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Saskia Sassen

Saskia Sassen

Posted: May 22, 2010 05:37 PM

Beyond Protests: Students Making the Pieces of a Different Society

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Students in Iran, in Greece, in Puerto Rico -- all have shown a noticeable endurance to fight on for weeks against governments which are threatening their basic rights. Even more important, in this struggle they are not only protesting but developing the elements for alternative politics and social settings. The Puerto Rican students who have occupied the campus of the Unviersidad de Puerto Rico for weeks, surrounded by armed forces, are doing urban agriculture, collective cooking, environmentally sustainable practices, art, music... in brief, they are striving to build the elements of a different society.

Here below is the account of one of the professors who has joined the students in the strike.

Politics of a New Generation: The Student Strike at the University of Puerto Rico
Mareia Quintero-Rivera

They wake up early for a long and unpredictable day: practice yoga, separate garbage for recycling, and turn on their own radio station Radio Huelga "to get in tune with resistance," as the slogan goes. Ten out of eleven campuses of the University of Puerto Rico, which encompasses 65,000 students, are on strike. Their fight is not new: the vindication of public education. But their modes of struggle speak of untraditional ways of thinking and making politics.

In the midst of a profound economic crisis, and facing a government that is enforcing an aggressive program to shrink the public sector, students have taken a stand for a social dialogue. They demand participation and transparency in the decisions concerning how to deal with budget cuts. The University of Puerto Rico confronts a deficit of nearly $170 million for the next academic year 2010-2011, due to a reduction on the base of State's incomes from which the allocation of its funds is determined. This is a consequence of a special law that declared a state of fiscal emergency on the island (Law 7), approved in March 2009.
Moving away from the violent images of the first morning at the Río Piedras Campus' gates, which were quickly disseminated and repeated by the media, the student movement has succeeded in gaining respect and admiration for their organized and creative means of leading the strike. They have been consistent in their call for a politics of dialogue and mediation. Time has been one of their allies. Living on Campus together, for more than three weeks now, has allowed them a space to put into practice and strengthen new ways of understanding and undertaking political action.

Organized in committees, they have been emphatic in using participatory and horizontal processes of decision-making. They speak through different voices, and have displayed an extraordinary command of diverse registers of discourse: from assuming with success their own defense in the courts (where the administration tried to displace the conflict), to developing an alternative network of communications (blogs, radio stations, youtube channels), and a wide range of artistic interventions. This plurality of actors and actions has overshadowed traditional political organizations, with their confrontational styles and rhetoric.
The student movement has shown a deep understanding of the challenges faced by public education in our days. But their commitment goes beyond a restricted catalogue of demands, or the defense of a fixed ideal. Their struggle arises as an ongoing search for a different order of things. As they declared on the first emission of Radio Huelga after ten days of strike: "We are not the same. This process is part of our aims. We are being transformed day by day, and we have started seeing things in another way. This strike contains the desire of another world, which is possible if we construct it in the process. Making it from within." While developing strategies to enable a negotiation with the administration, an active calendar of academic and cultural activities has been organized with the support and solidarity of professors, artists, farmers, and many others. This includes: daily lectures on a wide variety of topics, poetry readings, film screenings, traditional bomba dance workshops, and even a communal garden with lettuce, tomatoes, plantains, basil, and other crops which they plan to maintain after the strike is over. Five major concerts have taken placed at the campuses of Río Piedras, Humacao, Cayey, Arecibo, and Mayagüez, with the participation of some of the most recognized Puerto Rican musicians of different styles and generations. They celebrated Mother's Day cooking together and inviting their families to the University's gateways.

In the academic community, and in the Puerto Rican society in general, there is a growing consensus that the crisis cannot be faced blindly following what the "committees of fiscal efficiency" decide, as the University's administration and the Government have tried to make us believe. The student movement has vindicated the University as a place for critical thinking, for an informed debate of ideas, for the development of alternatives, and for democratic participation. They have done it with contagious enthusiasm, firmly but beautifully, throwing flowers to the policemen who surround campus.

After a massive ratification of the strike by a student's general assembly held last Thursday, May 13th, the administration has responded with the astonishing decision of closing the Río Piedras Campus until July 31, and calling on the Police to surround and take control of the University grounds. The closure of our institution is a devastating act that compromises too many substantial elements of academic life. It means the paralysis of important scientific research done at the campus laboratories- which researchers have been able to maintain during the strike-, the silencing of the University's radio station, the risk of loosing the semester and punishing mainly those who are candidates for a degree, the cancelling of the summer session, the ceasing of legal, psychological, social work, and other clinics that provide services to the community, the uncertainty of hundreds of professors that work for hire and whose contracts end this month, the interruption of international agreements and collaborative efforts, the suspension of funding proposals for research, among others. Most important, it conveys the message that there is no place for a social dialogue, and that dissidence will be ignored.

Professor at Columbia University. www.saskiasassen.com. Twitter @SaskiaSassen
Author of Territory, Authority, Rights (Princeton 2008).

 

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