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Movement of the Day: The “International Student Movement”

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
12th March 2013


Excerpted from Zachary Bell:

“On Nov. 14, 2012, tens of thousands of students flooded the streets of Montreal to express opposition to the proposed tuition hikes. Iain Brannigan, one of approximately 65,000 participants, often took part in the city’s frequent, massive student protests — but this day was uniquely exciting for him. As the University of Ottawa international-development student marched to the tune of “À qui la rue?” (Whose streets? ) “À nous la rue!” (Our streets!), he knew that the words were being chanted simultaneously — in a dozen different languages — by students around the globe.

It was the first day of the week-long Global Education Strike, during which thousands of students refused to attend school in Quebec, France and Belgium, while thousands more participated in solidarity demonstrations in Thailand, England, Indonesia, Italy and California. Only some of Brannigan’s comrades knew about the synchronicity, but he was well aware of it. For four years he had been a user of the little-known, unglamorous website where the global demonstration had been coordinated: ism-global.net, better known as the International Student Movement.

The website has served as a communication platform since 2008, where activists have coordinated eight international actions. The International Student Movement has active members in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Balkans, and functions as a rich reservoir of multimedia news on the ever-expanding global student movement. Although the International Student Movement is explicitly a platform for autonomous coordination and not an organization itself, most of its users have united around a joint statement that lays out the community’s shared values.

“[We] have been protesting against the increasing commercialization and privatization of public education, and fighting for free and emancipatory education,” it explains. “We strive for structures based on direct participation and nonhierarchical organization through collective discussion and action.” If the International Student Movement as a collective has an agenda of its own, it is to help students in many different places realize that they are part of the same struggle. It’s an idea that is already in the minds of many student leaders: that their protest is not only to reclaim their own education from profit-seeking institutions, but also to reshape the community of students that they are fighting for — all students, everywhere.”

* The context: A History of Tech-Roots Organizing

by Zachary Bell:

“The International Student Movement is riding a wave of global education protests. In 2010, British students struck back against austerity measures. In 2011, Chilean students frightened university administrators around the world by sparring with security forces in protest of neoliberal education policies. In 2012, Quebec universities organized the largest student strike in the country’s history: a successful six-month protest, including a 300,000-person demonstration, which halted proposed tuition hikes. Over the last few years, less-recognized student movements in Russia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Croatia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Italy and Swaziland have helped fill in a now finely-pixelated picture of an emerging anti-austerity global student movement. And while the website wasn’t central in the organization of all of these actions, its developers hope that the site will increasingly help connect these national efforts, allowing more people to see how social ills from New York City to Athens share conspicuously similar symptoms.

The International Student Movement is also part of a technological shift in the way protest movements are organized and quantified. Since the late 2000s, tech-savvy activists have recognized that such methods of coordination like convergences could be updated to keep decision-making local but make the impact global: pairing technology and grassroots organizing to construct a (rather buggy) global tech-roots machine. For example, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance is fusing the local-global connection, while groups like Take the Square and the trending #GlobalNoisemovement are flexing global power — the latter turning local pot-banging protests into an international symphony. Of course, part of the impetus for this shift comes from the increasing globalization of the corporate-political world itself and the growing recognition that, to disable this global machine, activists are going to have to update their toolkits.

One architect of the tech-roots machine was Mo Schmidt, the International Student Movement’s founder and one of its administrators. He was a graduate student in Sociology and Economics at the University of Marburg in Germany in 2008 before so-called global grassroots activism really entered public consciousness.

(This happened around 2009 when Bill McKibben’s 350.org orchestrated the “world’s most widespread day of political action” in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.)

Schmidt was fed up with what he described as the “commercialization of education.” So he put out a call, focusing exclusively on “groups that work on an autonomous level, not attached to any political parties or labor unions.” With the help of a large, global, education-related mailing list that he gained access to, Schmidt found other students and educators who wanted an independent voice, including a web-savvy Irish elementary school teacher. The energy snowballed, and the dispersed group held its first action on Nov. 5, 2008, with participation around Europe and the United States, as well as in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

For such a potentially powerful tool, ism-global.net is not as dazzling as one might expect. In mid-September, when I logged onto one of the International Student Movement’s weekly “global chats,” I was underwhelmed. The site was designed with a rudimentary dichromatic frame populated by links to organizations (the many “friends of ISM”) on one side and a Twitter feed on the other, followed by a long list of multimedia blog posts by someone named Mo. It struck me as a typical site for and by activists: functional and requiring some patience. But after a while, I did learn to navigate (and appreciate) this sprawling resource.”

* Strategies and tactical questions : Globa-local Questions for a new era

by Zachary Bell:

“The International Student Movement may be rather basic and inaccessible to those who aren’t already active student leaders, but this four-year-old experiment is forcing users to think critically about the forthcoming era of tech-roots activism. It raises questions about the role of corporate-owned social media in grassroots activism, the challenges of horizontal structures and the strategies necessary for building power in the face of globalized, market-based educational institutions.

For active members of the International Student Movement, part of the answer to the question of building power lies in fostering local-global synchronicity. Over the course of November 23, Schmidt counted 150 University of Marburg students who were occupying the university senate’s monthly meeting and hosting a “strike-café” on the state of education in Germany. That same night, Schmidt scrolled through the 124 photos of Global Education Strike activities from around the globe that he had compiled into a Facebook album.

Which was the more important achievement? To Schmidt, it was the relationship between the two. “People focus a lot on governments as the root of the problem: parties and individual politicians. But by connecting and creating an identity with a struggle on a global and not just a local level, you get away from that,” he explained. “You focus on the structures on a global level that are causing the problems on the local level. To me, it’s directly connected to the economic system, and by connecting globally we make those structures visible in some way.”

While it’s tempting to get excited about the potential of global connectivity — tech-enabled pan-studentism! Millennials of the world unite! — it’s important to remember the barriers to a universal identity. The Internet diminishes the importance of geographic proximity and increases the importance of affinity, but the global student identity still raises big questions about community; should students from Marburg identify first as Germans, students or something else?

This newfound freedom to choose one’s associations may both haunt and liberate millennials as the generation stumbles its way forward into the tech-roots era.”

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