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A G A I N S T the D A Y

Amanda Armstrong

States of Indebtedness: Care Work in the

Struggle against Educational Privatization

We die and become architecture.

—Lisa Robertson, “Utopia”

​Lisa Robertson proposes a singular relationship of bodies and buildings.1

Our bodies pass from life to death and in the process flow into building
materials. In other words, we are spent and become real estate.
An aphorism of the present, perhaps. With foreclosures metastasiz-
ing and with students in California being forced further into debt to finance
the construction of sporting arenas and science labs, it is hard not to feel
that the substance of our lives is being withdrawn from us and deposited
in so many boarded-­up or newly built edifices. Such an experience of sepa-
ration from, and subordination to, the built environment has helped spur
recent acts of protest along the Pacific coast, including a wave of university
student strikes and building occupations in the fall of 2009.
In reclaiming campus buildings, we students stitched ourselves to
the structures through which we daily pass, interrupting the antagonism
we have come to feel toward these durable facades. The sharpest provoca-
tion came on November 19, 2009, when the UC Board of Regents voted
to increase undergraduate tuition by 32 percent and to lay off nearly two
thousand campus service workers. In the months leading up to the vote, we
learned from Bob Meister, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, that the regents
were raising tuition as part of an effort to prevent the university’s bond
rating from dropping.2 By maintaining the system’s “AA+” rating and by
pledging tuition as collateral, campus administrators have been able to con-

The South Atlantic Quarterly 110:2, Spring 2011

DOI 10.1215/00382876-1162588 © 2011 Duke University Press
Armstrong • States of Indebtedness 547

tinue taking out low-­interest bonds for new construction projects, from
sporting facilities to administrative offices. Students, on the other hand,
have been made to take out even larger loans, ensuring that, upon graduat-
ing, we will exhaust ourselves for decades on a treadmill of debt. In raising
our tuition, the regents mortgaged our futures for buildings that leave
us cold.
Student protest against the regents’ project of accumulation by dis-
possession has taken a variety of forms across UC campuses, from work
stoppages and walkouts to building occupations and hunger strikes.
Despite this range of tactics, however, the student movement has some-
times been identified narrowly with the practice of seizing and barricad-
ing buildings, which reflects the partial success that a loose network of left
communist and insurrectionist students and professors have had in shap-
ing and interpreting student dissent. Calling on students to “occupy every-
thing,” and “demand nothing,” this group has presented the barricading
of buildings as both a means for blocking the regular circulation of bodies
through campus—and thus a form of strike enforcement—and also as an
end in itself, insofar as occupied buildings are uncontrolled by police or
university administrators and offer fleeting, yet potentially generalizable
sites of autonomous, horizontal decision making.
While the insurrectionist project of spreading occupations without
demands has had some success—approximately a dozen university build-
ings were barricaded across California through the fall of 2009—this project
has also had its limitations. Slowed by aggressive administrative prosecu-
tion, including threatened seven-­month suspensions for those occupying
buildings, the tactic of barricading buildings has also come under scrutiny
from some activists concerned with movement democracy, as building rec-
lamations have generally been planned in secret.
Additionally, as the following account of the Wheeler Hall occupa-
tion indicates, these events often have been carried out in ways that do not
wholly fit the script articulated in occupationist manifestos such as “Com-
muniqué from an Absent Future.”3 For instance, about half the occupations
at California public universities have involved issuing demands to campus
administrators, indicating that many participants understand these events
more as engagements with existing nodes of institutional power than as
messages in a bottle for a postcapitalist future. And yet, in retrospect, it’s
hard to deny that the wave of building reclamations that surprised Califor-
nia in the fall of 2009 offered compelling glimpses of what it might feel like
to inhabit differently the spaces and times of our lives.
548 The South Atlantic Quarterly • Against the Day • Spring 2011

On the day after the regents’ vote, forty-­three students at UC Berke-

ley barricaded ourselves inside Wheeler Hall, the Eng­lish literature build-
ing, while thousands of students and workers outside maintained impass-
able picket lines and pressured police barricades. The occupation had been
voted on the night before at a general assembly made up of students and
workers, and followed a two-­day cross-­sectoral strike called to coincide with
the regents’ meeting.
The daylong reclamation of Wheeler Hall temporarily altered the
quality of our relationship with university property. Fire doors became
shields that protected us against arrest. A classroom was turned into a space
to formulate and share our demands with the public at large. Wooden desk
chairs were used in makeshift barricades. An open window became a por-
tal for food and contact with those outside. The doors of Wheeler Hall, first
gripped at dawn, shook until six in the afternoon, when they finally gave.
Later, as we sat on our cuffed, tired hands and classroom doors framed
swaggering bodies in blue, the ceiling looked twice as distant as it had just
a few hours before.

