Views from the Student Movement
By Louis Mendoza, Brandon Powell, Scott Henson, Tom Philpott, and Steve Carr
February 1992; pages 4-5, 13; Volume 3, No. 3
Polemicist asked several people involved in the student movement of 1990 - from the election of Toni Luckett through the anti-racism protests that followed - what happened to the movement, and why. Most of those who agreed to respond did not turn in copy by deadline. We, of course, feel that this may be itself a commentary on the movement. The following opinion pieces offer very different views on failures of leadership, organization, and trust. We hope that anyone who wants to help ...end fraternity racism, lower tuition, diversify the curriculum, limit UT's military and CIA contracts, end date rape, divest the University President of his ties to Freeport McMoRan, increase minority and female representation in the faculty and student body, implement lesbian/gay studies, expand the free speech area... will profit from these commentaries. Polemicist invites anyone who wants to respond to send their letter of 1000 words or less to [defunct address redacted]. We will print all letters in the next issue.
By Louis Mendoza
In the Spring of 1990, various groups with varied interests took advantage of a moment of crisis at the university, initiated by the Black Student Alliance, to place their agendas on the administration's table. These various agendas did not spring out of mid-air, but had been developed within groups prior to this moment. Any analysis of this political activity should consider what was happening in the individual groups as well as in the coalition which emerged that spring.
The problems with this "movement" were numerous and can be characterized by 1) a general confusion of means for ends, 2) an ability or refusal by various groups and the coalition to arrive at a political vision that encompassed different perspectives and went beyond the laundry listing of "oppressions," 3) a contemptuous, but often contradictory, and even idealistic notion of leadership, and 4) a profound lack of analysis of the political situation that prevented any long-term strategizing or systematic outreach and organizing. No movement can be sustained if it is not a "popular" one - that is it must appeal to a broad number of people, both on and off campus. Although the targeted issues ranged from a variety of restrictionist institutional policies to curriculum reform, most campus movements are, by definition, self-contained and reformist, and thereby doomed. This one was no exception.
The various perspectives on why this movement failed to coalesce and sustain itself point to what was probably the biggest factor in its decline - a fundamental lack of communication and trust between the various sectors and individuals involved. The inability to recognize and reconcile differences, create effective mechanisms for debate, criticism, and self-criticism all, in my opinion, contributed to the steady decline in student political activity. If guiding principles, ideals, and effective structure cannot be agreed upon and fostered within a movement of people who claim to be "progressive" then how can we ever expect those ideals to be realized on a larger scale?
The dynamics of any political organization or organizing venture must be engined by democracy, criticism, and self-criticism. Activists who refuse to be self-critical forever limit themselves to a closed, insular, and self-defeating clique. There is a basic strategic flaw being made when we cannot conceptualize our political situation well enough to strategize beyond the present moment and allow ourselves to believe that every battle is equally important.
Unfortunately, despite having its successes, the Chicano "community" was unable to constructively handle internal dissension that involved conflicts among personalities that were of political significance. Consequently, the organization Todos Unidos, a group organized by Chicano students in 1990 to promote curriculum reform, suffered because the political problems were reduced to personal ones when it was most important to maintain a political perspective.
To some degree this problem was one which the coalition shared. Only through debate, dialogue, and discussion, can people with different backgrounds and various levels of political consciousness rid themselves of their class complexes and prejudices. Within politics people can learn history, acquire consciousness, develop commitment and otherwise learn to act upon multiple agendas to help forge change. It is important to realize that one's identification with political struggle is itself a slow and uneven process of self-discovery that is determined by various factors, such as economic conditions, degree of assimilation (both ideological and cultural), and one's own life experiences.
