Antifa’s disruption of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, again raises the question of direct action, particularly on college campuses. The “Unite the Right” event began with a parade of torch-wielding racists the night before at the University of Virginia, and Dr. Cornel West has credited anti-fascists with protecting unarmed clergy from the attacking bigots that night. Nonetheless, we are witnessing the rise of an ever more violent right emboldened by the support of the Trump administration, with neo-fascists like Richard Spencer openly declaring they are targeting colleges as their bases of operation. And yet again — like activists at Berkeley, Middlebury, Villanova and elsewhere — those who use direct action to disrupt race, class, gender and sexual oppression on their campuses are vilified. For instance, college student Takiyah Thompson was recently arrested on felony charges for having attached the rope that toppled a monument to the Confederacy. All of this raises the question: Who’s afraid of direct action?
University campuses have, on numerous occasions, been hotbeds of radical activism and coordinated direct action against US imperialism, institutionalized racism and a vast array of other forms of structural domination. However, judging by the united chorus of conservatives and liberals who have been vociferously disgruntled with the 2017 surge in direct actions on university campuses — including strikes and labor movements at Yale and elsewhere — many have decided that the era for such actions should be brought to a close.
Conservatives, by definition, want to conserve the extant systems of oppression, even if they sometimes prefer to conveniently ignore the patent fact that they are oppressive. Their resistance to direct action should come as no surprise since they want those systems to function as seamlessly as possible.
And yet strangely enough, many liberals, too, who so often commemorate direct action in the past — at least in its most asepticized forms — reject today’s campus uprisings as well.
Structural violence is rendered invisible precisely through its ubiquity, whereas direct action that calls out this violence by interrupting it is immediately seen and condemned as violent.
By burying direct actions in a sanitized past while simultaneously celebrating their effects, liberals would like to have the best of both worlds: They want to benefit from the boldness of others without having to do anything themselves. This, in fact, is often a crucial part of their Whig history, for they sometimes admit that direct action was necessary in the past (or in far-off lands) but, according to their self-congratulatory progress narrative, those were the old days, and times have changed. Liberal commemoration of direct action is thus best understood as a funeral procession.
Direct action is one of the most important and potent tools for demonstrating that, contrary to a widespread liberal fantasy, education does not take place in an ivory tower above the fray of systems of domination and violence. It works to unveil the ways in which the educational apparatus is intimately entangled with those systems, while also pointing out its role in indoctrinating students to fit as seamlessly as possible into a world of exploitation and oppression.
The power of direct action has been on full display over the last year or so as protesters on various campuses pulled back the veil on the ways that universities — claiming to be neutral spaces for “free discussion” — give corporate-funded, pseudo-intellectual reactionaries a privileged platform and military-style protection. These uprisings are only the most recent examples in a long tradition of educational direct action. In the 1980s, for example, student activists at Columbia University occupied the president’s office as part of a wider movement putting the spotlight on university complicity in apartheid. They were among those praised by Nelson Mandela as powerful actors in the defeat of the racist South African regime. Direct action has also shown us how universities profit from the global economic imperialism that generates college apparel, and it has highlighted universities’ continuing legacy of white supremacy.
Like sand poured into the gears of the mindless machine of “business as usual,” direct action can grind the conformist system to a halt and provide priceless opportunities to scrutinize the inner workings of this machine, including what drives it and what it produces. From administrators and staff to professors and students, many want to prevent this outbreak of critical thinking and active, experiential learning.
If indirect education cultivates acceptance of the status quo, direct action trains us to think for ourselves.
They have become so accustomed to the well-oiled machinery of the institutions of capitalist social reproduction and class triage that they experience any glitch in its smooth operation as an aberrant interruption. In fact, their misinformed belief that this machinery operates in ivory towers founded on an intellectual meritocracy frequently triggers the application of the scarlet letter of “violence” to any act that does not conform to the rules of business-as-usual.
The world is thereby turned upside-down according to a dialectic of violence that serves as one of the major defense mechanisms against critique. The structural violence of exclusionary and repressive institutions is rendered invisible precisely through its ubiquity, whereas direct action that calls out this violence by interrupting it is immediately seen and condemned as violent. Like state violence in general, institutionalized violence has a monopoly on invisibility. Its guard dogs only see violence in the acts of anyone who seeks to put a halt to it.
Yes, it will likely be uncomfortable for conservatives and liberals when activists challenge a corporate-sponsored white-supremacist promoter of eugenics, occupy a president’s office in the name of global justice, organize a hunger strike against oppressive labor practices, and in general, put their bodies on the line in radical acts of protest against institutionalized violence. Their inculcated feelings of allegiance to the systems that have produced them and from which they benefit should not, however, be allowed to be a bulwark against the collective educational opportunity provided by progressive direct action. They should be recognized for precisely what they are: A refusal to think.
The criminalization of dissent strives to mask the opposition between two modalities of education. For pedagogical and heuristic purposes, let us call the first education as indirect action, which is a form of cultural training and formatting that is implicit enough so as to not be readily visible to many of those who are subjected to it, and whose ultimate objective is the pacification of the masses. Made to be complicit, indirect actors, the “educated” are those who do not even see the institutional process of indoctrination of which they are a part, and who thereby remain oblivious to the larger forces that are actively pursuing their agenda through the extant institutions of education.
By contrast, education as direct action is education in action. If indirect education cultivates acceptance of the status quo, direct action trains us to think for ourselves. In fact, it is arguable that it alone can provide the kind of education that the Establishment so often claims to sell. Education, according to the contemporary administrative buzzwords, should be “active” and “experiential” — ideally through social “outreach” — so that it creates “critical thinkers” who question fundamentals.
The terror that conservatives and liberals alike feel in the face of direct action is the fear that education will finally make good on its promises.
And yet this is precisely what traditional, indoctrinating forms of education cannot provide, and what direct action offers in spades. By occupying a president’s office, shutting down life on campus with mock shantytowns, challenging the attack on public education funding and expelling racist ideologues, activists think critically about what so many want to ignore, and so begin to actively transform a world riddled with inequalities. The terror that conservatives and liberals alike feel in the face of direct action is the fear that education will finally make good on its promises.
The answer to the question, “Who’s afraid of direct action on campus?” should now be obvious: those inculcated by the indirect action of institutionalized indoctrination, as well as those who seek — usually through clandestine means and dark money — to use these institutions for their own reactionary agenda. They have much to learn from the coming intellectual insurrections and the intensifying waves of mobilization in the name of direct action education, which is an essential force against the increasingly aggressive right-wing cooptation of institutions of higher learning (which we have witnessed yet again at the University of Virginia and Charlottesville).
As founding members of the Radical Education Department, we are part of the national and international effort that generates such insurrections. Our aim is to develop and strengthen counter-institutions and forms of radical guerilla education that can be a constant force for transforming the systems of domination that schools help to reproduce. This project is rooted not only in our own actions at Villanova, but also in the long, inspiring and continuing history of experiments in radical education across the globe, from the American student activism of the 1960s to the socialist educational programs in Cuba, and from the massive Canadian student strikes of the new millennium to the Zapatista encuentros. Those who are afraid of direct action should be terrified that we could collectively and actively educate ourselves through the building of a new pedagogical order capable of transforming the world for the better.