A Letter From Black Rose Militants in California Public Universities to Our Colleagues

As members of grad student union UAW 4811 across the University of California begin voting in a unfair labor practice strike authorization in response to the encampment crackdown, members of BRRN who work in California universities drafted the following statement.

We write to you as our California-based campuses join the ongoing encampment campaigns at American universities in opposition to the Western and Zionist belligerence against Palestinian personhood and homeland. We have spent seven months bearing witness to the horror.

Yet we also celebrate and learn from Palestinian resilience, incorporating their lessons into our actions of solidarity.

Despite university administrators’ and politicians’ best efforts to conceal it, Palestinian solidarity has been at the heart of a long history of resistance in California. 

As is true for the rest of the so-called United States, California was founded on a genocidal settler colonial campaign. This began with the Gold Rush. While the US military waged a campaign of “Indian removal” in the interior of this country – including a war to annex northern Mexico – California’s late 19th Century settlement was facilitated by vigilante “bounty hunters” who received monetary prizes for every native person they killed. This assured that the riches of the Gold Rush would be enjoyed strictly by white settlers. Connections between California history, the U.S., and the Middle East become even clearer when we consider that Middle East oil has long been referred to as “black gold.”

Just two years after the extreme violence of the Gold Rush, the California State University (CSU) system was founded in 1857 and the University of California (UC) followed in 1868. California public universities have long been tied to the interests of empire and settler colonialism, particularly through cutting edge military innovation. In fact, military spending played a key role in developing the California economy since the WWII era. In 2022, California received $56.2 billion dollars of defense spending. The Department of Defense (DoD) controls over 3 million acres of land and employs just under 273 thousand civilians, active military, and reservists in California.

That same year, UC campuses received upwards of $290 million in Department of Defense contracts. More money continues to move through Los Alamos National Laboratory, which remains under the co-gestion of UC, Texas A&M, and a group of private nuclear-committed firms. 

Military funding is not relegated strictly to the R-1 UC system either. For example, a research team at CSU Northridge received a $530K DoD grant to investigate augmented reality as a bizarre technological fix to help minoritized populations grow “psychological resilience” in the face of what we see as structural problems.

Moreover, the California State University system invests over a billion dollars in corporations benefiting from the siege in Gaza (A breakdown of the report can be found here).

But such a dystopian reality of a military-industrial-academic complex has never gone without resistance from us, the students and workers who make the institution run. Notably, the UC saw a massive student uprising from 1964-65 when the Berkeley campus banned anti-Vietnam War demonstrations on campus. Some protest manifestations saw as many as 800 students arrested.  Not only were students before us opposed to the war itself, but also to UC involvement in the war industry. This image below is from 1971, when our predecessors at Cal mapped out the military presence on campus. 

Source: Boston Rare Maps

At that time, we discovered an alleged $11 million in defense contracts on campus and more than $250 million at Los Alamos National Laboratory (Santa Fe, NM) and other UC-affiliated labs. Even Zoology and Entomology were apparently in the military’s pocketbooks, receiving $16,395 and $27,000 in blood money respectively. 

Ultimately, that 1960s student movement was crushed as part of a broader state terror campaign against the New Left, including the American Indian Movement, Black Power movement, Chicano movement, and Puerto Rican independence movement, among others, that were in dialogue with and informed by the broader Third Worldist tradition, to which the Palestinian cause also belongs. 

This recent wave of struggle began 15 years ago, when the neoliberal project seized a moment of global financial crisis to shock our universities with austerity cuts and subsequent fee hikes. We at the UC and our comrades at California State University (CSU) schools took over buildings in opposition to 32% and 30% tuition hikes in the respective public university systems. When students at UCLA took over Campbell Hall and renamed it Carter-Huggins Hall–after two members of the Black Panthers shot dead on campus in 1969–the Palestinian flag was there. 

When UCSD students claimed CLICS library–one of 4 being closed down on campus in 2012–the Palestinian flag was there.

We have seen a growing wave of labor militancy on our campus, led by graduate academic student-workers (colloquially, Teaching Assistants). We organized our first TA strike in 2013. We followed our successful contract struggle by becoming the first local of a US-based union to pass a Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) resolution in 2014, only to be overridden by Democrat-party affiliated bureaucrats who direct the United Autoworkers from Detroit. The Palestinian flag was there.

