16
Mar
10

ramps

On March 4th, students, staff, and community members attempted to overtake the onramp to the I-80 at the edge of the UC Davis campus.  In a field of blooming daffodils, protestors held firm in a two-hour standoff with dozens of police officers.  On the freeway behind the police line, miles of cars sat idle; behind the mass of protestors were the shimmering windows of the newest campus buildings, to the north a winter vineyard. As they approached the line of police, students were beaten with batons, tased, and shot with pepper balls. Some of these protestors held signs proclaiming their queerness — “Queers Bash Back,” “Not gay as in happy, queer as in fuck you” — and representatives of the campus LGBT Resource Center crossed police lines to advocate for students.  Those representatives were the first administrative personnel to attend a protest in the last few months on behalf of students — not to negotiate with them or give them instructions or call in police forces, but to help students in confrontation with the often brutal response of the state and its representatives.

Out west, protestors charged up a ramp in downtown Oakland and took over the 880 freeway.  They stopped traffic for an hour, weaving among the cars and chanting.  Video and images of the freeway protest surfaced that evening and in the days that followed, revealing both the grandeur of the spectacle and the very serious violence of the arresting police force who beat submitting protestors with batons. One protestor fell or was pushed over the freeway wall and suffered serious injury. When the arrestees were marched back down the ramp into the waiting paddy wagon commuters cheered their efforts, raised fists and peace signs.

Elsewhere on March 4th, from San Francisco to Selma, educators and staff walked out of classes and off the job, elementary school students waved signs and chanted, undergraduates blocked campus entrances and took over buildings and freeways.  Despite this national presence, the following week, as fallout from the Day of Action accumulated on the internet and in the newspapers, students at UCD who had not participated characterized the actions of the I-80 protestors as a “gay riot,” stemming from the defacement of the LGBTRC and the town hall meeting of the week prior. In contrast, the 880 takeover was criticized in the immediate aftermath as the death drive of “white anarchists, marching those with less privilege into personal danger and certain arrest.

*****

Two months before, in mid-December, people inside Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley were awakened in the early hours by police.  They were arrested (without an order to disperse) for trespassing after UCBPD and administrative officials had allowed them to stay all week.  Those students were taken to the Alameda County Jail — “Santa Rita” — 40 miles away in Dublin. Santa Rita is a “mega jail,” one of the state’s monuments to its own failures.  Set atop a hill but situated a half mile off the main road behind rows of eucalyptus, Santa Rita is also an example of the contradictory tactics of discipline – hyper-visible but shrouded, violent but orderly, aggressive but protected.  A 100 foot long ramp runs from the parking lot to the entrance, making visitors visible for a full minute as they make the long walk to the bulletproof glass façade of the main building.  Every twenty feet a trashcan reminds visitors that they must submit to the rules, that they may bring nothing with them and take nothing away. Photography is not allowed anywhere on the grounds.

Just past the edges of the Oakland flats, Santa Rita holds residents of some of the U.S.’s most blighted and ignored neighborhoods. A complex of squat, grey-walled buildings unravel in a giant X behind the main building, surrounded by razor-wired fencing taller than the buildings themselves.  As we waited all day under the grey sky, gunshots sounded from a firing range some distance away, perfectly audible.  While we were there to give rides to the 66 people arrested at Wheeler that morning, 3,000 other people waited behind the razor wire.  As the day wore on, mothers and girlfriends and brothers of those 3,000 accused lined up along the railing of the long ramp, waiting in the cold rain under umbrellas and plastic bags.

Officials at Santa Rita suggested that the presence of those waiting to give rides hindered the process of release. This tactic has emerged as basic jail protocol — at the Yolo County Jail in November students waited all night in near-freezing temperatures as the police deliberately released one Mrak arrestee every hour or two, insisting that if all those waiting would go home that everyone would be released, into the cold night in the middle of nowhere.  No one left then, and no one left Santa Rita that day in December.  Jail officials told the line of mothers and brothers waiting for hours in the rain that they would be able to see their loved ones only when the other students left. A brief skirmish between the two groups erupted and was quelled, but the separation remained palpable. Officials at Santa Rita purposefully instigated a confrontation between people waiting outside the jail in the rain for the same purpose, their fates administered by the same hand.  They did this to get the students to leave and to deflect the anger and frustration of the visitors.

