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Raspberry Ratified: But have such Berkeley student votes ever accomplished anything?

September 12, 2013

Janet Napolitano may have earned the support of the UC Board of Regents, but at Berkeley, the Associated Students of the University of California are not so easily swayed.

Convening for their weekly meeting, the student senators of ASUC have offered their collective assessment of the UC system’s controversial new president. And, lo, the former Homeland Security chief has been found wanting.

Senate Bill 2, which passed unanimously Wednesday night, fell just short of an unconditional “no confidence” vote—instead the elected representatives of the Berkeley student body politic decided to issue Napolitano a list of demands. Each of these demands is accompanied by a specific deadline, the last of which expires in the third week of October. Failure to meet these deadlines, the bill concludes, will result in an automatic vote of no confidence from Berkeley’s ASUC.

You’ve been warned, Napolitano.

Of course, with the fix long since in on Napolitano’s hire and with the Berkeley legislative body lacking an army to enforce its will, a skeptic has to wonder: just what exactly does the ASUC’s confidence count for, anyway?

According to Sean Tan, the third-year economics undergrad who authored SB 2, while the ASUC might not accomplish much more in this case than expressing its institutional displeasure, the students’ senate floor is a uniquely prominent forum on campus for airing otherwise unaired grievances. “As an undocumented student myself, I want to represent those students who still feel marginalized and, in a larger sense, to push for student participation,” he told us.

Berkeley isn’t flying solo here—student senators at UC Irvine passed a straight “no confidence” vote in Napolitano last week, although a similar measure was rejected last week by the student assembly of the entire University of California system. But only Berkeley’s student senate opted to issue Napolitano a nine-part ultimatum.

The Berkeley-approved bill challenges Napolitano, who stepped down as the nation’s top cop on immigration enforcement last week, to make the state-wide system less hostile to undocumented students. To wit, the bill calls upon Napolitano to hold town hall meetings with undocumented student organizations, organize annual UC Police Department training tutorials on the legal rights of all students regardless of immigration status, and to reassert each UC campus as a “sanctuary and safe space for undocumented students.”

“It’s important for our student government to ensure that the administration is accountable to students,” said Tan. “That’s especially true when it comes to policies that are enacted at our university and throughout the UC campuses.”

Blowing what amounts to a ratified raspberry at the new UC head, in other words, is more than just empty symbolism to supporters. These kinds of motions channel the voices of those who aren’t often listened to while engendering “a bigger conversation” about issues often ignored—both on campus and off.

Over the last few decades, there have been plenty of big conversations within the ASUC, which has become a familiar forum for the staking of frequently symbolic positions. The most recent and notably heated topic on which the senate has decided to weigh in: divestment from Israel and from its alleged enablers in the multinationally corporate sector. In recent memory, the student legislators have also voted to divest—or called upon the university to pull its own cash—from fossil fuel companies, the government of Sudan, and “the prison-industrial complex.”

Beyond financial protest, issues ranging from fair trade to conflict minerals to Occupy to affirmative action have all raised the hackles of the ASUC Senate.

And at least sometimes, the ASUC proves itself ahead of the political curve, a notable example being its opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

The results of these many resolutions, as one might expect from any university student assembly, have been decidedly mixed—and may depend on how one defines success. Last year’s vote calling on the UC system to divest from companies affiliated with the Israeli military garnered nothing more than a short written response from the then-chancellor and a sporadic flash of international media attention, particularly from conservative outlets. Even last week, the move to table Tan’s no confidence vote for review by the ASUC Senate’s external affairs committee—a mundane procedural move within a college student government—drew coverage from the Washington Times.

By some standards, that could certainly be considered engendering “a bigger conversation.” But by others, the controversies that often accompany these votes follow a typical—and typically unproductive—trajectory.

“I think it’s lazy journalism,” says Matteen Mokalla, a former ASUC senator who now works for Aljazeera. “ASUC passes something, then you get the media which goes, ‘Oh, Berkeley doing something crazy, here they go again.’ ”

The perhaps anachronistic reputation of Cal as a hotbed of radical agitation, says Mokalla, often allows ASUC motions to act as short-hand for the current state of progressive, college-kid attitudes.

Mokalla says that he doesn’t want to discredit the actual value the ASUC provides on campus—he recalls using his power as senator to fix a scheduling snafu for an intramural hockey team: “doing the people’s work!” But as for the obligatory staking out of positions within the senate, and the arguably bloated sense of standing it receives as the result of frenzied media coverage, “It’s just pretty silly.”

But even if the internecine conflicts within the ASUC over, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are inflated in value by an unthinking press corps, such coverage, regardless of its motivation, does at least get people talking.

That’s the view of David Lance Goines, an artist who chronicled the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in a 1993 book. “They’ve come a long way,” he says  of the ASUC’s vote on Napolitano. “They did not participate beneficially during the Free Speech Movement.

“But they seem to be playing a different role now.”

According to Goines, who said he would welcome a no confidence vote against Napolitano, that role of registering dismay in a singularly conspicuous way on campus is “a start. If nothing else, I think this could give more courage to those in the faculty who would otherwise be reluctant to speak up,” he said. “I’m glad to hear that this has engaged some students to stand up for themselves. Any kind of voice that speaks up has got to be a good thing.”

—Ben Christopher

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