In 2019, we launched a wildcat strike at UC Santa Cruz that was brutally repressed by police, leaving some 80+ workers fired. As militancy spread to campuses from San Diego to Davis, UC police collaborated with the National Guard to track activity. The longhaul strike won an increase in wages and forced the university bosses to rehire all those who had been fired, but fell short of achieving the movement’s core demand: a cost-of-living-adjustment to salaries that leave instructors paying on average 70% of their income to cover rent. Throughout it, militants demanded that support for Palestinian liberation make its way into our demands. The Palestinian flag was there.

Then, the student-workers’ combative spirit grew amongst professors UC-wide as well, especially amongst Lecturers who labor on average for just above minimum wage. In 2020, UC professors worked alongside students to launch the Cops Off Campus campaign to bring the broader struggle against policing into the institutions where we work and study. Inspired by the Movement for Black Lives, we reaffirmed our position: abolish the police. Not only did we call for police abolition, but also for demilitarization of the universities. We salute Palestinians for having accompanied our abolitionist movement with recent ties stretching back to the Ferguson, Missouri uprising of 2014 as well as to prior movements in the legacy of the Black Freedom Struggle, such as that against apartheid South Africa. The Palestinian flag was there.

Many of us in the public school system–whether students, faculty, or staff–come from non-white, working class families who share a history of structural violence enacted upon us and our ancestors in the name of ongoing displacement, segregation, empire, and genocide. 

These are our stories, and the stories of our families. Look no further than the apartheid wall that divides San Diego-Tijuana and the IDF-informed ports of entry for a recent piece of evidence. We are proud to tell our stories alongside that of Palestinian resistance and we are informed by the novel works of Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, and Nur Masalha, among others. Certainly, imperial efforts to silence, censor, and kill our Palestinian colleagues and teachers have ensured that many more important thinkers have not been able to reach us. We resist this epistemic violence and affirm our responsibility to demonstrate how our struggles connect.

In our classrooms, we cannot discuss Black Power without talking about Palestine. 

We cannot discuss Chicano History without talking about Palestine. 

We cannot discuss Native resistance without talking about Palestine. 

We cannot discuss global feminism without talking about Palestine. 

Since the 1960s, students and academic workers have fought for space to include decolonial history and theory into the curriculum, including the successful efforts of the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of CSU/UC student groups who went on strike in order to establish Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. Ethnic Studies then spread throughout the CSU/UC systems and is now embedded in K-12 education in California as a requirement for graduation. Current campus uprisings take note of these genealogies of struggle and reflect a nationwide cultural shift in the American university from which there is no return. 

But liberatory momentum rarely goes uncontested. As the university winds up repression against staff, students, and faculty acting in solidarity with Palestinians, we emphatically echo the calls for our coworkers and classmates to strike in the face of the growing militarization of our work and study space. 

Such calls have come not only from below, from the voices of students and rank-and-file union militants. After university bosses sicced police on us at the UCLA encampment, union leadership filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) against the hostile working conditions, opening the doors for a sanctioned strike. On May 13-15, 48,000 postdocs, academic researchers, student researchers, teaching assistants, tutors, and readers at the UC will cast their ballots in a strike authorization vote.

Those of us in UAW 4811 endorse a yes vote during this strike authorization period. As well, we urge other rank-and-file members of our union to impress upon members of the union executive board that this package of demands can only be met through strike action. Additionally we urge rank-and-file members to organize departmental townhalls in preparation for a work stoppage.

Those of us who are UC-AFT lecturers commit to joining our UAW 4811 colleagues on the picket line and refuse to aid or abet retaliation against those on strike.

Those of us in other parts of the California system of higher education, particularly the California State University (CSU) system commit to joining our colleagues at UC institutions on the picket line.

The struggle on the campuses opened by the student movement has shown its immense resolve. It is time for us, as academic workers whose labor the university relies upon, to open a new front in this fight.

We intend to strike not only over our institution’s complicity in the occupation of Palestine, but with the historical memory of its role in the war crimes in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, Somalia, Granada, Guatemala, and many more. North America’s legacy is one of creating and spreading a Taylorist model for the production of death world over. In our universities–which are perhaps small but lucrative R&D sites in this production line–we can build the power to refuse this work.

If you enjoyed this content we recommend the article Deep Organizing Against Genocide: Palestine and Rooted Social Movements and BRRN’s collective statement Stop the Genocide in Gaza! End the War on Palestine!