Building power in the belly of the beast Radical organizing in a military county

|  YOUNG VOICES

By Fe Aguilar

It’s always windy at California State University, Monterey Bay. On May 6, 2024, the wind made flyers double over and flip-flap across the grass. Students ran after them, but the green, red, black and white flags stayed in place.

In the field at the main quad, a group of 10 were practicing yoga stretched under the blue sky. Another group of students were playing volleyball blasting rap music on a speaker.

Between them, a group of about 40 sat under a canopy discussing abolition and decolonization. Black and white keffiyehs on their heads or draped on their backs, the attendees sat in contemplation, discussing the forces of oppression while Bad Bunny’s “Safaera” played nearby. On the sidewalk, written in chalk or painted on signs, images of watermelons and slogans could be seen everywhere: “All eyes on Gaza,” “They use our money on slaughter!,” “75 años de opresión, muerte, y destrucción,” “No peace under occupation!”

This all-day event, the Rally for a Free Palestine, was organized by a CSUMB student group, the Abolitionist and Decolonial Learning Collective (ADLC). The scene at the quad was a microcosm of the activist environment of the university — a small enclave of radicals sandwiched between students simply going about their day. 

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The Monterey Bay can’t escape its military history. The Presidio of Monterey has been a military outpost since California was still part of the viceroyalty of New Spain. The Naval Postgraduate School, “where science meets the art of warfare,” sits inconspicuously across from Del Monte beach in Monterey. Less than three miles away, the Army has a Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, where “warfighters” can enjoy a “culturally based foreign language education.” The Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett, whose vision is to become “the premier total force training center,” is about an hour and a half south of CSUMB’s campus. Housed at the Army’s former Fort Ord base, the university also hasn’t completely shaken off its former personality: roads leading into campus still bear the names of military generals. 

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Monterey Bay has made itself a home to those who make careers out of war.

This entwined history with warfare gives a sharp edge to being an anti-war activist in the Monterey Bay. Being distant from the greater metropolises of the Bay Area and Los Angeles, any social justice movement in the area is up against the two-fold Goliath of the war industry and indifference — but this geography and history is also what radicalized some activists to fight their battles.

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Though not as documented as the area’s military history, Monterey Bay’s activism and social justice history are just as much a part of the cultural scenery as its beaches and regional parks.

The Salad Bowl Strike of 1970 was the largest farmworker strike in history and took place in the Salinas Valley. It resulted in billions of dollars in losses for the agricultural industry. 

In 1977 the radical eco-activist organization Environmental Life Force attempted to bomb seven crop duster planes at the Salinas airport for “violent and genocidal acts against Earth and Her creatures.” 

Famous radical theorist George Jackson was held at the Soledad prison, where he built support among the Black Panthers and other anti-war and anti-racist activists across the nation for his Marxist and Maoist writings. Jackson was part of a group of “Soledad Brothers,” who have been written about in Voices

Anti-pesticide activists have been making waves in the Monterey Bay for over four decades. More recently, the area is home to anti-racist activists of the Black Lives Matter movement, where rallies have been held since 2014. 

Today, the latest galvanizing political movement in the area is in support of Palestinian liberation. Community members gather every Friday in front of Salinas City Hall and every Sunday at the Window on the Bay park in Monterey to rally for a ceasefire and an end to the military occupation of Gaza.

It could be argued that people’s power and hope for a better future also led to the very existence of CSUMB. “There was this sense of idealism and progressive politics that the founders of the university really brought,” said Dr. María Villaseñor, vice dean of liberal arts at Sierra College and former professor in the Humanities and Communication Department at CSUMB.

Post-Cold War in 1994, the University obtained its land through a countrywide military decommissioning initiative known as the Base Realignment and Closure program, a fitting backdrop for the university’s aspirational origins. 

“The whole idea of founding a university where there used to be a military base, and where there was this history of peace, anti-war, and racial justice activism — CSUMB was born out of all of that,” Villaseñor said.

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Back in Gaza, on the same day as the Rally for Palestine, a ceasefire proposal was accepted by Palestinian armed group Hamas, and many Gazans celebrated the beginning of the end. 

Shortly after their acceptance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the deal didn’t meet military goals for the control of Gaza and defeat of Hamas. The ceasefire was rejected by the Israeli government and the bombs continued to drop. The Gaza death toll had reached nearly 35,000.

Meanwhile, Gaza solidarity encampments had been popping up at universities across the United States and around the world. Students said these encampments would remain until universities boycotted and divested from Israel’s War on Gaza, taking steps such as no longer accepting multi-million dollar endowments from weapons manufacturers, or ending study-abroad programs in Israel. The first Gaza Solidarity Encampment was established on April 17 at Columbia University, and by the third day over 100 students were arrested. The UCLA encampment began on April 28, and by May 2, over 200 people were arrested. By May 3, over 2,000 people nationwide had been arrested for involvement in university encampments or protests. 

The actions of professors and university staff have varied during this moment, with most opting to stay silent to avoid retaliation, and others putting their jobs at risk to voice support for, or even join the student protesters. 

“Faculty, students and staff are part of a community together. One of the reasons it’s important to unite is because these roles can shift, but we’re still members of the community regardless,” said Villaseñor, reflecting on the role of professors in student and social justice movements, “If we have commitments that are serious, then we need to stand by those commitments, no matter what our title is.”

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Members of ADLC know intimately what it is to organize politically at the otherwise sleepy college campus that rests on an Army base.

The May rally at CSUMB “really showed how far we’ve come in two years, to make a protest on an ‘apolitical’ campus,” said “Spam,” the ADLC’s president, who tabled throughout the event, talking to curious passersby. ADLC members requested to use aliases for their interviews. Spam is not this person’s real name.

“We are creating a space for students to be radical in their politics and beliefs,” Spam said. “But to be radical is still something that is sidelined.”

The ADLC is the campus’s most active radical group, founded in 2022 and growing ever since. From anti-tuition walkouts, to supporting faculty strikes, to rallying for Palestine, the 2023-2024 school year has been their busiest, with numerous actions planned through the last day of the semester.

“Our guiding principles are abolition of the police and state violence, such as getting police off of campus and educating ourselves on alternatives to the police. The second guiding principle is decolonization. We look to Indigenous communities for examples on how to live autonomously and without state-sanctioned violence,” said the ADLC president.

ADLC members have varying reasons for joining the fight on their campus: “The recent atrocities (in Gaza) have made it very obvious that the system we’re in is very oppressive. You get desensitized to it and think it’s just normal,” said a member who goes by the name of Soup.

“A lot of people try to be silent or ignore injustice, but I feel like if you’re fighting for something you might as well fight with the community…We have to depend on ourselves,” said Mimi, a newer member of the group.

Mikayla, another member, told Voices, “I think that’s why I like ADLC. Even though we are a more political-based group, we still focus on community.”

Members say the sense of community and the fight for a greater cause unites them to battle inequality inside and outside the university.

On the quiet campus, the rally of Palestine supporters broke both the silence and expectations of the ostensibly non-radical university. “If no one cares, nothing will happen,” said Soup. “We have to be an example of the better world that we want.”

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About Young Voices

Young Voices Media Project teaches Monterey Bay area teens multimedia skills to report the news from their communities. This project was generously supported by the Clare Giannini Fund.