A Response to Jonathan Simon on UC Strikes [Update]

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Jonathan Simon, criminologist and anti-prison advocate at UC Berkeley, speak at a colloquiam. His ideas were bold and interesting, although I wasn’t always sure if he could link them into one overarching project as he was attempting. I won’t summarize the talk, since it’s his next book idea, but he’ll no doubt discuss its ideas on his blog, which is definitely worth checking out.

However, I feel the need to respond to a recent post about the strikes at his workplace (which is also his alma mater), which he simply cannot support. Why? Because they should be protests about prison reform instead.

With a heavy heart I am not joining many of my students and colleagues who are striking against classes and educational activities at UC Berkeley and other UC campuses across the state beginning tomorrow (and through Friday the 20th). We ought to be united in mobilization to save higher education in California. But in choosing to make the fight a convenient and ideologically satisfying (but for the most part phony) story about privatization, down-sizing, and pernicious, corporate minded university leadership, UC’s unions and their student and faculty allies are missing a historic opportunity to engage our fellow citizens in a critical dialog about our state’s future.

That future has been mortgaged to expensive dysfunctional prisons and a bipartisan law-enforcement establishment that is committed to mass incarceration at any price. But across three decades in which that project of exiling tens of thousands of largely poor and minority Californians to a prison archipelago of mammoth proportions (which yet remains grotesquely overcrowded) has been constructed, the supporters of higher education in this state have remained silent, assuming that the incarceration of people who don’t go to college anyway is not our problem. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

First of all, I think he is simplifying the reasons for student activism in California (and nationwide — sorry, worldwide). They aren’t merely neutered critiques against corporatization of the university, they related to larger critiques of capitalism — that the generation coming of age now must shoulder the burden of debt-fueled neoliberalism come asunder. Essentially, the buck stops with Generation Y. Simon’s disdain for the strikes is barely concealed, shocking when you think of how his interests in making detailed, critical scholarship are threatened, as education becomes stripped down to professional training. Perhaps law/criminology people haven’t felt the acute pinch like humanities folks, but he’d probably change his tune if he had 4/4 loads of composition classes.

Simon’s bigger oversight is that he poses these problems in an “either/or” false choice. You either protest the privitization of schools (wrong) or you protest prisons (right). What he doesn’t understand is that movements start in a grassroots way, addressing local concerns. He really should have understood this, since the Free Speech movement at Berkeley (itself inspired by the civil rights movement) grew into a much larger youth movement, protesting war, capital, racism, essentially against a constricted version of the American future. Students are natural starting points for radical protest, and their earliest protests are likely to be about school issues. In the same way, workers start protesting their own labor conditions first. The drastic measures happening in California (and really at every public institution in the U.S.) have been met with vehement student response, containing a strong anti-capitalist element. What Simon should do is see this as an opportunity — you want an anti-prison movement, then make it a part of the movement happening right now! That’s where the energy is. He has the background to incorporate a critique of the prison-industrial complex into what the student movement is already geared up about: in addition to being immoral, our justice system is a drain on the economy, which affects all public spending. But he has to take positive action, take the time to make the argument, instead of sniping “where were you when the state built thirty prisons and enacted laws like 3-Strikes?” Well, Jonathan, I was 12 when Three Strikes went into effect; most of these students were younger. Where were you?

This sarcastic tone belies Simon’s obvious envy of the student movement’s enjoyment. This is why he writes absurd things about missing “three precious days” of classes — I’m guessing people learned more by engaging in protest and battling cops than sitting in classrooms. Perhaps it’s generational, perhaps it’s structural due to Simon’s privileged postion in the university system. But if he really wants to start an anti-prison protest movement — and I hope he does — this activism is the exact place he should start.


I just attended a panel discussion on student organizing. Victor Sanchez, president of the University of California Student Association, the representative body for the entire UC student population, mentioned college funding in context of prison funding. Twice he brought up that California is #1 in prison funding nationwide, and attributed this to the powerful prison guard lobby. They are planning a march on Sacramento with faculty and administration in March. Dr. Simon, the door is officially open.

2 Responses to A Response to Jonathan Simon on UC Strikes [Update]

  1. zunguzungu says:

    Well put. I’ve been trying to figure out if there was more to his argument than what there originally seemed to be, and I’m not persuaded there is. I’d like to hear him respond, though; I hope he does.

    • Gavin says:

      Thanks. I’ve really enjoyed reading your perspective on the strikes, although I’m surprised at the reluctance of some of your colleagues (you’re in English, right?). Practically every public university system is in a similar boat, so it’s vital to learn the lessons from the strengths and weaknesses of the UC action. Faculty and students, graduate and undergrad, have a lot of shared interests at stake in how universities are being restructured, and will be far more powerful working together. Of course solidarity is still a bitter pill for many raised on U.S. Individualism.

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