather than forcing pseudopolitics, some of whom are promoted in this article.  If Muse happens to contribute to class consciousness and revolutionary agency in the US or UK, great—but I’m not holding my breath.


[1] Bay, Christian. 1965. “Politics and Pseudopolitics: A Critical Evaluation of Some Behavioral Literature.” American Political Science Review 59(1): 39-51.

[2] Fricke, David. 2009. “Global Superstars Muse Explode in America.” Rolling Stone, October 15: 13-4.

Some cursory/introductory research on Student Workers’ Right to Organize

As a union organizer in the UC system–who deals extensively with the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (HEERA), the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), and Campus and UCOP Labor Relations–I’ve been asked a few times what it would take to organize student workers (or put more idealistically, what it would take for them to organize themselves).  Apart from the typical problems and difficulties associated with union organizing drives, and some potential hurdles like student turnover, it may not actually be that difficult for student workers on UC (and presumably CSU) campuses to form unions, based on the “three-prong test” devised by PERB Administrative Law Judge Tamm (Regents of the University of California [1999] PERB No. 1359-H, 139 CPER 62).

Since I’m not a lawyer, I don’t want to risk giving false information by summarizing; instead, I’ve typed out 2 key sections from a book published by California Public Employee Relations (CPER) and the Institute for Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley, which reviews relevant case law for public employees’ unions, in this case employees covered under HEERA.

For your reference, the text of HEERA can be found here: http://www.perb.ca.gov/laws/heera.asp
PERB Decision Bank (for searching PERB decisions cited in the notes): http://www.perb.ca.gov/decisionbank/default.aspx
California Public Employee Relations: http://cper.berkeley.edu/

From California Public Employee Relations’ “Pocket Guide to the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act” (First Edition, June 2003):

Student employees
. Perhaps the greatest controversy regarding the scope of HEERA’s coverage has concerned the lengthy battle for recognition of graduate students, interns, and residents at the University of California as employees entitled to collective bargaining rights under the act.  Since its inception, the language of HEERA has not included under its jurisdiction student employees whose employment is contingent on their status as students unless “the services they provide are unrelated to their educational objectives, or, that those educational objectives are subordinate to the services they perform and that coverage under this chapter would further the purposes of this chapter” (Sec. 3562[e]).  Whether students’ educational objectives are subordinate to the services they provide is a determination made by PERB on a case-by-case basis, looking “not only at the students’ goals, but also at the services they actually perform, to see if the students’ educational objectives, however personally important, are nonetheless subordinate to the services they are required to perform.” [15] (p. 6)

Graduate student instructors and researchers.  The second major challenge regarding the status of student employees concerned graduate student instructors and research assistants (GSIs and GSRs, respectively) of the University of California.  Four years after the enactment of HEERA, GSIs at UC Berkeley formed the Association of Graduate Student Employees (AGSE) and requested to bargain with the UC administrators pursuant to Sec. 3562(e) (then Sec. 3562[f]) of HEERA.  The university refused to recognize the union, and an unfair practice charge was filed.  What followed was a legal and political struggle that lasted nearly 16 years until it was resolved in favor of coverage.

PERB first addressed the issue in 1989, ruling that GSIs and GSRs did not qualify as “employees” under the statutory framework of HEERA.[20] AGSE appealed the board’s ruling to the California Court of Appeals and, in May 1992, the court affirmed the board’s decision that GSIs and GSRs were “students” rather than “employees” under HEERA.[21]  Reaffirming the statutory balancing test outlined by the Supreme Court in Regents, the court concluded that under the second prong of the test, the purposes of HEERA would not be served by including graduate students under its coverage.

Next, PERB ALJ Tamm ruled in 1996 that GSIs as well as readers, special readers, tutors, and remedial tutor/part-time learning skills counselors at UCLA were “employees” under HEERA, and were thereby entitled to collective bargaining rights.[22]  The ruling specifically excluded GSRs, whose research services the ALJ held were not subordinate to their educational objectives.  This decision was preceded one year earlier by another ruling by Tamm that readers, tutors, and teaching associates at UC San Diego were “employees” under the act.[23]  Neither campus agreed to recognize the respective unions, and the decisions were immediately appealed.[24]

In its appeal in the UCLA case, the university argued that extending collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees would violate Art. IX, Sec. 9, of the California Constitution, which declares UC to be a public trust.  According to the argument, this granted the university “general immunity from legislative action.”  The university argued that HEERA was constitutional only as an exception to the university’s general immunity and only insofar as it did not regulate matters involving internal university affairs.”

