“A New Aggressive Movement”: The Founding and Defense of the Santa Cruz Social Center

There were no bro­ken win­dows. So that par­tic­u­lar lib­er­al defense is off the table. Those who have decid­ed to side with the state instead of this new and rad­i­cal social move­ment will find that it is now their illu­sions that have been shat­tered.

We had heard mur­mur­ings all week about a new autonomous action emerg­ing from the San­ta Cruz occu­pa­tion. The con­di­tions of social life in San­ta Cruz involve a vis­i­ble home­less pop­u­la­tion, and they have not been absent at Occu­py San­ta Cruz, which sta­tioned itself out­side of the cour­t­house, right across from the coun­ty jail and a bail bonds­man. It’s easy for the media to dis­miss occu­pa­tions as a col­lec­tion of bums, but the truth is that the home­less need a place to sleep; and now, with chilly nights and fierce winds, the activists at the occu­pa­tion, like the home­less every year, need more than tents.

A gen­er­al assem­bly was announced at 2PM at the cour­t­house. We arrived and were relieved to dis­cov­er that there would be no GA. Instead, after peo­ple gath­ered, we marched to Chase Bank. A few basic state­ments about fore­clo­sures, and the hard­work­ing DJ wheeled in the speak­ers and played the new anthem of San­ta Cruz actions.

The march spread to the road, and walked across the bridge. There was no fan­fare as the mem­bers of the affin­i­ty group that orga­nized this action filed quick­ly into the aban­doned Coast Com­mer­cial Bank at 75 Riv­er Street. The build­ing had been vacant for three years after being being pur­chased by Wells Far­go.

Imme­di­ate­ly the extreme­ly well-orga­nized facil­i­ta­tors of this action coor­di­nat­ed deliv­er­ies by vans full of fur­ni­ture and sup­plies, which were quick­ly brought inside the new social cen­ter. They issued a state­ment explain­ing their project:

An exist­ing time-hon­ored U.S. and Cal­i­for­nia law allows for the trans­fer of a prop­er­ty title when a prop­er­ty is occu­pied and tak­en care of by an alter­na­tive par­ty for an extend­ed peri­od of time. This law is called adverse pos­ses­sion. The law was born out of the belief that society’s best inter­ests are met when land and prop­er­ty are uti­lized pro­duc­tive­ly rather than sit­ting vacant. Today, the build­ing at 75 Riv­er St. has been adverse­ly pos­sessed. No longer will the prop­er­ty exist only as an emp­ty park­ing lot and a vacant build­ing with a sign re-direct­ing peo­ple to Wells Far­go across the street. It will be repur­posed and used to ben­e­fit the com­mu­ni­ty instead of Cas­sidy Tur­ley, the large-scale com­mer­cial real estate com­pa­ny cur­rent­ly leas­ing the build­ing, and Wells Far­go bank.

Instead of an emp­ty space, there will be a space for com­mu­ni­ty teach-ins, an open library, and dis­cus­sion forums. The space will be offered to Occu­py San­ta Cruz as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to have a roof over its head and allow for more orga­ni­za­tion to take place. The space will be safe, non-vio­lent, non-destruc­tive and wel­com­ing. The build­ing will be a forum for indi­vid­u­als in the com­mu­ni­ty to learn from one anoth­er, and help the Occu­py move­ment grow.

Police showed up before long. They may have arrived before get­ting the call from Wells Far­go, but either way the bank made it clear that they want­ed the occu­piers out. The police liai­son mon­i­tored them adept­ly, and a ban­ner drop was quick­ly pulled togeth­er. The ban­ner bizarrely read “OOcu­py Every­thing,” which at least had the virtue of enter­tain­ing sup­port­ers out­side. I have since been informed that this was in sol­i­dar­i­ty with Occu­py Oak­land, whose hash­tag is usu­al­ly #OO, but per­haps real­iz­ing that this was an eso­teric ref­er­ence the ban­ner com­mit­tee revised the text with a splash of gold paint.

When a small group of five or six offi­cers advanced on the build­ing, occu­piers linked arms to defend the entrance, while oth­ers wait­ed at the side with cam­eras ready. The police fell back. They stood watch­ing for quite a while; we spoke with some of them and deter­mined that they were sim­ply con­fused, with no plan in place for respond­ing to this kind of action.

I went inside to observe the GA tak­ing place. It had already been clear­ly announced that the space should be respect­ed – there was no van­dal­ism, but the win­dows had been dec­o­rat­ed with infor­ma­tion­al signs. The GA was dis­cussing the two inevitable ques­tions: first, what should we do when the police make a raid; sec­ond, what should we do until then? As the meet­ing con­tin­ued, some of us who had been there for sev­er­al hours left to repro­duce our labor-pow­er. I fell asleep. When I woke up this morn­ing the news was incred­i­ble.

“I have my own army in the NYPD,” Michael Bloomberg has said, “which is the sev­enth biggest army in the world.” For­tu­nate­ly the San­ta Cruz Police Depart­ment is not so big. Last night, the Occu­py move­ment was big­ger. Riot police attempt­ed to take the entrance, but bar­ri­cades were erect­ed and the police were sur­round­ed. They had to ask for per­mis­sion to leave. “Hope­ful­ly this group isn’t rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a new aggres­sive move­ment,” the spokesman for the SCPD told Mer­cury News.

