University of Minnesota Solidarity Network

Seizing Power from Below – My Reflections on the SocSci Occupation

What a full week! I wish something like the occupation of the Social Sciences Tower, and all the accompanying organizing, had happened a few years ago when I was a student at the U of M. Some would say that after two years I dropped out, but I say I rose out of the university, freeing myself from what was for me a chokehold over my longing for liberation placed by increasingly corporate and centralized authority. Just beginning to understand the ideas behind collective organizing against oppression, I never ended up finding a way I felt capable of plugging into social justice struggles at the U. But I believe the past week accomplished that for others.

I participated in the rally on March 28 outside Coffman Union and the march across the Washington Avenue bridge, then helped facilitate the subsequent meeting at the SocSci building at which the group decided to begin a soft occupation. Some of the rally organizers had already indicated their support for this idea (in fact, the flyer for the rally said “Rally! March! Occupy!”). So although the discussion at this meeting did genuinely support the idea of an occupation at least in theory, it seemed somewhat of a foregone conclusion that this would be the chosen strategy. Nonetheless, many crucial elements weren’t already in place to make the occupation all it could be. Certainly, a lesson to be learned is that if possible, having legal support, a media team, cameras, needed supplies, task bottomliners, and more set up ahead of time is essential to undertaking an action on the magnitude of an occupation!

As the 11pm building closing time drew near on Monday, another hastily convened meeting was held to decide what to do. I felt tense and frustrated trying to help bring the group to a decision about the various possible scenarios, as two people negotiated with police elsewhere in the building. We came to an agreement that nobody was willing to risk arrest by staying put after an order to vacate was given – being arrested would have no benefit, we felt, given that the occupation was small, not drawing much attention, and wasn’t called in response to an immediate issue like the imminent passage of Wisconsin’s anti-union bill spurred occupations there. At almost 11pm, a negotiator returned and announced the plan to have 12 people stay in an upper floor of the building along with a faculty member. After agreeing to the plan for the night, the meeting participants burst into activity before the chance to discuss next steps as a group could be had.

I wasn’t among those staying the night over the course of the week, and my body wasn’t up for coming back right away at 7am, either. I can easily imagine it feeling demoralizing, though, for those who stayed the night and then saw folks trickle back very slowly in the morning, without the energy of the previous night. After a height of, at my estimate, 50 people or so on Monday night, throughout the week at times 25-40 people were present (usually during meetings), though at other times the number sank dangerously low to a mere three or four. Usually, while I was there, it was around 10. Most of these people did not take active part in organizing. Although these numbers seem small, on a personal scale, I made many new friends; others made dozens of new friends, and if nothing else, for this the action was clearly worthwhile – in my experience, the types of relationships built in struggle such as this tend to serve very well later on down the road to revolution.

On Tuesday, I facilitated a small workshop of “power games” using theatre of the oppressed techniques to play with the concepts of “power over,” “power from within,” and “power from below”. The 10 or so participants and I had a blast. We arranged players and objects to show various models of power, at one point leading to a pile of chairs on top of an activist laying in the middle of the floor, lorded over by another activist sitting in a chair on top of a table! The looks on people’s faces walking by were priceless, and some even joined in – next time, we need to do that one outside where more people can see!

My lesson learned from that workshop, and from helping facilitate meetings throughout the week, was of the importance of energy and fun in decision-making and action groups. Most people seek pleasurable feelings in stressful times – a good facilitator or a good leader will encourage the display of those feelings to move the group forward, even if she isn’t feeling great herself at the time.

On Wednesday and Thursday, I had other important commitments and was unable to participate in the occupation, needing to to push it out of my brain temporarily. That changed when I got a text message about the eviction late on Thursday night.

As I biked to the U on Friday morning, I felt righteously angry, composing speeches and statements in my brain. At that point, if we were actually in a position to be able to escalate, there would have been plenty of ways to do so – any of which I would have liked to see. Small, decentralized actions spread out over campus; rolling occupations of different locations; straight-up defiance of the order to vacate, or some good old fashioned fucking shit up all were appealing options as my wheels turned faster and faster. (And certainly, at a University where the top 10 salaries total 5.7 million dollars, where fewer and fewer people can afford to attend, and where corporate contracts take priority over human needs, some shit needs to be fucked up and there is no shortage of good places to do so.)