The first of PERB’s final decisions came in the San Diego case, rendered in April 1998.  The board affirmed the ALJ’s ruling that readers, tutors, and teaching associates at the campus were “employees” entitled to collective bargaining under HEERA.[25]  In its decision, the board adopted the following three-part test first outlined by ALJ Tamm:

(1) Is the employment of the student employees contingent on their status as students? If not, they are deemed employees under HEERA.  If so, then,
(2) Are the services provided to the university related to the students’ educational objectives?  If not, they are “employees.” If so, then,
(3) (a) Are the students’ educational objectives subordinate to the services they provide to the university?  If not, they are not “employees.” If so, then,
(b) Would coverage of the student employees further the purposes of HEERA?[26]

Whether the educational objectives of the student employees are subordinate to the services they perform for the university, the majority concluded, requires the board to make a “value judgment,” rather than conducting a “scientific weighing process.”  The board’s determination turns on how vital the employment is to both the students’ educational objectives and to the services provided to the university.

The majority found that HEERA’s purposes would be served by including readers, tutors, and teaching associates in the collective bargaining process, despite earlier rulings to the contrary regarding UC Berkeley student employees.  Following this decision, PERB refused to join in the university’s request for judicial review of the case, making PERB’s ruling final.[27]

PERB further solidified the collective bargaining rights of graduate student academic employees in its follow-up decision in the UCLA case in December 1998, where it applied the same reasoning to hold that GSIs, readers, special readers, tutors, remedial tutors, and part-time learning skills counselors at that campus were “employees” entitled to collective bargaining under HEERA.[28]

In March 1999, the University of California agreed to honor the results of the representation elections scheduled by PERB at each of the campuses and agreed to negotiate with chosen exclusive representatives. (pp. 8-10)


[15] Regents of the University of California v. PERB; California Association of Interns and Residents (1986) 41 Cal.3d 601, 614, 69 CPER 56.

[20] University of California (Berkeley) (1989) PERB No. 730-H, 81 CPER 81.  The board made exceptions for graduate students serving as community teaching fellows, nursery school assistants, and acting instructors, finding that these employees were entitled to coverage under HEERA.
[21] Association of Graduate Student Employees v. PERB; University of California (Berkeley) (1992) 6 Cal.App.4th 1133, 94 CPER 39.
[22] For an in-depth discussion of the ALJ’s ruling and its implications, see Eric Borgerson, “Higher Education Special Report: Graduate Students Win Bargaining Rights But University Refuses Recognition,” CPER No. 120, pp. 24-34 (October 1996).
[23] Regents of the University of California, ALJ Proposed Decision, PERB No. SF-RR-805-H (Oct. 20, 1995); see also “Student Employees at UC San Diego Make Up Appropriate Bargaining Unit,” CPER No. 115, pp. 51-53 (December 1995).
[24] See Borgerson, “Higher Education Special Report,” supra note 22.
[25] Regents of the University of California (1998) PERB No. 1261-H, 130 CPER 76; see also “PERB Affirms Student Employee Bargaining Rights in Split Decision,” CPER No. 130, pp. 45-49 (June 1998).
[26] This is the same three-part test outlined by ALJ Tamm and adopted by PERB in determining whether interns and residents are entitled to collective bargaining under HEERA.  See discussion of interns and residents, supra.
[27] See “PERB Refuses to Certify Appeal of Student Employee HEERA Ruling,” CPER No. 132, pp. 43-44. Because of PERB’s decision in the San Diego case was a unit determination decision, HEERA Sec. 3564(a) provides that the order is not subject to judicial review unless the board agrees with the party seeking review that the decision carries special importance and joins in the request.  See infra, Unit Determination.
[28] See Regents of the University of California (Los Angeles) (1998) PERB No. 1301-H, 134 CPER 73; see also “Another Victory for Graduate Student Employees,” CPER No. 134, pp. 45-49 (February 1999).

Still Waiting for ‘Real Action’: UC’s Repeated Failure to Address Campus Racism

As many in the UCLA community are now aware, the door to students’ off-campus apartment was vandalized with anti-Mexican and sexist messages on the morning of Monday, February 27.  As tragic as this isolated event was, it is more illustrative of the broader campus climate on one hand, and, on the other, the complete inability of campus and system administrators to effectively address these situations and ensure the safety of their female students and students of color.

Before looking at the Daily Bruin editorial penned by Christine Mata, Assistant Dean of Students for Campus Climate, it’s important to rewind several years and place this event in the proper context.

