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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Column: Direct reaction

In the Jan. 26 issue of The Aggie, my fellow columnist Jordan Carroll commented on the method of occupation at U.S. Bank, explaining that the point of direct action “is not a form of outreach or a publicity stunt.” That’s important, because it makes clear the primary intention of the occupation is not to serve as spectacle. But intentions don’t keep protest from becoming one.

Even when I’m not in agreement with campus protests, occupations and other direct action, what I can appreciate is the conversation started by virtue of their presence. When Occupy Wall Street began in earnest, it was easy to get away with having neither knowledge nor opinion on the issue. I would argue that this held true even when the Occupy movement extended into satellite occupations in Sacramento. It’s easy to shrug off marches and rallies and sit-ins and blockades when they’re a 20-minute car ride away.

When the pepper spraying and its ensuing rally elevated direct action to center stage on our campus, it became less easy to shrug off the marches and rallies and sit-ins and teach-ins. This was especially the case when protests directly clashed with the privileged conveniences of student life in a college town. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single student without an opinion on the local protests.

In the most recent form of direct action, students are sitting in front of U.S. Bank, rooted to the ground in order to shut down the institution and what it represents on the campus. Because of its central location, thousands of students are walking by the direct action, and each is forming an impression of protest that will color the foundation of their relationship to social change. Because occupations have become something of a campus fixture, it’s worth asking how students are internalizing their presence.

One possibility is that the everyday sight will function to desensitize students from occupation. The psychology of desensitization is most often applied to violent video games: by seeing violence so often, our emotional response is mitigated, the accompanying physical reaction less and less pronounced. This could capture the occupation response as well. The first time you walk by the folks at U.S. Bank, the occupation might elicit from you a charged response. After all, it’s not everyday that you see students sitting in front of a campus bank. But when you see students sitting everyday in front of a campus bank, you notice less and care less. Take the desensitization into the real world, and we have produced a demographic of adults intimately familiar with and unaffected by protesters.

Another possibility is that ongoing protests become a new normal for students. In seeing protest everyday, we become comfortable with the specter of direct action. What this means is that it becomes an expected fixture in the environment. When students graduate and enter a working environment, where occupations are more likely considered to be occupational hazards, that expectation can lead a new hire to question the power dynamics as they play out in the professional environment. Maybe this is what is meant when folks say college teaches us not what, but how to think.

If either is the case, some might argue that the inherently specter-ladenness of direct action necessitates a kind of PR. I’m not so sure that attempting to frame the reception of onlookers would make much a difference. That protests are local and visible in the first place is the crucial point here. What students take away from that, whether they inquire what’s going on, stage a counter-protest, join in the action or awkwardly walk around occupiers as if they weren’t human beings — it’s their reaction. As is said in media studies: if you’re watching, it’s for you.

If you’re reading this, it’s for you. You can tell RAJIV NARAYAN why at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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