The Shock Doctrine Goes to College

The Shock Doctrine Goes to College

At UC Davis and other institutions, student-led protests against austerity are met with thuggish riot cops and the criminalization of speech. 


(AP Photo/Thomas K. Fowler)

Editor’s Note: The author is a member of the Davis Dozen and a contributor to The Nation.

This March in Davis, California, eleven students and one faculty member were issued letters from the assistant district attorney of Yolo County charging us with twenty-one misdemeanors each: twenty counts of sitting (“obstructing movement”) and one of conspiracy to sit (“conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor”). The Banker’s Dozen are alleged to have caused the permanent closure of the campus US Bank branch: earthly representative of the university’s celestial bargain with for-profit enterprise, and of the credit-fueled education bubble that weds students to crushing debt burdens. The university, for the moment still led by Linda “Pepper Spray” Katehi, had forwarded the charges; six of the dozen were also recipients of the administration’s tender mercies last November, when the chancellor earned her nickname.

Some see in this a war of maneuver between university and bank, currently bruiting high-stakes countersuits against each other. Or a bid for leverage against the civil suit, filed by students pepper-sprayed in November, in which the university stands to lose big. Others express disbelief that the peaceful political protest alleged at the bank should be prosecuted in the criminal courts, on the county residents’ dime. And still others wonder at the suggestion that a dozen members of the scruffy, do-nothing liberal elite put to flight an office of the fifth-largest commercial bank in the nation.

The DA has commenced backpedaling from this punitive lashing-out (doubtless annoyed in private to find himself carrying the administration’s water). But the judge will handle sentencing if conviction results: as much as eleven years in prison and a million dollars in restitution. Over the course of this academic year, the University of California, once the equal of any public institution of the world, has refined its pedagogy toward a comically singular lesson: that’ll teach you to sit down.

Still, there is good reason to take these charges seriously. Such an attempt to destroy the lives of young people is despicable; as a subjective matter, many will find it so.

There is as well an objective situation. For all that is particular and even perverse about events at Davis, the charges take their meaning within a wider context. The sequence of “violent cops in fall, ‘jail mail’ in spring” played out on the Berkeley campus as well. On November 9, cameras captured riot cops avidly clubbing students and faculty with batons. Similarly protesting privatization, the demonstrators made the mistake of peacefully linking arms: this was “not nonviolent” in the caviling speech of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, now in full retreat with resignation tendered. Months later, thirteen people at Berkeley received charging documents and court dates.

Such overreactions and dark strategies signal a loss of legitimacy and a desperate panic to re-establish it through whatever admixture of thuggish riot cops and dutiful DAs might extinguish the anti-austerity fires. The once-proud university must now lie down with whatever repressive forces it can summon, applying both the rod and the robe to its own population. The hope is to instill enough fear that it can impose its privatization agenda even at this late date—The Shock Doctrine Goes to College.

The very situation that administrators believe necessitate such measures, broad economic crisis, is what undermines their legitimacy and makes their policies insupportable. It is an irresolvable contradiction.

Which is to say, though this will no doubt displease moralists, that it’s inconsequential whether one thinks that militant struggle against agents of austerity and privatization is a just cause. We are not in a moral moment. We are in a moment of systemic unraveling, and gathering immiseration. It is not a brief moment but the long morning of the century.

Against policies of squeezing the most from those with the least, enforced through militarization and criminalization, these struggles are not a brief phantasm. They are the future. And not just on campuses; they will spill into the streets and encounter other such struggles, as we have seen in Athens and London and Santiago. Some will call them riots and some will call them rebellion, but make no mistake: they are coming.

The over four-month-old student strike in Quebec—where the hysterical government has pushed through de facto martial law—is currently the most instructive story in North America. On one hand, the plan to increase tuition by 75 percent is potentially devastating to students already pressed to afford an education. On the other, current tuition in Quebec ($2,144) is markedly lower than what California residents pay in tuition and fees at Davis (over $15,000).

But this is precisely the point. The price tag in Quebec bears within it the memory of free education, of when we believed education was a common good, not a consumer one. For this, as much as a fistful of dollars, people will fight. “Neither the passage of time nor good treatment will make its citizens forget their previous liberty,” wrote Machiavelli. Just imagine when they get hungry, tired of being squeezed and tired of sitting down.

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