Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Weakening of public education: the students strike back

Over the past few weeks there has been much student foment in my little town. Students are rightly incensed at the new education law that is being proposed in Congress. As I'd reported in a prior post, the law proposes a number of things, some of which seem reasonable (like paying a portion of your post-graduation salary for a few years to fund public universities), but most of which amount to privatizing public education funds.

Anyway, a few weeks ago there was a big march to our town's center. I was initially very impressed with the student organizers. They held a rally on campus setting forth what they were protesting against and why, and maintained a peaceful order on their way out. There were no explosions or on-campus confrontations with police, unlike some past demonstrations. They even had some great music animating the whole affair.

However, my daily rounds brought me to the town center later that morning, where I quickly realized that the itchy sensation in my nose was a response to residual tear gas. It turns out the anti-riot squads in our city had dispersed the march with what many considered excessive force. I wasn't there at the moment the tear gas was fired, and by the time I arrived everything was calm except for all the coughing, red-eyed passers-by. Later in the morning there was another wave of protestors in the town square, and they seemed to be as peaceable as the group I saw leaving our school.

That said, in the second wave that I witnessed, as well as in the videos I later saw of the first wave (that eventually got tear-gassed), there were a handful of belligerent morons who, instead of participating at the center of the square, went to the far-away cordon of police and started berating them, yelling, looking for a fight.

It really pissed me off, because they detracted from what was a coherent, well-organized civic movement. Some people even allege that a murky "they" plants infiltrators in these marches to turn them violent. This might be, but I also have personally seen a number of kids who get caught up by emotion and self-aggrandizement, who see the protests as a chance to lash out and feel heroic. However, by indulging their own messiah complex these rabblerousers weaken the movement for a more just education system. The question I wish they'd ask themselves is, "Are you more interested in overturning an unjust law, or in being a hero on viral Facebook videos?"

Here's a video of a march on the same day in Bogota. The video is very stylized and really gets up your adrenaline.

I don't know if cops broke up the Bogota march that day, but the video doesn't show any violence. Something ugly that does come out clearly is the student demonstrators' scorn for the police. I understand that young people often have an innate rebellion against signs of authority like the police, and this is aggravated by a recent tragic incident in which cops shot and killed an unarmed 16-year-old in Bogota. But the spectacle is an ugly one, of flamboyantly-arrayed students heaping derision upon stoic cops that are required by their job to stay and bear it. Towards the end of the video the clown commentator is prompting a little girl to speak of her distrust for the cops and her desire to study so she won't be like them, "in uniform".

I have a number of problems with this. First off, the police aren't the only ones in uniform. The demonstrators, from the whimsically-costumed to the blase-chic fashion-conscious, are all wearing uniforms of their own. It's a mistake to think of the working-class cops as the unthinking slaves of their social context, while presuming that the students are liberated, free of internalized social constructs and ways of presenting themselves. Secondly, I cringe at the disrespect towards other human beings, reminiscent of a rampant trend of dehumanizing the "other" back home in the US. The police are people who've chosen to work defending the public interest, and while we can disagree on the different conceptions of the public interest, we should respect their work and their values. In the video, the police officers remain stolid and dignified, without brutality, while the demonstrators taunt and bully them. By taunting police officers that are obligated by their professional ethic not to react, the demonstrators are recreating, on the small, petty scale of the otherwise powerless, a dynamic of imposition and oppression. It's cowardly to torment someone who can't fight back. And when rogue officers do fight back, student society condemns them for it. Thirdly, the police force is a necessary part of a complex, modern society. They may do their job with more or less honesty or corruption, but I don't think anyone would want there to be no police, especially in a place with as much crime as Colombia. Again, I don't deny that in Colombia the police and the military have often been the perpetrators of crimes in addition to their preventers, but we need to recognize the value of the institution, just as we can value the idea of an elected Congress or a public education system, even if their present manifestation leaves much to be desired. By glossing over this fact, the demonstrators essentially enjoy the services that the police provide while refusing to work themselves as police or even to recognize the value of those services. It's an ugly attitude, marred by the classism and privileged entitlement that infest Colombian society, even among progressives who should know better.

One of my coworkers agreed with my reflections, but even his outlook reflected a certain sense of class superiority. He said that police officers hadn't been lucky enough to attend college, so it wasn't their fault that they were stuck in the job. I would applaud efforts to offer university education to more low-income people who join the police or armed forces, and in fact I think public university students shouldn't be exempt from the obligatory military service that everyone else has to do in Colombia. Right now you can get out of the service requirement by going to college and/or paying a legal fee to override your military obligation. I think that's elitist bullshit, and if more college students served in the public sector, and more police and soldiers went to college, we wouldn't have such horrid violence and misunderstanding between the two parties.

But my coworker's comment again betrays the idea that he and other college-educated people are free of extenuating social circumstances that direct their conduct, while those who go into the law and order sector are mere pawns to their economic fate. Such an attitude totally denies the possibility that people enter the military or the police out of personal conviction, a desire to serve, a sense of duty, a positive view of the institution. Likewise, the college student or graduate loses the opportunity to question his own beliefs, because he assumes that those opposed to him are unthinking automatons.