The weekend of February 13, 2010, the Pi Kappa Alpha chapter at UC San Diego hosted a theme party intended to mock Black History Month, titled the “Compton Cookout.”  The theme, if not immediately obvious by the name, was to caricature black culture, serving “chicken, coolade, and of course Watermelon,” and encouraging female attendees to dress and act like “ghetto bitches.”  Within just a few days of the party, which black students—who constitute just 2% of a campus that is 70% non-white—protested, students on a student government-owned television station ridiculed the protests, going so far as to call the black students “ungrateful n—–s”—yes, the actual n-word, and on live television.  On the 24th, UCSD Chancellor Fox planned a teach-in to discuss the racist events on campus and regain the trust of the student body, after allowing the events to spiral out of control.  Reportedly 1200 students attended the teach-in before walking out en masse to do their own teach-out, leaving only a handful of administrators and loyal faculty to continue listening to Fox’s speech—which she continued even after the students left.  Angus Johnson, a CUNY History professor who wrote frequently on the student protests nationally and internationally during the 2009/10 school year, wrote:

I don’t get it. Your campus is in crisis. Your students are in crisis. And your students are taking the lead in forging a response to that crisis. They’re voting with their voices and with their feet, saying that they want to discuss the situation in their own venue, on their own terms. They’re having that discussion right now, right outside the room in which you’re sitting. And you don’t follow them? You don’t join them? You don’t seize this extraordinary opportunity to watch and listen and learn?

Now, it seems like this should have been the sad conclusion to this incident.  Except that it wasn’t.  The night of the 25th—less than two weeks following the “Compton Cookout” party—a noose was found hanging in Geisel Library at UCSD.  Students began a sit-in the next day at Chancellor Fox’s office, with UCLA students sitting in at Murphy Hall in solidarity.   Throughout the day, rumors surfaced that a second noose had been found, though UCPD refused to confirm this, and calls were made to the student paper that more nooses would be hung around campus.  UCSD students set a 5pm deadline for the administration to meet their demands, with about 100 students willing to risk arrest.  The administration finally issued a bogus response letter which set no firm commitments to change the campus climate; however, student leaders convinced the crowd of angry students to leave the office with promises of future action, but no significant actions followed.

Earlier that same month, at UC Irvine, 11 students—8 from UCI and 3 from UC Riverside—were arrested for heckling a university-sponsored talk by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren.  In previous years, Zionist community members have heckled speakers brought in by the Muslim Student Union, including Green Party Presidential candidate and former House Representative Cynthia McKinney, while armed UCPD watched on.  At one point, a mock separation wall erected, with permits, by a student organization preceding the MSU was burned down to the ground—again, as police watched.  In another incident, a plainclothes FBI agent drove a car through a crowd of pro-Palestinian students—once more, as UCPD officers watched on.  Barely a year after the 11 students were arrested, and while they and 19 other UCI students were facing criminal charges for protesting on campus, it was revealed that UC Student Regent and UCI student Jesse Cheng had been arrested for attempted rape.  UCI administrators, even the campus assault resource center (CARE), circled wagons around Cheng; one administrator approached female students with the Justice For Laya Campaign protesting outside the administration building, asking “why are you doing this to him?”  The CARE Director even tried to prevent Justice For Laya organizers from distributing any literature about Cheng at the campus Take Back the Night event.  Eventually, bowing to student pressure, the Student Conduct Office found Cheng guilty of “unwanted touching,” and sentenced Cheng to disciplinary probation, which wouldn’t go into effect until after he graduated.  This was just a slap on the wrist compared to the charges and sentences received by dozens of UCI students—primarily black, Latin@, and Middle Eastern—whose only “crime” was protesting, and the banning of the Muslim Student Union for the organization’s dubious role in the Michael Oren protest.  Ultimately, as the Occupy UCI blog noted, the “conviction” of Cheng was intended to serve two functions: 1) to placate angry students, who demanded Cheng’s resignation and genuine concern from administrators, and 2) to validate and legitimize the use of Student Conduct charges against activists.  It should come as no surprise that institutional racism coalesced with institutional sexism/patriarchy, just as this most recent event at UCLA combined individual racism and sexism.

Barely 9 months after the Compton Cookout, and around the same time as the campaign against Jesse Cheng, ANOTHER racist and sexist party surfaced, this time at UCI.  Instead of targeting black students, though, this party went after native students, with a “Pilgrims and Indians” party, with flyers featuring silhouettes of scantily-clad women with feathers in their hair.  And, following the pattern that is becoming all too obvious and infuriating, the UCI administration did nothing to hold event organizers accountable or make students on campus feel included.  While black students at UCSD make up only 2% of the student population there, American Indian students make up a miniscule 0.01% of the UCI student body.  Furthermore, at the time, there was not a single American Indian professor on campus, nor were there any courses about the indigenous population; only a handful of students outside of the American Indian Student Association knew that the land UCI is located on once belonged to the Acagchemem prior to colonization.

