On Voice and Lines

by zunguzungu

A couple quick observations. When people talk about how the police pepper-sprayed students at Santa Monica College, on Monday, there has been a predictable tendency to draw a line and then adjudicate whose fault it was that “violence erupted” by judging which side stepped over it. There’s video, for instance, of a woman jumping in a cop’s face and brandishing her finger at him, angrily; he grabs her by the throat and throws her to the ground. “Who’s at fault here?” we ask: did she behave in a way that necessitated that violence? Or was his violence an overreaction? Who stepped across the line?

In some cases that line is important, but it can also sometimes distract us from the big picture, which is this: if the students hadn’t been willing to step over the line — to confront police and to reject their right to determine who gets to occupy space — then their “voices” would have been heard, and then summarily ignored. They wanted to get into the meeting in more than a formal sense, and they did. The President and Board of Trustees wanted to keep them out, both formally and metaphorically, and succeeded only in the former.

After all, we are all familiar with the formulaic “public comment” forum, by which a long stream of concerns get aired and then, once that public comment period is over, dismissed by the authorities who have all the actual power. There is formal democracy — by which you have nothing but the forms of democratic process — and then there is a process that actually takes cognizance of concerns and produces decisions that are shaped by their existence. Very often, one gets to a substantive participation in the latter process only by stepping over lines. Bernard Harcourt called this “political disobedience” as opposed to civil disobedience, but whatever you call it — and you might just call it “direct action,” and leave it at that — the point is the same: when a status quo defines the line that distinguishes and demarcates culpability, and protesters obey that line and queue up according to it, they give representatives of the status quo the clear message that their opinions can be safely heard and ignored. That is a trap.

There are other traps, of course; there’s nothing necessarily productive about confrontations with police, and it can be a trap to think that there is. For one thing the status quo has gotten very good at recycling confrontations with police into discursive props for its own legitimacy; for another, it is so often precisely the function of police to take the emphasis off the issues at stake, off the authorities they are allowing themselves to be scapegoated for. We are outraged at the police and at the admins that sent them out there, but are we as outraged at the corporatizing agenda that started the whole situation? Often, I think, not. Which means the police are doing their job well, of deflecting outrage away from the people whose decisions merit it.

But all that said, the one thing that is obviously true about what happened on Tuesday at Santa Monica is that students demonstrated — precisely in the act of stepping over the line — a kind of disobedience to authority that was and had to be heard loud and clear, and was. The voiceless do not gain voice by politely lining up to speak at public comment periods, especially when a public comment period has been constructed so as to mute them. But by refusing to obey, they send an incoherent but also utterly unavoidable message that someone like the Chancellor of the California Community College system had no choice but to acknowledge:

The head of California’s community college system on Wednesday asked Santa Monica College to put on hold a controversial plan to offer higher-priced courses this summer while the legality of the program is determined. Chancellor Jack Scott said he made the request in a call to college President Chui L. Tsang during which he also expressed concern about a student protest in which several people suffered minor injuries when a campus police officer discharged pepper spray at a Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday evening. “No one likes to see something like this happen, and I expressed that it might be wise to put this matter on hold,” Scott said in an interview.

As ReclaimUC likes to put it, Direct Action Works.