“We die and become architecture.” The valence of this phrase is perhaps
reversible. Our “deaths” need not be wholly negative, and architecture
might become in unexpected ways.
On the day of its occupation, Wheeler Hall underwent a process of
becoming; its wooden doors and desks executed an about-­face. At the same
time, our bodies came to feel skeletal. Shaken since dawn on the doors,
our bones endured a rattling reminiscent of early train travel. We were
exposed: to police threats coming through open crevices (“get ready for the
beat down”), to the effects of actions taken by those locked in with us, and
as bodies radically dependent on the care of others. It was only because stu-
dents and workers outside the building were committed, in the face of billy
clubs, rain, and rubber bullets, to block police vehicles and push back when
barricades were thrust in their chests, that we avoided jail that night. When
we were released, exhausted, from Wheeler, gentle hands and hugs guided
us through an ensemble of bodies that had, until then, been compelled to
care for us from a distance. The shells of our guarded bodies dissolved that
day, exposing our shared substance.
How such care and solidarity materialized remains somewhat inex-
plicable. A list of partially determining factors could be enumerated: stu-
dents were outraged at tuition increases and many of them had friends
Armstrong • States of Indebtedness 549

or instructors locked in Wheeler, professors knew students who were in

the building, and union members saw our demand that recently laid-­off
custodial workers be rehired as an act of solidarity to be reciprocated. Yet
no balance sheet can account for the manifestations of care and support
that crisscrossed and remade Wheeler Hall that day. Many exposed them-
selves to harm on behalf of strangers. Previously nonpolitical students
dragged potted plants into doorways to hinder police movements. Workers
at nearby restaurants sent food for free. Some sort of unbound desire was
at work—a desire to care and to press our collective demands that exceeded
the logics of exchange and calculation governing economic bonds.
Yet, if the bonds of care stitched through acts of protest often exceed
expectations or thwart retrospective explanation, they nevertheless have
their limits. Like buildings, such bonds require maintenance.

In all forms of cohabitation, feeding, cleaning, caring and every aspect of daily
routine must be reciprocal gestures.
—Rivolta Femminile

The category of care work, when employed critically, often has a dual
valence. As a form of labor that historically has appeared not as labor but as
the “natural” activity of women, particularly working-­class and colonized
women, and for this reason has been an effective medium of exploitation,
it seems to be something worth overcoming. But as a form of labor that
eludes total capture by the state or by capital and that is potentially genera-
tive of a noninstrumental sociality, it appears as the ground of an alterna-
tive social order. A satisfactory account of recent struggles against educa-
tional privatization would necessarily consider care work in both of these
dimensions, rather than merely focusing, as above, on its emancipatory
Exploitative forms of care work frequently fall out of the frame in
representations of the university. As it is currently constituted, though, the
university lives off such labor: each day, any given classroom is attended to
by a sequence of overworked instructors and is cleaned at night by a custo-
dial worker making less than a living wage. An elaborate process of trans-
porting, preparing, and serving food, involving thousands of workers—
mostly people of color—daily sustains the bodies of those who consider
themselves members of a merely intellectual community. If professors and
students commonly find it possible to give little thought to the workers
550 The South Atlantic Quarterly • Against the Day • Spring 2011

who spend the temporal substance of their lives making campus build-
ings appear untouched by time, the bonds built in the course of last year’s
cross-­sectoral movement against privatization gradually helped undercut
this willful disregard, at least for a fraction of students and professors.
Such bonds were tested in May 2010, when, during a ten-­day hunger
strike led by Latino and Chicano students, the administration attempted to
entice those on strike to abandon their demand for the rehiring of union
activists by promising concessions on student-­related demands. This
attempt at dividing students from workers was effectively resisted by those
hunger strikers who had participated in the Wheeler occupation and who
had recently seen union locals undertake actions—including a boycott of
commencement—to block the extended suspensions such students faced
for having occupied a building.
Having realized, through practice, the interests they shared with
campus workers, active students were perhaps more receptive to otherwise
counterintuitive analyses of their own structural position—analyses that
presented debt-­financed higher education as proletarianizing, or that con-
sidered students’ peripheral relation to the sphere of production as a mark
of their proximity to the post-­Fordist working class.4 But if student activists
came to better appreciate their simultaneous dependence on, and prox-
imity to, exploitative care labor, this did not always prevent them from natu-
ralizing, and under-­socializing, such labor within their own organizations
and actions.
Before the occupation of Wheeler Hall, for instance, much work was
done to determine how best to secure the doors of the building, but the task
of providing legal information and compiling emergency contact numbers
for those of us in the building fell to a single individual at the last minute.
Had she not intervened, those who most cared about us might not have been
informed had we been sent to jail. A similar pattern repeated itself, albeit
on a larger scale, on March 4, 2010, a national Day of Action in defense of
public education, when a couple hundred protesters shut down an inter-
state highway in Oakland. Again, protest organizers took care to ensure
that they had the necessary flares to stop traffic but paid little attention to
the question of how those who decided at the spur of the moment to join
the highway blockade would be able to avoid getting separated from other
protesters, including medics, and would receive necessary forms of sup-
port during and after their time in jail. Much of this work fell to an affinity
group, made up primarily of women and transgender people of color, that
formed at the last minute to try and fill gaps in the provision of care.
Armstrong • States of Indebtedness 551

