On August 9th, 2014, police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. While police killings of young black people may be almost routine in the US, what followed was very far from routine, as angry protests and riots erupted across Ferguson and sparked similar revolts across the country. That November, a further wave of uprisings broke out after a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Wilson.
On May 3rd, 2016, thousands of parents of primary school-aged children in the UK encouraged their children to skip classes for the day, with many taking them on picnics or involving them in fun outdoor learning activities instead, in protest at increasing testing and rigid, prescriptive teaching methods being imposed upon younger and younger children.
At first, it can be hard to imagine what, beyond the most vague, abstract themes, could possibly link these two moments. But an unexpected answer has been supplied by a recent feature in Viewpoint Magazine.
Viewpoint’s “movement inquiry” feature aims a similar set of questions at various different groups involved in a particular struggle. The first one, on housing movements, was excellent and is highly recommended reading for anyone involved in housing struggles in London or beyond; the second, on black liberation in higher education, is only really worth bothering with if you’re interested in Student Activists doing Student Activist stuff, which I can’t say I’m that fascinated by myself; and the most recent one, on strategy after Ferguson, is pretty much essential for radicals interested in the ongoing struggles against white supremacy and police brutality in the US. It’s long, but it’s great, so you’d be really missing out if you just skipped to the end… but if you don’t have time to read the whole thing, the most relevant bit, from the perspective of the emerging resistance to SATs in the UK, is from the closing interview with Advance the Struggle, a communist collective based around the Bay Area, where they discuss how high school students walked out of school against police killings in December 2014, and how the organisers of that walkout stayed active in other struggles at their schools, first against privatisation and then against standardised testing:
“This organizing continued in various forms throughout the rest of the spring semester. But what is interesting for the sake of the story of the organizers of the December 15th walkout is that later that spring some of the core organizers participated in another series of independent political actions. During the initial roll out of the new standardized test in California – the Smarter Balanced Assessment, referred to as the SBAC – students at one of the key schools to orchestrate the walkout initiated a boycott of the standardized test. This crew of students independently spread an opt-out form among themselves and their parents in order to get nearly the entire 11th grade class from their school to stand against the imposition of this new, computerized standardized assessment. While they did not produce literature that was circulated publicly, they did do what almost no other group of young people in Oakland did. In speaking to them about the motivations for their action, they told us that they were empowered by the various protests they had not only participated in attending but had planned themselves, and that they took this empowerment and applied it toward organizing against what seemed to them to be a waste of their educational time. School district officials came down on the school in question, threatening loss of funding for the entire district if there were not enough test taken. However, the students stood strong and opened up conversations with their teachers and parents about why they refused to take the test.”
This alone would be interesting enough, but they follow it up with a broader strategic reflection that’s worth reading for anyone who’s interested in thinking about what disruptive action can look like in the current conditions, and particularly for anyone interested in the idea of the social strike, as championed by Plan C and discussed by others like the Angry Workers of the World, With Sober Senses, and this very blog:
“Where to, now?
The political agency that expressed itself through the actions of students and educators in Oakland was unprecedented in recent times. What made this even more interesting was the fact that all of the activity was initiated and sustained through the independent organization of rank and file students and educators. The existing nonprofit and school district machinery dedicated toward co-opting student and educator energy was pushed aside through the December 15th walkout, the anti-privatization activity, and the standardized test boycott. All of the groundwork was carried out by militants that had implanted themselves in a social institution – in this case, the OUSD, the largest employer in Oakland – and created networks through consistent organizing that established a basis for seizing upon the political opening in November and December of 2014.
While all of this represents the particular experience of specific sectors of the working class – students and teachers – in a specific city at a particular time, it provides us with a basis to suggest a few things for consideration.
We agree with our friends who point out that there is power in atomized proletarians coming together to disrupt the flow of capital at specific nodes in supply chains – ports, highways, etc – that is, that there is an importance in proletarian activity not being solely rooted in workplaces, but rather at specific chokepoints in the supply chain of commodities. This has proved to be a powerful tactic in various struggles, particularly here in Oakland, and it has a basis in the material reality of the capitalist economy and working class life.
However, despite the proliferation of casualized labor conditions, small shops and large scale unemployment among the US proletariat, there is still a basis for focusing on the centralizing power of certain social institutions. We propose that we consider institutions such as schools, hospitals and public transportation as social chokepoints, institutional spaces where a diverse range of proletarians come together on a daily basis. Militants should strongly consider the importance of organizing within these spaces. This type of organizing has the potential to reach sectors of the proletariat which might not otherwise participate in the street protests and blockades that are coordinated outside of any particular workplace or institutional space. Organizing where people are at – and where people will continue to be at for the foreseeable future, in the not-so-easily outsourceable centers of labor and social reproduction – can provide the basis to organize a proletarian insurgency that can fight multiple fronts, and provide a contribution toward developing a more organized and experienced assault on capitalism from within its own institutions.”
I don’t recommend reading and thinking about the AtS piece because I necessarily agree with everything they say – for instance, I totally agree with “organizing where people are at”, but then where I’m at isn’t a school, a hospital or a public transport network, and that’s true for a lot of other people I know – but because I think the only way to come up with sensible answers to these questions is through discussion, and the perspective they suggest should definitely be one part of that discussion. And also just because it’s a reminder that the unexpected is always possible. Who would have expected that a revolt against police killings would generate a boycott movement rejecting standardised testing? And what unexpected consequences could yet come from the rejection of SATs here in the UK?