And then, in March 2011, a UCLA undergraduate gained notoriety for releasing a video on YouTube, titled “Asians in the Library,” where she complains that Asian students disrupt her frequent “epiphanies” by loudly saying things like “Oh ching chong ling long ting tong, ooohh.”  However, UCLA administrators declined to punish her in any way, and—amazingly—were more concerned with the criticisms of her video than the impact of the video itself on the Asian-American student population, and students of color on campus more generally.  While Chancellor Block offered a token condemnation of the video, UCLA spokesperson Phil Hampton stated that “right now, the campus is focused on ensuring [the student’s] well-being so she can complete her finals.”

Finally, then, we can return to the most recent incident at UCLA, and the response by Mata.  The Assistant Dean for Campus Climate position, created eight months ago, has been Chancellor Block’s most meaningful gesture towards addressing diversity and racism on campus; but Mata’s letter demonstrates just what an empty gesture it is, and really the lack of commitment from the UCLA administration to increasing diversity on campus and ensuring the safety and security of students of color.

Two quotes from Mata’s article emphasize this point:

“This incident was not the first of its kind but it presents the opportunity for us to engage in dialogue and identify how we can become agents of change toward making it the last time we see such hate against members of our community.”

“Combating bias begins with each of ourselves on the individual level.”

Both of these statements, representative of the rest of the article, point to two related goals of the administrative response:

1)   To make this a definite incident, not something that is part of a long pattern of racism and sexism on UC campuses, as described at length here, or, more importantly, part of a larger structure of racism and sexism—or to put it another way, white supremacy and patriarchy, both of which intersect in much more profound and oppressive ways than the compound slurs written on the apartment door.  If this event were to be linked to past events, students might question why President Yudof and Chancellor Block, and their administrations, have allowed this to happen over and over.

2)   To make this a question of just individual action, rather than a product of systematic and institutional phenomena.  An individual issue—in this case, “bias”—can supposedly be solved through greater understanding and increased dialogue; but a systemic or institutional issue requires controversial and scrutinizable action by the administration, and likely the loss of power and privilege by already powerful and privileged groups—Block’s constituency.  This constituency is made up of the white super-majority in the administration, the white super-majority in the faculty, and the white middle and upper class in the student body.  The appeals to “dialogue” and combating “bias” also assumes a symmetry of power between the oppressor and the oppressed that can only exist in a rhetorical situation decoupled from persistent systems of oppression and racial violence; but in the real world, where some groups and people hold structural power over others, such attempts at dialogue are meaningless.

An article by the Daily Bruin editorial board follows this campaign of distancing, individualizing, and emphasizing dialogue over systemic change in its closing call to “Join the conversation. Keep up the discussion. That’s only the first step, but it’s in the right direction.”  However, a look at the demands issued by students demonstrate the very low level of accommodation that has been denied students of color at UCLA:

1)   Adoption of a UCLA diversity requirement
2)   UCPD accountability to students
3)   Formal response from Chancellor Block condemning these actions
4)   Formal apology from ASUCLA (regarding a separate incident)
5)   Support for growth of Ethnic Studies at UCLA
6)   Creation of a campus multicultural center
7)   Greater diversity within administration and the student body

Aside from the apology from ASUCLA and possibly a statement from Chancellor Block, it seems likely that the first of these demands to be met will be greater diversity in the administration.

The emphasis on policing as a solution—i.e. treating this particular incident as a matter of law and order—raised in the editorial board article and in similar articles elsewhere again removes culpability from the administration; but it also provides a stark irony given the relationship of police to communities of color.  If we look at another incident on campus—when UCPD beat, tased, and arrested students, again primarily students of color, protesting a 32% tuition increase in November 2009 outside Covel Commons, then it should be absolutely clear that police will never be able to eradicate racism, and their very involvement in this case likely will further entrench institutionalized racism.

Given this long history of inadequate responses, decreasing enrollment of students of color, and lack of resources and support structures for those students who are able to attend, it’s important that we recognize that this administration is not designed to meet the needs of students, only placate when necessary.  Instead, we need to start organizing ourselves to build the support structures and create the campus climate that we need, while increasing pressure on the administration to be accountable and serve us.


