A new campus activism

CAMPUS ISSUES: A year after Occupy Cal took UC Berkeley by storm, activism on campus needs to adapt to new political and social realities.

Occupy Cal is dead, but that doesn’t mean student activism should disappear.

One year ago, protesters at UC Berkeley used the momentum of Occupy Wall Street to establish a movement that, at least for a short period of time, consumed the campus. However, since Nov. 15 of last year, turnout at protests and activism on campus have declined sharply. Proof of the reduced participation can be seen in the lackluster demonstrations held on campus to mark the one-year anniversary of Occupy Cal and the protests around the UC Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco earlier this month.

Although the spirit of campus activism has deteriorated since peaking last fall, the results of Proposition 30 in the state election earlier this month offer some hope for the future. Data indicate that college-age voters were crucial in getting the proposition to pass, thereby avoiding a likely tuition increase for UC and CSU students. Such a high turnout proves that students were listening to the efforts of those who organized to pass the proposition and that they can still mobilize. Students care deeply about the quality of their education and will come out in force to defend it when necessary.

Now, activists must recognize that, without an immediate threat to education such as an impending tuition increase, it will be difficult to attain the kind of large-scale turnout that made Occupy Cal so effective last year. Student organizers should not waste their efforts attempting to recreate a mass movement that will inevitably fall short. Instead, they should direct their attention toward more focused actions. On the national level, an Occupy Wall Street offshoot has set out to purchase, then forgive, the debt of citizens. That idea is particularly pertinent to students, who have accumulated more than $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt nationwide. Campus activists need to recognize that, in order to remain relevant, the movement must transform itself. Perhaps, without widespread dissent to fuel demonstrations en masse, occupying public spaces will no longer be the most effective strategy.

Protesters must make clear to the rest of the campus why their demands are legitimate. To faciliate this, they should incorporate faculty members as much as possible. If protesters are trying to make a case for the future of the university, faculty involvement is critical to making that message heard. Robert Reich’s speech on Sproul Plaza last November proved as much, when he drew a crowd of thousands.

Activism remains an important tool for students. It puts pressure on public officials to act in the best interests of their constituents, and, for students, there are still plenty of issues around which they can organize, such as formidable student debt levels. But while last year’s campus activism was defined by Occupy Cal, that does not mean today’s protest movement must continue to define itself based on those methods. Campus activism does not necessarily need to take the form of Occupy Cal. The social and political climate of November 2012 is not the same as it was in November 2011, and the student movement must adapt accordingly.