I developed about all of my political views while I was at City College, a community college in downtown San Diego. I can’t say that I developed much because of the college however, which would be upsetting if there weren’t so many upsetting things. It was largely a process of, on the one hand, making time to read Chomsky books, and, on the other, attempting to gain ‘competence’ and confidence about politics and activism. My second semester is when I began to really develop political ideas, but I don’t remember any thoughts about clubs on campus. Like many community colleges I’m sure, it isn’t a particularly social place since many of the students have jobs and children and don’t like to hang around.
My first thought, beginning the third semester, was to organize monthly debates on political subjects. The idea was that instead of having closed door discussions where students about as timid as I was quietly listened to someone read the New York Times (well, I saw that happen once) there would be explosive confrontations between informed people like faculty members or informed activists, and they would be right in front of the cafeteria, in the middle of the day, rather than inviting students to some late late event they probably didn’t have time for. Alternatively, students could begin debating – but with high stakes where you could lose face with the crowd, and where nobody would give points to ‘debating technique’ or whatnot.
I don’t think it was a bad idea … but somebody does have to implement it. The barrier for me wasn’t so much lazyness (I didn’t do enough to reach that barrier, though I might have eventually) as it was a lack of confidence. Reading radical books can put you in a strange state of mind. On the one hand it seems clear to you that somebody needs to do something, but there is a nagging feeling that you don’t have the competence to do anything. I figured that it was possible that I would just end up irritating a bunch of people. Naturally I wanted to find at least a few people who agreed that it was a good idea. Or even better someone who would explain to me what the proper techniques of activism were. I was reacting like I would if somebody were dying in front of me, but I knew that I didn’t know anything about medicine and I didn’t know what number to call.
I got in contact with one of the few active clubs on campus, as I was looking around for people to pat me on the back and tell me I wasn’t an idiot. In some ways this event was a disaster. I had perhaps been overthinking and underdoing, while they were (as a group not as individuals) doing the opposite. The idea of the club, BEAT (Bringing Education and Activism Together), was to bring students of various ideologies to work for social justice. I would argue that it doesn’t make sense to work for social justice when you can’t agree on what that means. Worse, students often don’t have very complete ideologies (at least I didn’t) and I think the group dynamic ended up hurting my own confidence in building an ideology.
The club has worked on budget cuts, and put on performances of ‘Voices of a People’s History’. Perhaps most importantly, they have made a lot of progress on a kind of free food program for low income and homeless students.
I can’t say I contributed very much to the group. Meetings were about an hour long, discussing issues that often had no relavence unless you were one of a few people working on it. It sometimes turned into a kind of erratic volunteer program … getting sign up sheets for tutoring to a local high school. BEAT was more of a meeting place than a political club. I often didn’t know what the discusssions were about. The last meeting I attended included a half hour discussion of whether BEAT should run someone for Vice President … and I had no idea what the Vice President did, or what that had to do with BEAT. I can’t say that I was beneath some kind of coordinator class though, since that would imply an actual relationship. In fact, it was like I had accidentally walked into a knitting club and just listened for an hour.
The club meetings were particularly hard for people that didn’t have cars. There were emails, but not much discussion through the internet. They would often have the meeting around 7:00 at night, about a fifteen minute bus ride from the school campus. It took me about an hour bus ride to get to my own apartment, so if I decided to attend a meeting I would usually just hang around the campus reading. There was a lot of time involved in being a fly on the wall.
Every now and then I would actually do something. One day we made signs for a budget protest. I went to a couple. I found those pretty depressing – probably a sign of the organizing principles. You have you’re cheap little sign with a bumper sticker thought on it. You listen to annoying people practice their speechmaking skills – for which I often get the feeling they are hoping to use for their eventual run for office. I don’t really know many people there … then somebody comes up with a corny chant. Okay time to form a line … which for some reason is supposed to be an incredibly exciting moment. Oh wait – don’t go too far into the street ….
At one of the larger budget protests I got a flyer for a upcoming protest against occupations of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine. This was much smaller, about 80 people compared with over a thousand at the budget protests. Mostly older folk pretty quiet. I met some students from San Diego State University, part of Students for Justice in Palestine. It was refreshing to meet them. They had a degree of enthusiasm that seemed to have been lacking in other places. Perhaps it was because they seemed interested in cooperating with more people ….
I put up some flyers for them at City College, and they had an hour long presentation on Palestine. I can’t remember if I specifically asked anyone from BEAT to come to it, but I don’t think any members did. Maybe because nobody had time, or maybe because they had enough information. This was my last semester there. I was still a little disapointed that there was so little interest in the event among BEAT.
I continued to think about the debating idea, but I didn’t take much action. I might have tried to compensate my lack of doing anything by reading more. A lot of that was probably necessary – even if BEAT put more focus on helping one another understand politics I suspect somebody would have to study a little more.
ZMI, which I almost didn’t go to, has been a great boost to my confidence to trust my own ideas for activism. I’m quite sure if it should have been – maybe what I should have learned from ZMI is that I should have been more of a team player with BEAT - but I’m pretty sure I’m at least better of compared with where I was. One thing I took out of ZMI is that it is okay spend more time thinking. What are we trying to do? Do our tactics really make sense? What should the organization of our group be?
I’ve emailed another professor about a possible new club at City, that would focus on a participatory future. I think the idea to create a club might have been based on a misunderstanding that I would have time to actually be a part of a club … but I figured it would be wasteful to give up a possible thumbs up from a teacher. (I believe the reason that BEAT is so successful is because students’ respect for the faculty advisor). I don’t have any idea how this club would work, or what a participatory future might end up being – (I’ll try to interest people in PARECON without making it sound like a cult) – my contribution will probably end up being an email that says ‘hey you should do this’, and maybe be around for a couple weeks to say in person ‘yeah, you should do that’. (If it turns out there is interest I think I do a lot more than that even though I’ll be in Los Angeles. Seems like some activists haven’t figured this out yet, but they have finished the interenet).
In my view, the club is needed as a place where students can really ask those questions (the three above). It is particularly important that students have this opportunity because the majority of students have not really formed their world views … they haven’t even decided whether socialism is good or bad (whatever that word might mean to them). This group might be in conflict with an ISO based socialist group on campus … which might be fulfilling the role of the group I mentioned … but, in conclusion, they say Lenin’s name too many damn times.