A Very Civil Disobedience

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By Cheryl Brinkman ’86

Since the earthquake, Alderwood Hall houses institutional advancement and public relations offices. Student blockaders call this outpost on the edge of campus “Alcatraz Hall.”

What if the women had a revolution and everyone came? And what does one wear to a protest?

The Class of 1990 from Mills College conferred quite a few degrees in such areas as civil disobedience and rabble rousing, not to mention subversive activities, at the May 20 commencement. All read aloud to the audience and applauded in a graduation run not by the administration, but by the students. It was a just end to the two weeks the students had spent disrupting the college they loved; the college they were determined to save from the hapless anonymity to which a coed future would doom Mills. These non-traditional minors were earned and well deserved from a two-week strike very much unlike the wonders of Swiss mechanism that corporate organizations strive for, but a strike that was organized along more humane lines, organized with respect for everyone in mind.

On the evening of May 14, about 150 students were in the Student Union; scattered around at blockades were more. A small Asian woman wearing cut-off Levis and with long hair was informing the group that consideration must be taken for those students in wheelchairs.

“If you are blockading a building with wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, fine. If not, two attendants must be appointed to assist wheelchair-bound students. If you sign up to be an attendant you are responsible for that student. If you need to leave the blockade for any reason you must find someone to replace you as an attendant.” She went on. “Blockade leaders should make sure the blockade is covered at all times. We’re having problems with shifts changing. You need to make a list of all your blockaders and their time commitments. The Cowell blockade has been very successful at this. Their blockade leader is here to tell you how she is handling the shift problems.”

The blockade consultant rose and explained how she had simply obtained a large piece of paper, got everyone ‘s names, the times they were blockading, and phone numbers. If people don’t show up, call them. They’re probably asleep. It’s easy, just do it. Post the list so everyone knows who is going to be there.” She went on with several examples of why the Cowell blockade was so organized, and how they kept a watch awake at all times.

“Remember,” the group was reminded, “there are women sleeping outside. We have to be careful. Watch out for each other.”

Was this a revolution? They were organized, they were committed, they had even arranged for childcare. Recycling boxes were set up. Thank-you notes were written. They picked up after themselves and had respect for each other. And all came from a group of students and alumnae who had been educated in the best Mills tradition to question, to challenge, and to strive for change. 

“Better Dead than Co-Ed” read the shirts of these blockaders who protect Lucie Stern Hall.

The Student Union was known as HQ. Out back was RHQ, runners’ headquarters. Grouped around metal tables, smoking cigarettes, equipped with mountain bikes and mopeds, the runners waited for the bulletins to come from the small, overworked copy machine. A bulletin went to every blockade when there was news to spread, a decision to be made, an encouraging fax from a supporting college or alumna, or blockade humor. All decisions were made by consensus, a process which was excruciatingly slow, but it was the way the students decided to handle the situation. In part it was a reaction to what they felt had been a decision made by the Board without consulting them; they had been denied a voice so they determined not to do the same to any of their own.

On Friday night a small group of alumnae went around to each blockade to tell the students that we would help them in any way we could. We wanted to let them know that alumnae supported them in their civil disobedience. After visiting each blockade in the dark doorways we went back to HQ to see if there was anything else we could do. Yes, we were told. You could occupy Kimball House. Ah, well. Yes. . . sleep on the ground? Well, you could start in the morning, Saturday. Early. The students had suggested. We had pledged support, so occupy we must, we decided. Imagining a sunny Saturday of frisbee and gossip, we arrived at Kimball House ready to blockade. The first clue we had that something more important could be accomplished was the note left by one faculty member on her door. “My access code for the xerox machine is 000. Please keep track of the number of copies. (The faculty member would later reimburse the College for the cost.) The total was well into the thousands by Sunday night, as equipped with two phones and an alumnae directory we began to help. Where does one begin? At A. And just keep dialing.

We became another blockade, recognized by the runners as one more stop on the information merry-go-round. The student bulletins started to pour in—a handwritten thank-you note from HQ, phone calls from alumnae referred on by HQ or student-run phones elsewhere on campus, and one communique from HQ addressed to “the amazingly awesome alumnae goddesses.” It soon became obvious that we could really do something here; we could give information to the alumnae calling in, tell them what was going on, spur them to action. Our most important activity that weekend, besides rallying other alumnae, was to show the students that they had support from alumnae. We offered encouragement and advice. We provided help in the meetings in the form of a professional facilitator, Julie Batz,’85, who came to campus for a wedding and stayed for the revolution. By the end of the strike, what had been long and occasionally unwieldy meetings now had facilitators, recorders, and women raising their hands and saying, “Clarification point” or “Point of information.”

Before the students got walkie talkies, communications were strained. This was especially true out at Alderwood, dubbed Alcatraz by those sleeping near its walls, where students waited and watched the clips of Mills on the evening news. The most decorated blockade was the Cowell Center. A large orange and white parachute was draped from the roof to shade the students who studied while they waited. Many sites were equipped with televisions, stereos, and vases of flowers. Fashion magazines helped relieve the boredom, until a press van was spotted; then we joked that tattered copies of Dostoyevsky should be waved in the air and conspicuously displayed. One evening at Poppy, the code name for the President’s cottage, while a group of alumnae “manned” the blockade and misbehaved on the walkie talkies, Mr. Metz stopped to chat on his way out to walk the dog, and brought popcorn. Buttered and salted.

A civil disobedience. Support was raised not only here in the Bay Area, but around the country. On local channels, the press changed from short clips and sound bytes of women screaming and crying to seven-minute segments on women’s education. But the important factors were not touched upon in the press. No one covered the Mary Atkins lounge which had food service going to feed blockaders and strikers. They didn’t report that all strike slogans on walls and windows were chalk or water-base paint. Only the participants in the blockade knew that we all had respect for each other, we picked up after ourselves, we had art and thank-you notes, we had childcare and wheelchair access, and most of all, we looked for strength in each person, and we found it. It was a very civil disobedience, and everyone came, and we won.

A detail from a strike poster created by three alumnae, Beth Johnson, ’84, Heather Cox,
’88, and Sandi Engler, ’88: In the wee hours of the morning, May 7, they used the Eucalyptus Press to create this image and a list of all remaining women’s colleges in the United States.