*****

Prisons named for saints, incidences named like the battles of the Civil War, by multiple sides with different powers and goals.  Each name reveals not only a set of priorities but a way of seeing.  The police and the administration and the media name these moments of protest by certain actions, generally in the cause and effect of the progressive and the past — “students occupying were arrested,” “those protesting hauled to jail.”  They name incidences by naming transgressions of existing law and its consequences.  Protestors name them for locations and for individuals: the Mrak 52, the Wheeler 66, the UC8.

To name the action at UCD a “gay riot” is not surprising, given the hyper-visibility of queerness when it is named, performed, advocated, or defended.  Queerness continues to produce discomfort and violent response, often misunderstood even by those sympathetic to it.  But to connect the actions at UCD on March 4th to the vandalism at the LGBTRC in this precise way is to miss something larger. Whether tacit or not, or cogent or not, the fact that the student protests at the UCs have within them a large number of those recognizably marginalized in the traditional language of identity politics must substantively be what produces the possibility of seeing a gay riot where there was in fact an anti-capital project. In a small town on a Thursday afternoon, the majority of the students in Davis saw queerness in relief and subsequently erased not only the presence and participation of many others but also elided the connection between “hate crimes” and a capitalist University structure that cuts their programs, raises their tuition, defunds their centers, and takes their money without promising anything at all. The “gay riot” elided the fact that protest has, for many, become synonymous with marginalized social identity and therefore may, in and of itself, generate hate speech borne not just out of hatred for types of people but out of fear of protest. In the East Bay, where a history of student protest and the unofficial segregation of the population by geography, race, and income has produced a different set of expectations about who can and will participate in civil disobedience, the erasure and the relief worked in the inverse.

The freeway is not merely a symbol of American wealth or mobility. That freeways are literally the mechanism by which bodies and goods are circulated and in which that circulation is regulated was the subject of the least romantic and most legalistic court battle over civil rights.  Through freeways as the conduits of interstate commerce, the federal courts wrangled out of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause a way of enforcing the federal Civil Rights Act within individual states. The practice of using interstate transportation to regulate bigotry produced some excitingly absurd opinions, the most memorable of which found Lake Nixon Club in Little Rock, AK susceptible to regulation for having a snack bar where 3 out of the 4 foods served contained ingredients coming from outside the state. By regulating the whites-only Club thusly, the federal government was allowed to desegregate it, making federal control over the interstate system the mechanism by which laws about civil rights were implemented in places where such implementation often caused extreme violence. These opinions are delightfully queer: securing the square peg of anti-racism into the round hole of interstate capital flow, where the ability to discriminate was tied not to abstract ideas of equality but to the distance of one’s club from the freeway.  To rush an onramp in protest of the privatization of education may very well be a gay riot, but not (solely) because gay people do it.  It forces us to ask different questions about what people are saying when they use their bodies to protest.  State violence often pits one group against another to defuse protest and expedite punishment, and this type of protest is a way to connect the discipline of the state to the privatization of the University, and vice versa. The ramp at Santa Rita is the road to the disciplinary action undertaken by the state when bodies and goods are not circulated according to their rules.  To connect these two different ramps in the metaphoric valences of capitalism is to begin to understand both the struggle and the divisive tactics of power.  To do so queerly means, to me, fighting the undertow of power that draws us inexorably into the denial of their connection.

Shannon Pufahl

(with thanks to Meredith Wallis and Tim Kreiner)

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2 Responses to “ramps”


  1. March 19, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    Can I publish this in KDViationS? Let me know asap, your names/website will be cited, of course. I think this would be great for it.

    Thanks,
    Sharmi


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