THIS IS HAPPENING – March on Sacramento for Education

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The “99 Mile March for Education” saw students travel from Berkeley to Sacramento on foot in what might be described as the first pilgrimage of the new student movement. With this in mind, I arrived at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland on March 1st expecting the students marching in from Berkeley. The following text is a first-hand account of what transpired…

Day 1. It*s about 2:45pm and about a hundred community organizers occupy the seats of the Oakland City Hall amphitheatre with a rally to keep the energy up. Megaphones let out calls for the end of the current systematic divestments from education – a symptom of the dominant culture of austerity. “Education will keep our kids off of the streets.” Someone takes a seat and asserts a mantra “out on the streets and into the jail.” And it is true that a major concern for a lot of people is making sure that their kids stay out of the jails. Jails are occupied overwhelmingly by people of color. As an advocate of street culture, that eternally mysterious flux of the commons, I think about how if more people were in the streets, we*d have a lot more fun – it might be a difference in definition. A nearby sign reads: “Our dreams can*t wait.” Four cops with riot sticks linger in the background – speaking under their breaths as if telling each other “take. it. easy.”

I get a message that the Berkeley contingent is at 52nd street and they just received a large cache of water from a nearby business. I decide to meet them, acknowledging that rallies never did much for me anyway, although I understand their role. I bike north on Telegraph Ave. The crowd I come across is made up of around three-hundred persons. Banners and pickets in hand, the people of the protest make their way with a motley motorcade: the Saint Rita (a van painted with murals depicting the struggle at UC), a sympathetic car, and a less sympathetic unmarked police SUV all weave in, out, and among the crowd. Every couple blocks, the unmarked vehicle stops to let a police cameraman out to capture the faces of the march. It isn*t clear how they validate their task to the unknowable “People of California” that they so often use as a cover. “The pigs are fucking filming us.” It is precisely in this sort of situation that masks are warranted. So some mask up for a few more blocks until the unmarked car drives away, into the background.

The crowd*s entrance to the plaza is greeted with the cheers of another. A banner draped between willing hands says, “THIS IS HAPPENING.” Captain America makes his appearance, shield in hand. “Here comes Berkeley,” they chant. “Let*s go Oakland.” The four aforementioned Oakland police have made their way across the street and keep their distance. They communicate over walkies to another cop behind City Hall*s doors – doors are adjacent to the plaza. Suits come in and out of the building.

A friend fills me in on the early parts of the day. At 7am, there was an attempted blockade of the UC Berkeley Administration building (California Hall) in which the edifice was wrapped in caution tape. Noon saw the rally on the Berkeley campus. “Diversity has greatly decreased, look around,” was the echoed message from the steps of Sproul Hall – an observation of the decreased enrollment of marginalized persons on the campus. The stop in Oakland lasts for a little and soon it is off again.

Back to Berkeley to meet with a rally for high school faculty, students, and workers… The road to Berkeley this time is San Pablo Avenue. At this point the crowd is a solid forty and more or less this will be the group to make their way to Sacramento, the state capitol. The decision to actually march the whole distance was said to be an accident. Early flyers described a march “to Sacramento” rather than one “on Sacramento.” People decided to roll with the mistake and they started to prepare for it. It was an idea that I thought might only happen once – this notion most interested me in the march. A man carries a rather large inverted U.S. flag. Two livestreamers cover the movements of about forty people, which seems a little excessive… Although the value of recording events is understandable, it becomes hard to see the merits in documenting every fucking thing. Might we be able to more effectively resist surveillance culture, instead of strengthening it? With the recent passing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the position of social antagonists in the United States is made more precarious. Even in the lead-up to the bill*s passing, more and more stories reach the surface of government agencies monitoring political groups (including student organizations). All of this is under the veil of post-9/11 fear that seems to hold less and less weight in the minds of people in the United States. Instead of it being the patriotic thing to accept such a blatant disregard for people*s privacy and freedom, many are seeing such acts as far-reaching violations.

The time from Oakland to Berzerkeley dilates and I appreciate the old Victorians and graffiti more and more. Usually this trip is formed by a bike or bus ride. Something about moving on foot through the asphalt canals usually reserved for cars that makes for a refreshing view. Now in Berkeley, makes their way onto Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a street that borders the high school. Two ten-year-old wanderers pass some time marching with us for a couple blocks. Front of City Hall finds a congregation of teachers* and school workers* unions and students from K-12 and now the higher education types filter in. Cheers. Smiles. This rally has a busdriver talking into a microphone. A common enough message: “Education is a right, not a privilege.” In the bushes, kids play tag. “You can*t catch me.” Another plays catch with one of the “99ers” (the term coined for the marchers). Still another upstages the speaker with his dance, waving his own sign: “Teachers taught the 1%.” And another: “We might not be able to vote. We might be the future. But we*re also the present.” Don*t fuck with these kids.

A fifteen-foot cardboard pencil carries yet another message: “Tax the rich to teach the children.” The electoral aspirations of some in this march are perceivable. The “pay more taxes” message has already been echoed numerous times today. And yet there is no dominant sensibility. For some the march might represent a radical pilgrimage to the mythical capitol, for others an opportunity to recruit future trotskyites, and still others hold simple hopes for the elections. There is a politeness at these events that reflects a common understanding of such divergences. Yet this is too simple an image.