The coalitional structure of the "movement" was a problem itself because it operated on "good faith" politics from the various actors, rather than forging genuine alliances and authentic cooperation based on mutual understanding of the different struggles being waged. That this was not immediately recognized as a weakness reveals the political immaturity of the various participants. Because mutual support was based on false or unchecked assumptions the trust between groups was, from the outset, always tenuous. With no mechanism in place to articulate and re-articulate one's understanding of the various positions at stake on different issues, a vast space was left open for mis-representation by coalition partners. With minimal dialogue outside of direct actions, little opportunity was created for differences to be settled, debated, or otherwise addressed. Furthermore, because so much of the coalition's politics revolved around identity, it became very difficult for uninvolved students outside of the "in" groups to participate, except as spectators.
Last, but not least, the failure to mount a consistent and direct challenge to the Right often gave them control of the debate, despite the intellectual vacuity of their positions. If progressive students are to succeed, we must learn to assess changing political conditions and utilize the ideas and energy of a larger audience to widen the breadth of participants. This does not necessarily entail compromise. If we believe that our ideas are intellectually sound then we can be confident that they will stand up in open debate. In this way our intellectual activity is a form of praxis, and vice-versa. Our struggle for a more humane and just world must be a way of life, not just a response to crisis.
Louis Mendoza was a member of Todos Unidos and helped present the Chicano student curriculum reform proposal to the administration.
By Brandon Powell
I think my consciousness-raising paralleled that of many other blacks around the country. Eight years of malignant neglect from the Reagan Administration and the stalling of progress on civil rights created a dissatisfaction with the status quo. During the first two years after Reagan, the Black Student Alliance of which I was a member became a much stronger presence on campus, leading rallies on the West Mall, holding forums and writing columns for the Texan. By the spring semester of 1990, BSA was pushing the administration to implement programs aimed at improving black student retention and reducing the tension on campus.
What we needed was an issue, a rallying event which would provide the catalyst for widespread activism. The brothers of Phi Gamma Delta and Delta Tau Delta gave us two just such events. The "Sambo" T-shirts and the epithet strewn car were pretty much the breaking point for students here, black and white. Such easily identified racism was easily exploited by BSA for maximum effect. With the thousands-strong march to the Fiji house, the zenith of mass political action by the student movement had been reached. The force of those thousands at the march was necessary, it simply did not remain, though.
Part of the problem was the timing of events. Occurring as they did in the late spring, students were headed home relatively shortly after things started to heat up. No matter who was leading the BSA and the other organizations involved, momentum would have been lost over the summer. Perhaps it could have been regained, but it is unlikely.
Those other organizations were also part of the downfall of the BSA's efforts. In the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I see that the issues were diluted by the coattail riding of groups hoping their reforms would be swept in along with those of the BSA. I don't mean to imply any malevolent or cynical intent on the part of these groups, but all focus was lost. With so many groups, there were too many issues. Unfortunate though it may be, a shorter, simpler message would have been more effective. Had the BSA's been the only one, with a coalition of concerned groups pushing only that, the chances of success would have been much greater.
Between BSA and Toni Luckett's successful Students' Association Campaign and the myriad other groups laying claim to the media's, the administration's and the students' time and attention, the campus was just sick of it. In addition, some ill-chosen words and misinterpreted intentions led to a huge conservative backlash.
Even without the dulling of the BSA's message, though, the push for reform was probably dead on arrival. The Black Student Alliance was centered on Marcus Brown, its long-time president who graduated last year. Marcus was the life and soul of the organization; when he tired, the efforts flagged. He gave way too much of himself, pushing back his own graduation date and lowering his GPA in the process.
The curriculum reform program which he devised - Proposed Reform to Institute Diversity in Education (PRIDE) - was also too sophisticated. With distance and a little maturity, I now see that PRIDE could only have been the second stage of reform at the University. A push for one multicultural class or something similar was probably all the momentum could sustain. PRIDE was too hard to sell to students and administrators. It required an understanding of the complexities of racism that was beyond the grasp of many involved.
