Protest Politics is back at UCSB....
It's been a long time since my last post mostly due to the everyday hustle and bustle of politics and school. I'll be heading back to New Orleans in December to pick up my work with housing rights activists. In the meantime a group of UCSB students is beginning to organize for a larger group trip. Last December we brought almost 50 people from Santa Barbara to NOLA. This year it looks like the group will be smaller, but still a worthy contingent.
Here at UCSB over the past few months a housing rights struggle unfolded between a rental property corporation and its low-income tenants. The episode drove home the point for me about the ubiquity of this larger problem we all face concerning access to and power over place. The trouble began when a corporation, Conquest Student Housing acquired a large apartment building in Isla Vista near UCSB's main campus. Conquest (an apropos name if there ever was one) decided quickly that the majority Mexican immigrant families who resided in the building were not the clientele they could reap the most profits from, so the corporation quickly issued eviction notices to the 55 some-odd families living in the Cedarwood building.
The families began organizing, they quickly linked up with students on campus, and throughout the late Summer and Fall quarter they organized marches and demonstrations, fundraisers, and parties to spread the word and build support. By October it was clear to the students and families that Conquest wasn't going to budge and that true to its name it was out to steamroll the tenants in a modern day conquistador power play. With funds raised by the students and families a law firm was retained to make a lawsuit against Conquest on the grounds of discrimination.
As the court battle loomed students took the conflict onto campus. First the established a "Tent-City" on a prominant site underneath Storke Tower. Dozens of students camped out every night, myself being one of them. The atmosphere was decidedly defiant. On the first day of the Tent-City the students rallied a crowd of approximately 50 supporters and marched to Cheadle Hall, the Chancellor's Office. Walking right past administrators on smoke breaks the students strode through the front door and climbed the 5 flights of stairs, sitting down in the hallway right outside the Chancellor's door. Chants rang out:
"Everywhere we go,
People want to know,
Who we are,
So we tell them,
We are the tenants,
The mighty, mighty tenants..."
The Chancellor was out of town, so a few students remained seated while the others regrouped at Tent City. After this day the students settled in to their new homes on campus. At 30 minutes past midnight the Chancellor made an appearance at the Tent City to speak with the protestors (by now the Tent City had adopted 2 other issues - campus workers' wages and benefits, and diversity and racial justice at UCSB. Chancellor Yang listened and spoke and listened for over and hour in the early morning. The students left him with thier judgement that support and sympathy is good, but what we need from the administration is not goodwill, we need policies that get results.
Yang left. Over the next two weeks the students would reoccupy Cheadle Hall several more times in addition to several other high-profile campus actions. One of the more memorable was several men stripping down to almost nothing and simply holding donation boxes. Nakedness, no matter the cause, is always popular at UCSB. They raised some serious cash that day.
Concessions won from UCSB's administrators included the establishment of a fund to help the Cedarwood families financially (although students are fighting to free this money up for legal work, it looks like it will be set aside purely for moving expenses). The court battle ended up being more of a massacre with a conservative judge siding handily with Conquest's "property rights" and forcing out the remaining families. The last few days of Tent City were pretty emotional and downcast.
But there's a lot of talk now of a proactive campaign to establish a just cause ordinance in Santa Barbara County to prevent evictions of this manner. There's also talk of building a boycott against Conquest (it owns several other properties in IV) in order to punish it for its anti-community actions and show other landlords that it doesn't pay to drive people out of their homes. Student organizers are also talking about ways of reigniting the direct action on campus. On key organizer said to me the other day, "now that the heat's off the administration they've only raised $300 bucks for the families in the past week, whereas before that they were raising $3000 a week. That's got to change. We need to keep pressure on them."
Wherever the tenants struggle goes from here depends on too many factors for me to make sense of. But one other effect of the Tent City that wasn't anticipated was that it has brought activism back to UCSB. The campus mood has changed because of it. Sure, the majority of students still go about their daily lives quietly, but the tents and the ruckus was impossible to ignore. Who knows how this shift in perspective might play out?
One final note: as of late I've been working a lot on a political campaign of a rather different stripe: stopping the UC's involvement in the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons labs. Here's a flyer for an upcoming action we're prepping for: http://la.indymedia.org/news/2006/11/187208.php