A University email said last month, “Registering to vote is the most straightforward way to engage in the democratic process.”
Yet we only have Election Day free to vote because of students’ straightforward engagement in the democratic process in 1968. It’s likely in that year Columbia was the most democratic it’s ever been. Mass rallies, occupations, strikes, and weeks of alternative classes made the administration finally respond to students’, workers’, and Harlemites’ demands. According to a history of the 1968 protests compiled by Frank da Cruz, a student at the time, the occupation of Low Library was “one long meeting governed by ‘Robert’s Rules of Order.’” The protesters stopped construction of the segregated gym on confiscated public land. They ended, temporarily, the University’s weapons contracts. They caused the administration to create the University Senate and the Student Governing Board. And these are just a few of the enormous changes that students won through their straightforward engagement in democracy. Why couldn’t they engage in more polite methods of straightforward democracy? Petitions, for instance? They did. Six weeks before the strike, students presented a petition bearing nearly 2,000 signatures calling on Columbia to cease classified war research. The University responded by placing the students who presented the petition on disciplinary probation.
The democracy of protest proved more straightforward and effective, but President Barack Obama did, in his commencement speech at Barnard, acknowledge that it was direct action that has caused the most important changes in society: “Young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall … That’s how we achieved women’s rights … voting rights … workers’ rights … gay rights.”
But then why would federal agencies coordinate with police and mayors—Democratic and Republican alike—in a nationwide crackdown on Occupy, a movement that fights for issues that are largely in line with what Obama touted when he was on the campaign trail in 2008? Dozens, if not hundreds, of Barnard and Columbia students, faculty, and staff joined in the Occupy movement, doing exactly what Obama told us to do in his Barnard commencement speech, but we faced arrests and beatings, which were at least tacitly approved by his administration.
OK, even though Obama coordinated a crackdown on Occupy, at least he acknowledged protest as the main motor of change, and what Obama did to crush Occupy isn’t nearly as bad as what George W. Bush did or John McCain would have done, right?
Nevermind that the American Civil Liberties Union published a report last year detailing how Obama has continued almost all of Bush’s destructions of civil liberties, and in many cases, Obama has even increased these frightening policies. John Rizzo, a 34-year lawyer for the Central Intelligence Agency, has said Obama has “changed virtually nothing” from Bush’s anti-civil-liberties policies.
So maybe Obama is continuing and expanding Bush’s policies of spying, torturing, imprisoning, assassinating, and more. Still, won’t Obama be better for higher education than Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will be, as Spectator’s editorial board pointed out last week?
Obama’s only increased Pell Grant funding for one year. Instead of a long-term solution, Obama secured just enough revenue for the increase until after the election, then, well, we’ll see. And while Ryan’s budget plan makes devastating cuts to important spending, Obama’s doesn’t increase spending, it only makes slightly smaller cuts. In a February piece for the Financial Times, professor Jeffrey Sachs compared Obama’s and Ryan’s budget plans and found that, “The important fact is this. Both sides are committed to significant cuts in government programs” such as “education; environmental protection; child nutrition; job re-training; transition to low-carbon energy; and infrastructure.” Like on so many issues, it’s not Republicans-cut, Democrats-save—it’s Democrats-cut-just-a-little-less. And while we are all in college now, it’s our schooling before that prepares us for this, and Obama’s Race to The Top, far from reversing Bush’s No Child Left Behind, has in fact accelerated high-stakes testing and racist disparities in schools. Republicans and Democrats are on the same side on this fight, as Ryan’s and Romney’s support for Rahm Emanuel during the Chicago teacher’s strike showed. And while Chicago teachers fought back, Obama, who promised in 2008 to march with workers on their picket lines, was nowhere to be seen.
As Election Day nears, we face a heightening barrage of invitations, implorations, and even commands to vote-vote-vote! But can we accept voting as the most straightforward way to engage in the democratic process when most states are already “blue” or “red”? When the archaic and undemocratic electoral college still exists? When, even though a candidate wins the majority of the votes, as Al Gore did in 2000, the Supreme Court, an unelected body, can give the presidency to someone else? And when the only democracy we’re told we have is picking one of two corporate-funded, party-groomed candidates who agree on so much more than they disagree on, once every four years?
Columbia community members have a long and inspiring tradition of making another choice: ourselves. We are the alternative. Whether it’s striking for free speech in the ’30s, organizing against Apartheid in the ’80s, or occupying Low to save need-blind admissions in 1992, it’s the daily self-activity of masses of ordinary people like us that has been and continues to be the most straightforward way to engage in the democratic process, and to win. As Columbia alum and highly esteemed historian Howard Zinn said regarding elections, “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in.”
Yoni Golijov is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing. He is a member of the Barnard-Columbia International Socialist Organization. The Local University runs alternate Tuesdays.
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