The 99ers are preparing to move on to Richmond. Tonight they*ll stay at a Methodist Church. As the marchers gather their things, a 6-year-old is quoted in a speech: “Joy is a fish swimming in the river of knowledge. That is why it doesn*t get out.” The day would see a twelve mile trek, which would take them to Saint Mark*s United Catholic Church. They would be greeted with burritos and a place to sleep. An account from ReclaimUC.blogspot.com describes the scene: “A couple of people from Occupy Richmond came to talk with us tonight about the different kinds of work they*ve done. They*ve been very involved in support work for Occupy Oakland. Somebody affiliated with Richmond Spokes said one central issue for Occupy Richmond is the pollution that has been introduced by Chevron in this area. The atmosphere and environment in Richmond is significantly more carcinogenic than in other parts of the Bay Area. He said a study on librarians found that 30 percent of librarians in Richmond develop breast cancer, which people think is tied to the pollution introduced by Chevron.”

Day 2 would see another oil refinery approaching Vallejo. Protesters described the sharp pain felt in breathing the air in. Police attempted to corral marchers in such a way to exert a most comfortable level of control for the police themselves. No one was completely sure what their role was other than giving the marchers a hard time. Along the way they would be greeted by spontaneous masses of supporters. Pizza for dinner.

Day 3. It*s 7:01 pm and the student occupiers of UC Davis are anticipating the arrival of the 99 Mile Marchers. Word has come in that the first marcher has arrived. The giant pencils are at rest waiting for the rest of the group. Davis has had its share of political action on the campus in recent history – with many tracing their political unities back to the fall of 2009, in the wake of 32% fee increases. Then, students took over Mrak Hall in what was a radical coming of age for many. At this time occupations as a tactic, although nothing new, were marginalized by those with more conservative aspirations. Now it*s hard not to talk about the political scene without talking about occupying. As this goes to print, non-profits are currently organizing their own “occupations.” It is unclear what trajectory this will take.

The Davis occupiers, having gained considerable pull in the area post-pepper-spray-incident, got the local administration on edge. Upper-level administrators are holding back in light of bad publicity. The sorts of conversations that are being had by students seem to detail ambivalence about what to do with this power. A recent takeover of an unused building was met with criticism after it was revealed that it would eventually become the Multicultural Center (although it*s never been clear how near this reality was). The affected student groups still haven*t moved into the building.

Another tactic that has been used at Davis was a daily blockade of an on-campus bank. The message was simple: banks do not belong on campus. Because of the hesitancy of the administration, police did very little to stop these renegade blockaders. The action was a success, with the bank having closed its doors on campus as of March 12, 2012 – much to the chagrin of local administrators. The Regents of the University of California drafted a letter to the bank, asking them to reconsider. The bank blockade was a move that was not possible under Davis* General Assembly model. So persons autonomously organized towards such a goal, which makes sense to most. Others who saw the General Assembly as an authoritative governing body of the movement experienced some cognitive dissonance, though.

Sitting among the tents I think about the criticism applied by some to parts of Occupy that seem to evoke a Burning Man aesthetic. I have certainly been one to apply such a criticism to what were, for me, the least exciting parts of Occupy. Yet one of the most transmissible elements of Occupy has been the camp/community structure. Perhaps what is positive about this is that people are able to experiment towards livable communities. The intensity of the camps can*t simply be written off as a detriment. Conflict signifies a new synthesis – issues are being looked at in lights that are left untouched in the armchairs of world.

A quick circle discussion is held, which revolves around the question of how to greet the 99 Mile Marchers. It is quickly decided that we should hide and surprise them. We do just that. People hide in tents donated to Davis Occupy by supporters in New Zealand. Chants are heard in the distance. They are approaching. In the tent, a Davis Occupier fills me in on the local political happenings. Nearby, Davis cops hide themselves behind the neighboring trees. As the marchers come in, everyone jumps out. Surprise. We sit around and share tamales, beans, and rice that was coordinated in Davis. The talk is friendly and cheerful. This leads me to hear about efforts to shut down the Monsanto headquarters that are located in Davis. I overhear a conversation about how capitalism is polling lower than ever – it is so low that rightwing advisors like Frank Luntz are telling politicians to avoid using the word. The UC Davis does an extensive amount of agricultural research for big industry, with many professors taking on the unfortunate role of genetically-modified-organism-apologists when needed. Local TV reporters set up lights in the distance for their predictably botched reports. Dessert is in the form of Occu-pies, which are apple pies with cheddar cheese on top. Some suggest that the vegan alternative could be made with nutritional yeast.

“There are way too many mic checks,” I say to a friend. The term, a shortening of “microphone check,” is one that is nearly ubiquitous in Occupy (fortunately or unfortunately). The group isn*t so big that one can*t hear someone yell. Goes to show how people are quick to return to comfortable forms. Are there any mic check tattoos yet? I*ve always found them to be a little creepy. “GENERAL ASSEMBLY IN FIVE MINUTES.” “Finally,” someone exhales. People will discuss tactical matters for the next and final day in Sacramento. Others freely talk in smaller groups with friends to discuss their own plans.

Day 5. The culmination at the California state capitol would see thousands of protestors, disenfranchised by the actions of an elite class of politicians. Traffic reports let local suits know what streets to avoid on their way to work. Some were there to lobby those politicians. Others were more interested in the Occupy approach – blockades and building takeovers. In a move that attempted to replicate Wisconsin*s capitol takeover, hundreds held it down in the Capitol building. At the end of the day, seventy-two were arrested. Many more stayed for support. Earlier, some attempted to hold a general assembly to talk about demands. Others rejected this approach, comparing it to the motions of nearby politicians. Many went home thinking that the day was unfolding in a way that was described as “pretty basic.” In fact, the dominant move for many Occupy groups is to reject the logic of demands, for demands inherently reinforce the positions of mediators (politicians, administrators, police) in our lives. Even though the actions of a few aspiring politicians can seem to overshadow the efforts of many other “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing” types, the latter still reflect the trend towards a radical rejection of what is. Such rejection might soon be traced to the new synthesis, one that could finally fully corrupt the corrupted political order of the present. Soon no one would be able to miss the fact that we wanted everything.