Since writing this, I came across an email sent from UC President Mark Yudof to all UC students earlier today, which again emphasized Yudof’s trademark appeals to “civility” and “discourse,” this time ignoring the constant violent response to protesters seeking to engage in discourse with UC officials and the Regents; nor does he condemn the racist vandalism at UCLA.  Instead, his objection is to students engaging in political dissent against paid representatives of the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces; statements like “It is an action meant to deny others their right to free speech” seemingly apply only to criticism of Israel, not protests of campus policy.  Never mind that heckling—up until the Irvine 11 arrests—has been considered a common, albeit occasionally unpopular, form of protest (See Occupy UCI for a long list of past heckling which never resulted in arrest).  Similarly, racial and sexist slurs seem to be accepted as “free speech,” while dissent against a foreign government’s agents, brought to campus with official university sponsorship, to sell that government’s policies… well, that’s a crime.  Another paragraph from Yudof’s email heightens his own bias for Zionist students (a political identity, not a religious one):

“Among other initiatives, the system’s central office has worked with the campuses and various groups, including students, to revise policies on student conduct; the new provisions strengthen prohibitions on threatening conduct and acts motivated by bias, including religious bias. We also are working with the Museum of Tolerance and the Anti-Defamation League to improve campus climate for all students and to take full advantage of our marvelous diversity.”

Is this same effort being made for black, Latin@, Muslim, or Asian students?  NO.  These students do not fall under his category of “all students,” otherwise they would have their concerns taken seriously.  Now, this is not to say that Jewish students should not have the right to feel safe on campus; they do, the same as everyone else, and the incidents of swastikas being drawn on doors is just as reprehensible as what was directed against black students at UCSD, American Indian students at UCI, and Asian and Mexican students at UCLA.  But to equate politicized disruptions of speeches by Israeli officials with racist attacks against Jewish students, while ignoring (with only passing reference to) similar attacks on all other students of color, emphasizes a desired demography for the UC system that is as hypocritical as it is racist in its own right.

The continuing appeals to “civility” are meant less to encourage open discourse–since this arguably doesn’t exist in the UC, judging by the actions of the UCPD–and more to invoke archetypes of “the barbarian,” the opposite of “civility” and “the civilized,” which have classically been used to otherize, marginalize, and derationalize primarily Arabs, but also Africans and indigenous Americans (both American Indians and Latin Americans).  Thus, these appeals to civility, revived every time UC students protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine, are clearly intended to divide the student body into groups of “desirables” and “undesirables,” with the safety and speech of the former defended at any cost, and that of the latter discardable and acknowledged only to prevent their revolt.

Some Initial Thoughts on Consensus and Diversity of Tactics

(In response to an email about meetings, consensus, and diversity of tactics/philosophy at Occupy UCLA, which I didn’t want to sidetrack the main email thread. Initial thoughts I hope to later expand on. Consider this a work in progress subject to revision.)

Basically speaking, consensus is meant to make decisions in a format very different from regular voting; it has a much more formal process than what people are using around the Occupies, and it has been truly bastardized by people who have no affinity for the original aims of consensus. Consensus is not meant to overrule people who disagree, nor is it a means for a single person to block proposals. It is designed so that people offer proposals for actions, and people who are negatively impacted or strongly disagree block the proposal. People who disagree but aren’t affected by or forced to participate in the action are encouraged to “stand aside” if able to do so–standing aside has been completely absent from Occupy in favor of a rough jazz hands/block dialectic. If someone is blocking, they need to seriously consider their relationship to the movement in doing so; i.e. are there still common goals and affinities? And the general rule of thumb is that you get 1-3 blocks in your lifetime, and you really shouldn’t be exhausting them in your first movement. I’ve blocked once in 8 years of organizing, and that was only over a serious issue in which people were publicly attacked and made to feel afraid for their safety and I felt that blocking a certain proposal was the only way to address that issue and not have the entire GA fall apart that night. But this demonstrates how consensus really should work: after a block, the person making the proposal should consult with the person blocking and try to come up with a compromise that addresses that person’s reasons for blocking, and the person blocking should try to figure out what they can live with such that they can get to a point of standing aside. If everyone respects the process, the movement, and each other, this can actually be done quite easily. When people abuse the process and block things like committee names which they’re not a part of, things will collapse quickly.

Diversity of tactics necessitates some communication and coordination between people doing different actions to the extent that its safe and necessary. Calling “autonomy” before doing a die-in to detract from another strategy does not have a legitimate claim to diversity of tactics; it is usually regarded as having a separation of time and/or (“and/or” is incredibly important, and battles have been fought over and vs. and/or) space with both clear respect for diversity of tactics and the other actions and strategic decisions. Diversity of tactics has traditionally been advocated by anarchists to protect liberal actions from disruptions by anarchists, i.e. window smashing or other things that may, for example, bring added repression to a permitted march; similarly to keep anarchist and direct actions from being snitched out by liberal peace police.