Protest criminalised at the "pepper spray" university

An open letter to Yolo County.

Sometime in July, in a court in Yolo County, California, eleven students and one professor at the University of California Davis will stand trial, accused of the “willful” and “malicious” act of protesting peacefully in front of a bank branch situated on their University campus.

There has been in recent months a great deal of online coverage of the brutality of public order policing at Davis. The treatment of the Davis Dozen, however, promises more longstanding injury. If found guilty, each faces charges of up to eleven years in prison and $1 million in fines.

The immediate history of the case stretches back to autumn 2008, when state budget cuts trickled down to the partly state-funded University of California. The administration of that University responded by announcing that tuition fees would be increased by 32%, prompting several months of vocal student protests and campus occupations, violently suppressed by the state authorities.

As the collapse of the US banking sector caused the State of California to withdraw its funding for its public Universities, those same Universities turned to the banking sector for financial support. On 3 November 2009, just two weeks before riot police would end a student occupation at UC Berkeley by firing rubber bullets and tear gas at the students and faculty gathered outside, the University of California Davis announced on its website a new deal with US Bank, the high street banking division of U.S Bancor, the fifth largest commercial bank in the United States.

According to the terms of that deal, US Bank would provide UC Davis with a campus branch and a variable revenue stream, to be determined by the University's success in urging its own students to sign up for US Bank accounts. In return UC Davis would print US Bank logos on all student ID cards, which from 2010 would be convertible into ATM cards attached to US Bank accounts. Just at the moment when, on the campus of UC Berkeley, riot police were beating up and shooting students who protested against austerity, fee increases, and their handmaiden, debt, the management of UC Davis was selling the debt of its own students to U.S. Bancor, the corporate beneficiary of “austerity.”

The poet and critic Joshua Clover, who has written extensively on those police actions, is among the twelve who sat down in front of the Davis branch of US Bank in protest, and who now faces the prospect of sitting in a cell in the Monroe County Detention Center until 2024, has argued that “the rise in tuition and indebtedness simply is the militarization of campus”. These processes, Clover says, “are one and the same”. The claim concerning police violence will not seem exaggerated to anyone who has watched the videos on You Tube of the police action at Davis.

The sit-down protests outside the UC Davis Branch of US Bank, in which the “UC Davis Dozen” were only a few of many participants, were not only peaceful; they were, in effect, the active demilitarization of campus. Their point was to make explicit the connection between corporate banking, state austerity and an increasingly militaristic police presence in universities.

US Bank closed its branch in the UC Davis Memorial Union Building in March. The sit-down protests were a success. That such effective protest cannot be tolerated is evident from the response of the University administration and the Yolo County District Attorney. The charges against the Davis Dozen have a notable history of service: “Obstructing movement in a public place” was an indictment invented to criminalise homelessness in Alabama. The Davis Dozen are to learn – on behalf of everyone affected by austerity – that protest against the conditions which lead to homelessness is criminalised by the same legislation that makes homelessness illegal. For the bankers, millionaire University administrators and state functionaries for whom “revenue” is to be maximised no matter what the cost to the people they serve, this paradox is no paradox at all.

We are grateful to the Davis Dozen for the example of principled and eloquent bravery in response to intolerable extensions of police and corporate power at a time when the poorest are being deterred from university study by the prospect of unmanageable debt. We, internationally located artists, critics, and writers, ask that the Davis Dozen be acquitted of these extraordinarily severe and ignoble charges, to which they have courageously pleaded “not guilty”.

Signed:

Dr. David Nowell-Smith, Université Paris VII - Denis Diderot, Prof. Robert Hampson, Royal Holloway, Dr. Daniele Pantano, Edge Hill University, Olivier Brossard, Maître de conférences, littérature américaine, Université Paris Est-Marne la Vallée, David Gorin Jean-Jacques Pouce, Fellow, Internationales Kolleg Morphomata, Genese, Dynamik, Medialität kultureller Figurationen, Daisy Fried Abigail Lang, Maître de conférences (Associate Professor), Université Paris-Diderot, Paris, Michelle Levy Schulz Dominique Pasqualini, Directeur de l'école EMA Fructidor (School of media and fine arts, Director), Chalon-sur-Saône, Sean Bonney, Marianne Morris, poet, UC Falmouth, Keston Sutherland, Reader in English, University of Sussex, Orlando Reade, University of Cambridge Binh Nguyen, San Diego, CA, Janet Holmes, Boise State University B, arry Schwabsky, art critic, The Nation, Robert Kiely, Birkbeck College Kent Johnson John Wilkinson, poet, Professor of Practice in the Arts, University of Chicago Alvin D. Greenberg, Boise State University Dr. Alberto Toscano, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths Stacy Blint, Disappearing Books Katy Balma, Fulbright Fellow and Teaching Assistant, University of Connecticut Wendy Battin, poet and essayist David Lau, Lana Turner Magazine Nick-e Melville, poet and lecturer at Motherwell College, Scotland Peter Phillpott, Great Works, modernpoetry.org.uk Patrick Pritchett, Lecturer, History and Literature, Harvard University Robert Archembeau, Professor of English, Lake Forest College (Illinois) Rob Holloway, Joseph Kaplan, Dr. Jeffrey Pethybridge, Susquehanna University Dr. Don Stinson, Northern Oklahoma College George Cunningham, Hansa Arts Joseph Walton Hugh McDonnell, University of Amsterdam Megan Kaminski, Creative Writing Lecturer, University of Kansas Jose A. Alcantara K.E Allen, Lecturer in English, Comprehensive Studies Program, University of Michigan Allan Peterson, Gulf Breeze, FL Siobain Walker Dr. Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Roehampton Francesca Lisette Caitlin Doherty, University of Cambridge Frances Richard, Barnard College Ryan Dobran, University of Cambridge Dr. Cathy Wagner, Miami University, OH John Bloomberg-Rissman, University of California, Riverside Carla Harryman, Associate Professor of Literature, Eastern Michigan University Robert Ellen Joel Duncan, University of Notre Dame Jared Schickling, Adjunct Professor, Humanities Division, Niagara Count Community College Dr. Ian Patterson, Fellow, Tutor, Director of Studies in English,  Queens' College, University of Cambridge Dr. Lisa Samuels, Associate Professor, University of Auckland, New Zealand Ian Heames, University od Cambridge Prof. Alex Davis, University College Cork John Temple Jonathan B. Highfield Dr. Jennifer Cooke, Lecturer in English, Loughborough University Dr. Zoe Skoulding, Bangor University Kashka Georgeson David Grundy, University of Cambridge Luke McMullan Josh Robison, University of Cambridge Josh Stanley, Phd Student, Yale University Luke Roberts, Phd candidate, University of Cambridge Gareth Durasow.
 

People protest after the pepper spray incident at UC Davis. Photograph: Getty Images
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.