Class analyses and socioeconomic disparities and vaguely and sometimes overtly socialist rhetoric alienated the majority of black students. What most activists did not consider is the truth that blacks are pretty conservative. They are more likely pro-life than pro-choice, more pro-death penalty than not. The radical rhetoric (much of which I was responsible for) lost the black folks, but kept the white Marxists right along. That wasn't going to keep the drive alive.
In the end, though, rallies and activity kept PRIDE alive well into the following fall semester, most couldn't see how a couple of fraternities acting out their ignorance related to a program calling for classes, forums, and black studies centers.
Ultimately, black student interest was not there. Although, enraged by the callous disrespect of the fraternities, most black students were not ready to devote their lives to activism. And well they shouldn't have. Many of these people were first generation college students. They were and are here to get an education and become well-paid providers for their future families. Getting in and getting out with little hassle was the top priority.
The racism at UT, while certainly there, was and is not an obvious daily intrusion on black students' lives. We are socially segregated, but mostly of our own free will. In my own experience, having white friends presented no problem, at school or around Austin. At the end of that spring semester, black students felt like we had let everyone know that they couldn't disrespect us; many felt that was enough.
What I used to blame on racism and oppression, I am more willing to accept as my own lack of commitment to school. I don't think Bill Cunningham is the Devil; he's just a PR hack trying to maintain the status quo. Whitey isn't lurking behind every statue on the South Mall. The Man doesn't have time to worry about some college student who doesn't even go to class. Racism was an easy out for me; it wasn't my fault.
The University of Texas is still a systematically racist institution. But it doesn't really have the power to keep me from attaining my goals. It's just another obstacle in my way.
Brandon Powell helped organize the BSA demonstrations in spring 1990 and is currently associate editor of The Daily Texan.
By Scott Henson and Tom Philpott
The 1990 "student movement" at UT-Austin collapsed soon after, and perhaps because of, its most tangible victory: the election of Toni Luckett to the Student Association presidency.
That's not to say that electing Toni was a mistake. First, the campaign itself united many isolated progressive campus groups that previously had had little contact. Organizations as disparate as CISPES, the Steve Biko Committee, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Black Student Alliance, University Lesbians and the Lesbian/Gay Student Association for the first time shared phone lists, linked their short-term goals, and began to work together as a fairly broad-based, if tenuous, coalition. Remnants of this network still remain, and indeed formed the nexus of the Austin Campaign for Peace in the Middle East during the Gulf War.
Most important of all, Toni's election unleashed the considerable resources of the Student Association bureaucracy for use by student activists. Prior to and after Luckett's term, student careerists in the SA had monopolized the computers, photocopiers, laser printers and telephones, chiefly to prepare their resumes and play computer games. Under Luckett, for the first time in recent memory that changed. Polemicist used the telephones and photocopier to research stories on English 306 and toxic waste in Austin and at UT. Students, using SA resources, aided Union Dining Service workers in their successful fight to save their jobs from the threat of "franchising." Jennifer Bowles and a small group of women turned the historically lame Students United for Rape Elimination (SURE) into a successful self-defense training program for women. And Austin's anti-war campaign relied on students' access to SA resources for everything from fact sheets to meeting rooms. That fall 1990, the SA even voted to give Liberated Learning the money to purchase a printing press. By comparison, the SA typically pours its money into "awareness weeks" that no one attends. (In 1989, one SA-sponsored awareness week drew just three attendees: a Texan reporter, the event's organizer, and his mother.)
All of this aside, Luckett's performance as SA president counts as the single most disastrous cause for the failure of recent activism at UT. The benefits of Toni's election resulted from organizing her campaign, and would have occurred under any SA president who had run on an activist platform. The disadvantages, however, were intensely personal. They result not from her failure to keep her many promises, but from her refusal even to try. By fall 1990, while still drawing her monthly SA paycheck, Toni was announcing to a roomful of Austin-based activists that student organizing was a waste of time. Needless to say, she forgot to mention this to Ms. magazine when she appeared on its cover in 1991, touted as one of five up-and-coming women student activists.