Just last week, the infamous education law was formally opened to debate in Congress. This has set off a whole new wave of student protests throughout the country. First at my university came a violent riot. I have seen a number of such riots in my years working at the university (mainly because the national government keeps trying to push assinine laws that undercut our public education system). They usually follow a pattern. A group of kids with hoods and masks starts launching home-made grenades near the entrance of the university campus. Anti-riot squads arrive, but they don't enter, because there's some law saying that police aren't supposed to enter university campuses. So there's a stylized ritual of rioters launching potent explosives and police standing by like idiots. Eventually the police get the go-ahead to enter the university, and start brutalizing masked students, who often seek refuge in classrooms and other school buildings. Tear gas flies, a few token arrests are made, and the campus ends up beat to shit, with lots of radical left-wing graffiti everywhere.

I don't have a high opinion of these riots. I think it's a way for violent kids who grew up on sugared cereals and MTV to validate their worst impulses with a pseudo-political discourse. It doesn't effect any positive change in national policy, and it does put lives at danger. My wife knew a kid who got his foot blown off at eight years of age because he was walking home from school near the university.

Anyway, the day of the riot I had gotten to work late and not particularly motivated. Finally I was getting into the swing of things when the explosions got more frequent, the tear gas started wafting by, and I had to leave the campus. It really pissed me off. There I was trying to do what I think is important work to improve life for the peasantry of our state, and a bunch of violent, stupid kids playing Rambo forced me to interrupt my work.

A few days later though, I saw a video of a kid arrested during the riot. He was sitting on the ground, sobbing pathetically in his handcuffs, saying things like, "They hit me a lot!" and, "They took my phone. I've got all my contacts in there!" I didn't feel the police had acted inappropriately. The kid didn't seem too roughed up, at least no more than what you'd reasonably expect if you were running around in disguise, launching heavy explosives at the police. What touched me was how silly and helpless he was. It reminded me that he was still a kid in many respects. My grand rational discourses debating the coherence or the justice of his political agenda assume that I'm dealing with fully-conscious adults. But the video shows a scared kid who got in deeper than he'd expected. He was some guy's son, more than a budding terrorist.

After that I adopted more of a zen-like attitude about the whole issue of riots, police, students, and the like. I can never outright approve of violence from anyone. But the political class is trying to rob the public, rob students, rob our schools, so maybe a little symbolic violence is called for. In any case, the rioters are not the same students setting up marches and discussions.

Today was a huge, coordinated nationwide student march against the law. I scolded some students that were painting the walls outside the museum I work at, and after an initial xenophobic discourse on their part questioning my right to be in their country, the students proved themselves to be really coherent, progressive, thoughtful people. Certainly compared with the hooded idiots who like to go out and blow shit up, these were responsible, respectful kids. Sure they were defacing public property, but to them the walls are a forum for public speech. I don't share this interpretation of public space, but I can accept a certain internal coherence to it.

Here's a video released by a student group from the University of Antioquia. It makes a compelling argument for a different, more human vision for education in Colombia.

There's only one problem. The video asks us to support the student movement, but how? I'd like to see more explicit instructions or advice on how we citizens can help. For example, an effective measure that we often use in the US is identifying your representatives in Congress and calling them to make your desire heard. No matter how corrupt or cynical or manipulative a politician is, if enough constituents were to call expressing their opposition to the proposed education law, the politician would have to think very hard before voting in favor of it.

It's not hard. I found a website with names of all our Senators and Congressman in Boyaca state. And an important university has a database with contact and other info for all Congresspeople. I was amazed that no student leaders I've talked to had considered pursuing efforts to educate non-students about the issue and have them call their elected representatives.

At the same time as these student demonstrations have been exploding across the country, the public worker unions have been marching against what they see as President Santos's reneging on certain campaign promises. I don't know what the exact issues are, but the president can't be feeling too in control of things right now.

Our student movement in Colombia also mirrors, on a smaller scale, what's been going on in Chile for months now. Students there have occupied schools, demanding changes to the neoliberal, highly-privatized education system. This student movement has also had waves of violence and nonviolence, but it seems to have galvanized an entire nation around the demand for a more responsive, responsible government.

All this of course coincides with the occupation of Wall Street, which unites similar demands for a government more responsive to the people than to private capital. Through it all , I find myself feeling as if I'm on the wrong side of history in two different countries! I read about the historical processes going on in New York, and wish I could contribute somehow. At the same time, I see the students mobilizing outside my work, but I'm too busy with a million other obligations to take part. Am I to be nothing more than a grumpy, apathetic mook bemoaning the student movement, like one of those complacent conservatives who watched the 1960s pass by in the US?

Furthermore, I don't even know how I might contribute to either movement. Perhaps when I get back from my vacation next week I'll try to get in touch with the student movement at my university. I think I might make a valuable contribution, as a somewhat conservative outsider who can point out the logical weaknesses of their arguments and demands, and thus strengthen their platform so they can reach and gain the sympathy of the non-radical, non-student masses of our town.

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