Shades of Kent State?

Coast to coast, the Occupy movement is shaking things up, demanding engagement and accountability from those in power.

A contingent of Occupy Wall Streeters arrived in Washington DC today, with plans to set up a “temporary occupation” in front of Capitol Hill and “discuss the failure of the U.S. Government to be accountable to its people.”

In California, a huge General Assembly at UC Davis–the site of the criminal attack on students by a police officer–has called for a general strike on all of the University of California campuses in order to “reclaim the UC” from its corporate Board of Regents.

According to the strike motion:

“The continued destruction of higher education in California, and the repressive forms of police violence that sustain it, cannot be viewed apart from larger economic and political systems that concentrate wealth and political power in the hands of the few.

“Since the university has long served as one of the few means of social mobility and for the proliferation of knowledge critical to and outside of existing structures of power, the vital role it plays as one of the few truly public resources is beyond question.”

Interestingly, a prominent tenured UC Davis professor, Cynthia Carter Ching, has chosen to stand with the students against the administration, blaming “the people running this campus” for thinking of students as “data points and dollar signs, rather than as whole human beings.”  Had the administrators seen the students as human beings, she says, they would never “have called in armed riot police to deal with a peaceful protest, tents or no tents.”

Professor Ching also blames the faculty of UC Davis for being “too busy” with teaching and research to pay much attention to how the university as a whole was being run.

“You know, it wasn’t malicious,” she says. “We thought it would be fine, better even. We’d handle the teaching and the research, and we’d have administrators in charge of administrative things. But it’s not fine. It’s so completely not fine. There’s a sickening sort of clarity that comes from seeing, on the chemically burned faces of our students, how obviously it’s not fine.

“So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t protect you. And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge.

“And to my colleagues, I ask you, no, I implore you, to join with me in rolling up our sleeves, gritting our teeth, and getting back to the business of running this place the way it ought to be run. Because while our students have been bravely chanting for a while now that it’s their university (and they’re right), it’s also ours. It’s our university. And as such, let’s make sure that the inhuman brutality that occurred on this campus last Friday can never happen again. Not to our students. And not at our university.”

It should surprise no one that the students in the UC system are unwilling to entrust their welfare to the “busy busy” faculty or the stone-faced administrators.

And it’s not just the University of California.  There were arrests at Baruch College in New York today, and an open letter from a Yale philosophy professor has gone viral on the Web, with over 1,200 faculty signatories calling on university and college presidents to enforce “campus safe zones” for student protest.

It seems to me that the spirits of the four students killed by police at the Kent State protests a generation ago, back in 1970, are hovering over us these days.

Could it happen again?

Yes, in a heartbeat.  If anything police training has only gotten tougher in the new millennium, with less and less tolerance for any public “disorder.”

Those of us who work with college students know that if they have gone out into the quads and commons to protest, it is because there are very serious issues afoot that must be addressed now.

Generally speaking, college students would much rather be focusing on either their studies or their parties.

If they are participating in general assemblies and sit-ins, it is because the system in which they were raised, and in which they expected to find comfortable berths, has been shredded to the point where they can clearly see the gaping holes in the framework.

No longer can students expect to find jobs that will help them dutifully pay off their exorbitant student loans.  Can we blame them for glaring balefully at the administrators and politicians running the show, and asking angrily, “So what is it all for?”

The sad truth is that California now spends more on its prisons than on its universities, despite the fact that crime rates have fallen steadily since the 1990s.

As Juan Cole puts it in his excellent Truthdig column today,”the defunding of higher education in favor of an enormous gulag dovetails with a rise in the paramilitary repression of the population as one of America’s premier industries.

“Not only are UC Davis students being hit with massive tuition increases to pay for the penitentiaries and their policing, they are also being treated like unruly inmates by a militarizing police force.”

This is not the America we want to be, or to become.  It is time to stand with the Occupy movement and demand the demilitarization of our society, and the redirecting of resources towards education, innovation, creativity and social well-being.

The students are leading the way.  We older folk, who bear the responsibility for the current national and international crisis, must break the dark spell of conformity and accompany  them.  Now.

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