But several factors made these options not feasible, nor smart for collective action at the time. Participants in the occupation had already indicated an unwillingness and in some cases, inability to be arrested. Besides a simple lack of passion (all concerns being equal, it’s easier to risk when something heartfelt and immediate is on the line) the group frequently noted a lack of clear goals–what exactly were we fighting for besides the general notion of a better world from the ashes of the old? Well, one answer is that many participants in the occupation already fight every single day for lots of things. Jimmy John’s workers are being fired for organizing; other union members are under attack as well; activists present at the occupation came from a wide variety of struggles ranging from immigrant rights to gender justice to the anarchist movement to more; and of course we all have to put food on the table and pay the bills for ourselves and our families at the same time. For many of us, our other important projects and needs were put on hold because of the energy devoted to holding space that was always going to be temporary.

Besides those internal considerations, the group also discussed how our actions would be seen externally. Without the capacity to escalate actions immediately, would continuing to focus on holding space, in the SocSci tower or elsewhere, benefit our struggle? Taking a cost/benefit analysis, it wasn’t clear to us that devoting the amount of energy necessary to hold space–assuming we could somehow increase our numbers to make a police action difficult–would be worth it. Considering the other groups engaging in struggle at the U of M, such as the Coffman second floor communities and Whose University, the possible venues for active struggle are many.

Despite the many things that could have been done better–a comrade’s metaphor of a beautiful ship having to return to port due to constantly taking on water seems apt–I found this experience generally positive. I found it a very large teaching moment, an amazing outreach tool, and a worthwhile action purely on its own.

Among the lessons I learned, I learned that in some form or another, nearly all of us are looking for leadership. Those of us versed in collective organizing cannot assume that anybody will dive in and autonomously organize, sign up to lead a workshop, or take on a difficult task simply because they think it is politically the best thing to do. To create a world in which everybody and nobody is a leader, we must be courageous models of effective leadership ourselves, cultivating power, as we undertake collective projects.

Relatedly, I also learned that outreach through creative action works to build strength. Activists at the occupation had productive conversations with students, faculty, janitors, security, even cops that would never have happened through a simple protest or media event. I helped occupied a building of learning because I am sick of being told to “learn” only by depositing the knowledge of bosses, authorities and professors. I think we learn much better by doing – and this week, WE DID SOMETHING, together!

But most of all, for most of the three days I was at the occupation, despite being super tired at the end of each day, I had a lot of fun. The U of M administration was half right when it argued we were not using the SocSci building for its intended purpose. Because university policies pay lip service to student and community needs, we truthfully argued that our usage of the space was in accordance with policy. But we also knew that among the real purposes of the power-over University of Minnesota are to 1) mold a particular set of people into proper servants for another set of people, 2) maintain a social order in which some profit greatly while others who do more of the work have little to show for it, and 3) teach that nonviolent petition and protest is grand–so long as it doesn’t get in the way of private property or any other concerns of the rich.

Instead, we manifested a power-from-below University of Minnesota, in which together we seized power for ourselves, exercised it, and have no plans of giving it up anytime soon. Many participants found their power-from-within for the first time, and saw that this is a type of power Bob Bruininks, Eric Kaler, the UMPD and other so-called authorities don’t want us to have.

Looking at the information table before we packed it all up, it was clear there’s no shortage of events and organizing continuing on. The bigger events include Monday, April 4’s AFLCIO “March for the Middle Class” (hey union bureaucrats: can we march for poor people like me, too?), the Whose University Day of Education on April 20, and the immigrant-led May 1 International Workers Day march in St. Paul.

Personally, I probably won’t be deeply involved with the ongoing struggles specific to the U, but I’ll be continuing to organize in many ways, including with the MARS Collective (, a group working to build an autonomous social center in south Minneapolis: they need support, especially of the financial variety, which you can provide through their website. (Did you like being at the SocSci occupation? Imagine if we had a space like that everyday, without having to replace the gender-neutral bathroom signs every few hours!)

And I’ll continue to dream and scheme, hopefully with many of you, so that when it’s called for, we can do it all again, bigger and better.



3 responses to “Seizing Power from Below – My Reflections on the SocSci Occupation

  1. Zach April 3, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Jamie, you had a great reflection. I felt a lot of the concerns you did. I was very happy that I was able to participate in your “Theatre of the Oppressed” workshop, it was great to see if being used outside of theatre class, and could work wonders outside…possible event for when it gets nicer out?? It is very true, that organization wasn’t the best, but I feel that we can learn from this mistake for future actions.

  2. Pingback: Reflections on an Open Occupation for Movement-Building « umnsolidarity

  3. Pingback: Reflections on an Open Occupation for Movement-Building: Within, against, and beyond the U of Minnesota « Really Open University

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