Whether their hope is ful­filled is up to us. I walked to the site this morn­ing and found a heav­i­ly bar­ri­cad­ed build­ing filled with sleep­ing mil­i­tants. Two sleep­ing bags out­side the entrance con­tained peo­ple who were pre­pared to be the first to deal with the repres­sive state appa­ra­tus. A reporter inter­viewed a calm and col­lect­ed media liai­son.

It’s hard to exag­ger­ate the sig­nif­i­cance of forc­ing the police to retreat. Small­er loca­tions often seem cut off from the major actions that take place in New York or Oak­land. But these are loca­tions with unique con­junc­tures and unique pos­si­bil­i­ties. A wave of occu­pa­tions in small towns can form a very strong link with big-city port shut­downs.

Even if such occu­pa­tions are repressed by state vio­lence, this is not a defeat. The occu­pa­tions move­ment is cycling geo­graph­i­cal­ly. If it leaves one place, it goes every­where and comes back. Just Mon­day, Novem­ber 28, UC-San­ta Cruz stu­dents car­ried out an action in sol­i­dar­i­ty with UC-Davis’s strike against the administration’s prac­tice of police bru­tal­i­ty. They formed a pick­et line out­side the Hahn “Stu­dent Ser­vices” Build­ing – the build­ing con­tain­ing the offices that facil­i­tate stu­dent debt, charge out­ra­geous rents, and dis­ci­pline stu­dents who exer­cise their right to protest. They had three demands: the imme­di­ate res­ig­na­tion of Chan­cel­lor Kate­hi, police off cam­pus, and no fee hikes. This action made it clear that police bru­tal­i­ty is not sim­ply a civ­il lib­er­ties issue: it has to be under­stood as an instru­ment used by the admin­is­tra­tion to enforce the exploita­tion of stu­dents and to pre­vent resis­tance to this exploita­tion.

The union rep­re­sent­ing work­ers in Hahn deter­mined that its mem­bers should not cross the pick­et line. They were sent home, with pay. As we gath­ered out­side Hahn we received news from Davis. Hear­ing of our suc­cess­ful pick­et, they had decid­ed to respond. About 200 stu­dents endorsed our demands in their GA and occu­pied Dut­ton Hall, their equiv­a­lent of Hahn.

When we heard of their action it was dif­fi­cult to avoid the sub­ject in our own GA – espe­cial­ly since it had been clear since the morn­ing that some­one (a sym­pa­thet­ic work­er?) had left a win­dow open at Hahn. After some debate we moved inside. A very long GA took place, but the build­ing was held for a night. The next day anoth­er GA decid­ed that the ide­al step would be to count this as a major advance, but to allow oth­er stu­dents to file their paper­work as we build and devel­op the move­ment; a com­pre­hen­sive list of demands was gen­er­at­ed, with the promise of future actions. The demands rep­re­sent noth­ing like lib­er­al reformism; they rep­re­sent a very focused antag­o­nism towards the admin­is­tra­tion, a clear mes­sage that we will not per­mit them to car­ry out their busi­ness.

Even though the occu­pa­tion decid­ed vol­un­tar­i­ly to leave, its achieve­ment was dra­mat­ic and pro­found. It demon­strat­ed that there is a geo­graph­ic cycle of esca­la­tion, a sol­i­dar­i­ty that spreads as actions ebb and flow in dif­fer­ent places. In the Hahn-Dut­ton cycle this meant a move­ment with­in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia sys­tem, but the action yes­ter­day demon­strat­ed that the build­ing occu­pa­tion tac­tic is pow­er­ful out­side of uni­ver­si­ty activism. This con­nec­tion between stu­dent rad­i­cals and the com­mu­ni­ty is anoth­er ele­ment of the cycle. That the Occu­py movement’s next step will involve mov­ing inside has become more and more clear; but just as cru­cial are that our num­bers grow dra­mat­i­cal­ly, and that we spread every­where.

This morn­ing a com­rade stood on the roof of the new occu­pa­tion look­ing out for police, who he had seen hov­er­ing around the encamp­ment at City Hall. He doubt­ed that they would make a scene in day­light. “Down­town busi­ness is too impor­tant.”

But every indi­ca­tion is that they will return at night, in greater num­ber and with more instru­ments of vio­lence. They will return to lit­er­al­ly do the bid­ding of Wells Far­go, drain­ing pub­lic funds to pay for repres­sion, adding to the $13 mil­lion spent in oth­er cities. If we don’t have the strength to respond, our best option will be to retreat. Let’s not enter into that sit­u­a­tion. If you’re any­where near San­ta Cruz, come to the 75 Riv­er Street social cen­ter so we can out­num­ber the police again and defend this build­ing. If you’re far away, no prob­lem. Occu­py a build­ing near you.

Asad Haider is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at UC-San­ta Cruz, a mem­ber of UAW 2865, and an edi­tor of View­point.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).