Keeping our library open

January 25, 2012

BERKELEY, Calif.--The struggle within the University of California (UC) between the priorities of the ruling class and the needs of students continues to sharpen.

On January 19, in southern California, thousands of students intending to confront the UC Board of Regents were met with the brute force by police at UC Riverside. The Regents, the financial and political elites appointed by the governor, have spearheaded the privatization and corporate restructuring of the UC system over the last decade, including a 250 percent increase in tuition.

Meanwhile, students at UC Berkeley started the semester with the same sense of militancy and purpose that defined their actions last fall. In the first week back from break, a coalition of students, staff, faculty and community members have already won a small but important victory.

Students and faculty returned to school to find that the hours of the George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library in Kroeber Hall had been cut down to 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., from an already limited 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule. Library hours and staffing jobs have suffered from years of cuts, especially in the social science departments.

Instead of replacing library employees who quit or retire, the university has simply been cutting hours. Library staff and anthropology faculty reached out to the Occupy Berkeley General Assembly, asking that we occupy the library to resist the hours cutback. They also offered to staff the library through the night to support the occupiers, so police wouldn't have a pretext for storming in and beating occupiers, as they've been known to do.

The GA voted to support the Anthropology department, and by 5 p.m.--the new closing time being imposed on the library--200 activists were inside studying. Professors gave teach-ins and student groups like the International Socialist Organization set up literature tables with the same books that once graced Zuccotti Park's "People's Library."

Many faculty members, including several department chairs, got to see a General Assembly for the first time. As they witnessed activists discuss how long the study-in occupation should last, questions about the role of faculty arose. Some students were concerned that the faculty's positions as authority figures might detract from the movement's independence, but the faculty made it clear that they were part of the GA not as moderators or mediators, but as active participants.

They saw activists vote to stay for at least one night, and they pledged to stay as well. After an incident in which one occupier denigrated another with sexist language, they also saw us vote unanimously to ban all sexist, racist and homophobic language from Occupy Cal General Assemblies.

After the GA, students and activists made use of a rare opportunity to interact with faculty occupiers and carried on an informal discussion about the state of the libraries, the proletarianization of university faculty, the industrialization of higher education and the consequences these have for university activism and its links with the labor and Occupy movements.

Out of that discussion came a letter, compiled by a working group comprised of both faculty and students and addressed to the UC Berkeley administration, demanding the immediate hiring of new staff in order to keep the Anthropology Library open. Shortly afterward, a resolution was drafted to demand the restoration of the library's hours to the fall 2011 schedule, as well as the hiring of new staff and allocation of proper funding to ensure access to all campus libraries.

After 48 hours of occupation, the administrators came and negotiated with the occupiers, and eventually acceded to their demands.

THE SUCCESS of the Kroeber Library occupation marks Occupy Cal's first concrete victory of the year, and one that mirrors the character of the wider movement right now.

The encampments in the public squares are temporarily extinguished, but as activists carry the struggle into their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and libraries, they can forge broader relationships and employ different methods of struggle. The coming months look to offer even greater victories as Occupy Education, a regional coalition of students, educators, union organizers and activists from the organized left, builds for March 1-5 actions.

March 1 is going to be a statewide, if not national, day of action that will prompt an 80-mile march from the Bay Area to Sacramento, where activists plan to occupy the State Capitol building.

Occupy Cal's demands reach far beyond the Kroeber Library study-in resolution. They include the resignation of UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, the right to set up encampments on campus, implementation of a statewide millionaire's tax, full implementation of affirmative action, immediate forgiveness of all student debt, the redirection of military funding to education, and repeal of Obama's Race To The Top initiative for public schools.

Demands of this type can be a model for occupations elsewhere as they serve to politically orient and focus the fighting energy of activists. Through small victories, wider layers of people are trained in the fight for social transformation.

Students, parents and workers will continue to organize, generate and fight for demands like these in California and elsewhere. One of the main lessons from this most recent victory is the importance of creating links between different segments of the working class who share the same interests and the same enemies.

This will be crucial as we continue to organize for the March days of action in California.

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