Even as Toni denounced student activism as irrelevant and ineffective, her administration ignored perfect opportunities to organize student disgust with UT. In the summer after her election, Polemicist disclosed that "Dollar" Bill Cunningham sat on the board of Freeport McMoRan, a company that wants to develop and most likely ruin Barton Creek southwest of town. In addition, UT collaborates with Freeport and the Indonesian dictator Suharto to mine for copper, displacing indigenous blacks and polluting their drinking water in the process. After an all-night city council meeting rejected the development, effective student organizing could have pressured Cunningham to sever UT's ties to Freeport, which were already drawing heavy criticism from faculty, alumni and public officials. Luckett and her clique, however, did nothing, and as soon as the alternative press moved on to different stories the issue died. Similarly, when conservative campus groups attacked the funding for Tejas magazine and defeated the new syllabus for English 306, Luckett again refused to help organize a response, despite voluminous campaign rhetoric supporting curriculum reform and a free press.
Other respondents to this forum will cite many good reasons why the student movement collapsed: the fact that summer occurred so soon after the apex of student organizing; the graduation of key leaders in the Black Student Alliance; and burnout of key activists, particularly graduate students. But none of these reasons excuse the stubborn inaction of a leader who rose to power declaring that she would take the SA out of the student union and into the streets. In her campaign, she portrayed her role as SA president as the equivalent of a paid union organizer. She did indeed get paid - with a healthy stipend from student fees - but as an organizer she was not just ineffective but actively destructive. The UT student movement had been organized as a coalition centered on Luckett. If, after her election, Toni refused to participate, how could that coalition help but fall apart?
Luckett's election galvanized a general anti-administration feeling among non-activist students frustrated with the robber barons who run the UT administration and their student-bureaucrat apologists. Even some liberal faculty at the time expressed hope that Luckett could help organize a student movement to confront the worst abuses of the Megaversity. This constituency, which was never active but represented huge unrealized potential, is now just as disenchanted, frustrated and cynical as ever, but with Luckett and student radicals, as well as Bill Cunningham.
Student radicalism at UT has collapsed, but the issues that inspired the surge of activism in 1990 have only grown more critical. The UT bureaucracy lurches on, slashing library funding even as it finances a high-tech weapons lab for the navy and clean rooms for the semiconductor industry. "Dollar" Bill continues to draw a fat paycheck from Freeport McMoRan, while sending graduate students from the geology department to hunt for the next copper mine on indigenous homelands in Indonesia. And Cunningham has appointed Robert King as his hatchetman to exact retribution on the Liberal Arts College for the English 306 debacle. The next symposium should address not what happened, but what is to be done.
Henson and Philpott, white Marxists, founded this magazine and endorsed Toni Luckett's campaign.
By Steve Carr
Campus activism is where its at, but we students need to clean up the "act" in our activism before we can make meaningful political and social change. Student activism often partakes of white, heterosexist, middle-class arrogance that we direct towards ourselves as well as the people that we should treat as our allies. Yet paradoxically, we often shirk away from strong, well thought out positions simply for fear of alienating the American public.
What happened to student activism? Who knows? So rather than offer a diagnosis for what could have happened, but didn't, here's a prescription for what can happen and will.
- Don't mistake a lack of structure, planning or accountability for democracy. Unstructured meetings are anything but democratic. People who talk the loudest, longest, or interrupt the most usually end up commandeering the debate. Manage them, so that other people get a chance to speak, and the meeting can move on.
Designate a press spokesperson before an event. I've seen too many rallies where hours of careful discussion and preparation go down the drain, simply because some idiot talks to the press, representing a position more attuned to their ego than the organization.
I've seen too many events undone by poor legwork - no one contacted the media, made phone calls, etc. Have accountability. Elect people if you have to, but have some kind of structure that makes leadership and spokesperson positions open to anyone who wants to do the work, and be responsible to all the organization's members.
Steve Carr is a member of New Jewish Agenda and the Graduate Professional Organization.