Ming DeMers / Sun Senior Photo

May 19, 2024

ELF | The Spring Encampment: Failed Revolution or the Only Way to Live? (ft. Spencer Beswick)

Print More

There was never revolutionary potential in the Liberated Zone. I wrote in April that there were always two likely outcomes: that Martha Pollack would dismantle the encampment outright, as police did at Columbia and UCLA, or that she would trust in the existing cultural order to prevent the demonstration from reaching any sort of leveraged position in negotiations. Pollack’s stall tactics succeeded — ahead of the summer recess, the Coalition for Mutual Liberation called an end to the encampment last week. 

That my piece received heartfelt recognition from within and outside of the encampment should indicate some acceptance by proponents of the Liberated Zone that the demonstration would fail. Did it mean nothing, then? Was it a disingenuous attempt by privileged Ivy League students to virtue signal, with little concern for its success? This is a suspiciously convenient (and condescending) interpretation. Disenfranchisement appears antithetical to privilege, and it is hard to question the genuinity of a person’s struggle for autonomy in their own political life. CML proved that the Cornell student body has little authority over what is done with its tuition. There is only one political position that matters at Cornell: the bottom line

Our campus community is publicly known for its isolationist culture. We are known to cheat, sabotage and suffer for our long-term employment. We are known to endure this depressing silence through long winters. Each of us implicitly accepts these conditions to earn a valuable degree. Here, I am doing exactly what student organizers across the country advise against — to find virtue in the movement in terms of its own locales, and not in its value for Palestine. But I think that the term mutual liberation is essential here: Our own disenfranchisement is inexplicably tied to genocide. Our student body, for once, united to vote against our University’s complicity in the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. The administration ignored us. 

From Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone:

The sixties-style … party is always “open” because it is not “ordered”; it may be planned, but unless it “happens” it’s a failure. The element of spontaneity is crucial.

The essence of the party: face-to-face, a group of humans synergize their efforts to realize mutual desires, whether for good food and cheer, dance, conversation, the arts of life … or else, in Kropotkin’s terms, a basic biological drive to “mutual aid.”

In the early days of the encampment, I spent most of my time on the Arts Quad. What I discovered is something that Hannah Arendt, in an interview included in her Crises of the Republic, had noticed in the student protest movement of the sixties:

[Q]uite rare in what is usually considered a mere power or interest play, another experience new for our time entered the game of politics: It turned out that acting is fun. … [W]hen man takes part in public life he opens up for himself a dimension of human experience that … in some way constitutes a part of complete ‘happiness.’

To step over that fence felt liberating, like I had stepped from a callous, alienating world into one of mutual understanding and purpose. The encampment’s inhabitants danced in a way that seemed to celebrate freedom, not to spite their lack of it. They established a People’s Library, which activist Emily Vo ’25 describes as a form of mutual aid wherein students were free to donate and borrow books without a permanent record of their activity. There, I read a zine dedicated to the memory of Aaron Bushnell, a late mutual friend by way of Levi. This was a public community where students fed and educated themselves on their own terms. For 18 days, they lived a freedom and mutual trust that is otherwise rare to find on this campus. Where it failed as a political demonstration, the encampment succeeded as a celebration of human agency. And a cultural moment like this lasts as an impact on our lives, on our memories, for much longer than it does in physical space. 

On the eighth day of the Liberated Zone, I interviewed Prof. Spencer Beswick about the encampment in the historical context of anarchist protest movements. This is the full-length interview, if you have the time to listen:

Here, Beswick describes how the Occupy Wall Street movement refused to list demands: “[F]or folks on the ground in Occupy, it was the actual occupation itself that was the demand. ‘This is the new world that we want to see. There is nothing that the government can give us that is going to satisfy what we want.’” Admittedly, this was not the modus operandi of the CML encampment. But I think it explains why its participants could justify their demonstration knowing that the University would not take them seriously — the encampment itself was a model for a better way of life. 

Sun Columnist Hugo Amador ’24 warns, in agreement with Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno, that this kind of student protest can turn repressive. Now that the encampment is over, we are left to wonder where we witnessed any such repression. Does repression look like good-faith negotiation and direct democracy? I am more inclined to recognize it in the scare tactics waged by the administration, i.e. suspensions which risked the eviction and deportation of some students. I am dumbfounded by Adorno’s position — it seems discontinuous with the dialectical science that he champions. It does not make sense to me that he could at once recognize the historical importance of societal contradictions but also whine when one such contradiction emerges in his own milieu. Despite the scientific determinism prescient of a good Hegelian (or maybe a bad one; I haven’t read Negative Dialectics and now fear to do so), he apparently could not foresee what the status quo would become — an epitomization of the repressive qualities already present in the liberalism against which his students protested. He reminds me of the white moderate in Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Our current situation is one of unkempt violence, masked by order. It is violent by way of order: the maintenance of laws and institutions that ensure poverty and permit the bombing of innocent civilians. Each day that we peacefully go about our excessive lives in the heart of empire, we abide by the murder of 200 human beings. An encampment on our Arts Quad cannot be made equivalent to the violence affirmed by its critics. To do anything other than protest (i.e. to declare a new way of life) is to accept the violent terms of civil existence in our country and university. How can we claim to care about humanity when we do not act in solidarity with humankind — Israeli, Palestinian or otherwise — against harming itself?

I wonder who is culpable here. Is it the disobedient protester who fails to make change, who at least expresses their dissatisfaction with the way that their social being is exploited for the slaughter of others? Is it the genocide denialist who mocks their failure? Or, worse, is it the “pragmatic” realpolitik-er who recognizes genocide but still speaks against immediate action? The Liberated Zone is gone but for me nothing has changed. We knew that the encampment would never succeed but that need not mean it was fruitless. At least we understand, now, that there is a better way to live on this campus.

Eric Han is a co-editor of the Arts & Culture Department at the Cornell Daily Sun. He can be reached at [email protected].

Elfbar Ideology is a recurring series. Part Four is available now.