With all of the Monday morning quarterbacking after the election, what is often left out of the equation is the Occupy factor. Many dismissed Occupy this past year as ineffective, disorganized and, well, dead. Many asked why Occupy wasn’t working within existing political structures to effect change. But like many social movements before it, working “within the system” can mean something broader than running candidates or lobbying legislators.
On November 6, Californians voted to approve Proposition 30. This is a tax on the rich to fund public services. Californians making more than $250,000 are now required to pay extra taxes to fund public education, as well as other societal needs. Think about that. Taxing the 1% to support the 99%. Hmmm…now where did that come from?
The mainstream media promotes the idea that the credit for prop 30s’ victory goes to Jerry Brown, California’s governor. Well, yes, Americans love a hero, a white knight to save the day, even if he is no longer the Terminator. But it wasn’t just Jerry. A key force was the Occupy movement – from the university-based anchor movements, which worked with Occupy Cal in Berkeley and Occupy Davis to city movements, such as Occupy Oakland and coalitions, like Occupy Education.
Student and labor activists will be quick to point out that their struggle did not emerge overnight in the heat of Occupy Wall Street. Students, educators, and campus workers have been organizing actions against privatization, budget cuts and the growing corporate corruption of the University of California system for the past five years. But with the Occupy Oakland momentum two miles from campus, Occupy Cal and the student/worker movement to fight the cuts blossomed and grew exponentially. Many may recall the campus police beating of University of California (UC) Berkeley students and supporters while they linked arms to defend an encampment on the steps of Sproul Hall, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. And seared in many of our digital brains are seated UC Davis student activists facing the pepper spraying cop and the subsequent memes. But the apex of these movements was the joining of Occupy Oakland with Occupy Cal last Fall with the largest ever Occupy General Assembly. All of these moments – and movements – coalesced and influenced each other with a synergy that helped create a new discourse, as well as political pressure, on the 1% because of the demise of public services for the 99%. This laid the groundwork for what happened – and will continue to happen – with the passage of Prop 30.
Was it that simple? Not quite. But for years the UC Regents, the governing board of the California university system and many of its corporate board members, simply accepted the state budget cuts without fighting and simply raised tuition in kind. Meanwhile, the force of the Occupy movement persisted, not just on campuses but even taking the movement to the streets and occupying a Bank of America branch in San Francisco last Fall. Then, on March 1, activists from around the state, converged in the state capital for an Occupy the Capital action to push for a Millionaire’s Tax proposition to re-fund public education. All of these efforts forced the Regents, the governor and Sacramento politicians to finally do, well, something. Many student and Occupy activists were not happy with the watered down “compromise” proposition 30 that was recently approved by voters. Yes, it’s true that Brown appropriated the Occupy movement’s proposal. But the optimist in me sees this as success for the Occupy and student activists. Massive social legislative change in the United States has often arisen from radical and grassroots movements forcing the state to make changes, albeit sometimes incremental, within the capitalist system (e.g. Przeworski 1987).
When I was an undergraduate at Duke, some of my public policy major coursework drove me crazy. We would often study the American political system with the assumption that a bill became law, well like the Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m just a bill.” In other words, legislation happens with debates in congressional committees and maybe a few lobbyists thrown into the picture. Often absent from this negotiation equation were social movements.
Certainly, though, this proposition ain’t perfect by any stretch of the Occupy imagination.
According to Charlie Eaton, UC Berkeley doctoral candidate and co-author of a recent study, some of the funds from Prop 30 will go directly to Wall Street. “In researching UC debt financing, we found a culture of gambling that leaves students, faculty, workers and taxpayers on the hook to cover the losses,” said Eaton, who is also a union officer for UAW local 2865, “Last week’s passage of Prop. 30 prevented $250 million in UC budget cuts this year, but if no action is taken to renegotiate the UC’s risky bets, those savings could be almost entirely wiped out in a matter of years.”
And this report, a form of public sociology, is being used as an organizing tool to fight this corporatization. Student and labor activism in California is not going away, Occupy or otherwise. This month is rife with student actions, walk-outs, and an “Occupy the Regents” protest on November 15 in which the Regents responded by rolling back state university tuition hikes, as well as stopped a measure to raise student fees in the UC system. And a more formal coalition of students, workers, faculty and community members is in the works.
Still think Occupy doesn’t matter?