Over and over, actions that involved some level of risk were elabo-
rately planned, but the work of minimizing or treating the harm faced by
participants was largely neglected or fell to individuals, mostly women,
only peripherally involved in planning. Belatedly, this pattern became the
topic of public critique within the student movement, and much work—
in the form of training and further intervention—remains if the labor of
care attendant on acts of opposition is not to become another exploitative
burden, unevenly distributed.5 Without such work, the movement against
educational privatization risks replicating, in certain respects, the state it
seeks to oppose—a state that is aggressively reprivatizing the labor of social
reproduction through cuts to social welfare, child care, and mental health
programs. If care work has thus too often been under-­valued and unevenly
distributed among student activists, a different sort of trouble has attended
some professors’ attempts at caring for student protesters.
Outside Wheeler Hall, our students, coworkers, and professors
worked throughout the day to determine how best to support us and one
another. And while nearly all the decisions made that day were animated
by a desire to care, some professors found themselves awkwardly arrayed
across the line that divided caring attempts to reduce harm from attempts
to eradicate altogether, in a paternalistic mode, students’ exposure to harm.
For many of their students, the salient question was which way professors
faced when standing against police barricades—in line with the police or in
line with the crowd.
While the occupation of Wheeler Hall helped form bonds of soli-
darity and shared sentiment between students and workers, this event and
the polemics that followed infused relations between students and pro-
fessors with significant tension. Whether due to transferential dynamics
or simply to the divergent structural positions these groups occupy in the
university, it has often been difficult for mutually respectful collaborations,
made up of reciprocal gestures, to be maintained between active students
and professors. This is not simply the fault of faculty members, though, as
students have occasionally imagined solidarity as something of a one-­way
street, wherein we decide on tactics and professors are enjoined to carry
these tactics out. To the extent that effective collaborations between stu-
dents and professors have materialized over the past year, they have been
predicated on the recognition that heterogeneous tactics, when pursued
in concert by actors differently located in the university, can advance a
struggle with which we all variously identify.
If effective opposition to the privatization and resegregation of higher
552 The South Atlantic Quarterly • Against the Day • Spring 2011

education is to take shape in the coming years—if we are to see extended

work stoppages and fee strikes in response to reductions in minority enroll-
ment and tuition hikes—such cross-­sectoral collaboration will need to
become widespread and more effective. A whole system of mutual aid will
have to be worked out, so that if students are disenrolled for acts of civil
disobedience or for withholding their tuition, they will be able to continue
taking classes and having access to housing, and so that forceful opposi-
tion and direct support will emerge in response to the firing of workers or
the disciplining of professors. Perhaps, over the coming years, students,
workers, and professors will begin to build the organizational capacity and
bonds of care that could underwrite the construction of a free, collectively
run university with open admissions. Were such a university to materialize,
campus buildings would no longer be treated as property to be guarded or
capital to be efficiently employed but rather as public goods to be put to use
in ways that are determined by, and that call forth, our collective passions.
We would no longer suffer so much for the sake of architecture.

Much of this essay’s conceptual architecture is drawn from a collaborative piece written in
the aftermath of the Wheeler occupation: Paul Nadal and Amanda Armstrong, “Building
Times: How Lines of Care Occupied Wheeler Hall,” Reclamations 1 (December 2009), www
1 Lisa Robertson, “Utopia,” Rousseau’s Boat (Vancouver: Nomados, 2004), 21.
2 Bob Meister, “Where Does UC Tuition Go?” Reclamations 1 (November 2009), www; and Bob
Meister, “They Pledged Your Tuition,” Council of UC Faculty Associations, www.cucfa
.org/news/2009_oct11.php (accessed November 1, 2010).
3 Anonymous, “Communiqué from an Absent Future: On the Terminus of Student
Life” (2009),­absent-­future (accessed October 20,
4 Ibid.; and Jasper Bernes, “The Double Barricade and the Glass Floor,” Reclamations 2
(April 2010),
5 See, for example, Silvia Federici et al., “Political Work with Women and as Women
in the Present Conditions: Interview with Silvia Federici,” Reclamations 3 (December
2010),; and Amanda Arm-
strong et al., “Direct Action as Feminist Practice,” Reclamations 2 (April 2010), www

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