In a world without Robert Reich, where would we be? For starters, probably not out on Sproul that cold November night. Reich’s speech was critical in bringing thousands of students to the Occupy Cal protest last semester and was definitely an important moment for the movement to refund the UC. Important in the way that it was the last “big thing,” for the movement, at least on our campus. A climax of sorts.
And why wouldn’t thousands of students flock to see the former Labor Secretary-turned-superstar professor and pundit sing to their collectivechoir? To put it plainly, of course a person of Reich’s personal accomplishment and general likability — I’ve seen him turn Hardball soft — would bring out more than your usual suspects. But still, sitting in that crowd, I think there was a feeling of something more. We were cold, we were packed, but we were together and fighting back. The buck stopped with a small man addressing a big crowd.
Flash-forward to March 1 — you know, March for education. Apparently UC Berkeley trimmed some of its fat, because the few thousand who turned out for the Reich speech became the few. Period. Fewer than 200 of us showed up. Yeah, it was raining, and yeah, being wet is uncomfortable, but at what point do you actually make a stand? We should be out there, rain, shine or Reich.
Instead of becoming a formidable movement on campus, the remnants of Occupy have pretty much been relegated to caricatures. Their bold attempt to move camp to the steps of Doe was short-lived, and their insistence on an “us versus them” storyline is divisive. We shouldn’t be making these kinds of distinctions and creating these kinds of oppositions. We should be inviting all of those who care about our common interests — in this case refunding the UC and reversing the tragic trend of tuition increases — to join our coalition. Forget percentiles, focus on philosophy.
Adding insult to injury, it must irk the protectors of the 99 to no end that their recent protests pale in comparison to the one defined by the former Labor Secretary. I agree with a lot of what Reich says, but he worked in the Clinton administration. Not exactly a pack of progressive lions.
All of that aside though, what does it say about our student population if we only show up when there’s high-brow entertainment?
Well, for one thing, we kind of seem like a bunch of fakers. We can kick and scream and make really great bumper-sticker slogans, but we can’t hold it together on our own. When things like March 1 are advertised as well as it was, there is really no reason not to come and support the rally. Speakers be damned, you shouldn’t be protesting because you want to be wowed by Hermes. You should be there because disinvestment in education matters. Because the administration’s use of funds matters. Because the university matters. Basically, you should be there because it’s a big fucking deal.
Average students need to make their voices heard in order to reject the claim that this is a movement of radical activists during economically hard times. Without the normal folks the whole thing can get brushed off as if it didn’t happen. As if the only people who really care are the scholars handing out their red-and-black “Revolution, Can it Happen in America?” pamphlets.
And maybe that’s why Reich had such a huge draw: not just because he is a close-down-to-earth, superstar guy, but also because he doesn’t present himself as an enormous radical. His philosophies might come off as center-left, but he is a relic of the Clinton era, that feel-good time when the economy was booming, the culture wars were raging, and the president was is-ing.
But even if the one night back in November wasn’t dressed in radical garb, March 1 didn’t have a very transformational agenda either. The student population on campus simply dropped the ball. This was a chance to show togetherness, to show solidarity against a great injustice being perpetrated on us and generations to come. But instead, it dissolved in puddles of rain, and fewer than 200 people gathered on Sproul at noon to mourn the death of a movement doomed from jump street.
It didn’t have to be this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way going forward. I used the word “death,” but I know we can breathe some life back into this thing. The protests in Sacramento have gathered a fair amount of support, and there is real optimism that they can succeed where individual protests on separate campuses have failed.
Then again, if these things don’t flourish on individual campuses then the movement doesn’t have a chance. Flourishing doesn’t have to involve thousands of students camped out on Sproul, forgoing showers in the name of education. But it does have to involve a student body dedicated to more than just hearing someone talk — a student body that isn’t so afraid of rain.