On Wednesday of finals week, June 11, I cut short a study session and hurried across campus to Scholar’s drive to the Ché Cafe Collective. I knew it as the Che. Besides, it had recently been stripped of its “collective” status. It was the first time I was going to a meeting and not a show.
As I approached the colorful building I slowed down to listen. The walls could talk. The faces of Rigoberta Menchu, Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr., Karl Marx, former student Angela Davis, and a prowling black panther.
In red and black, the face of Ché Guevara stares fiercely from an outer wall and looks out proudly on the inner courtyard. The many murals are not just the work of students, but also local artist Mario Torero and the designer and activist Shepard Fairey.
On the cooperative’s Facebook event page, about 120 had clicked to attend. My heart sunk when I saw that only 20 were actually able to join in. My heart sunk further when I learned only three of us were students. I should have expected this. It was finals week – people who weren’t studying were already flying and driving home.
But we had about a hundred pounds of fliers to distribute, and we taped them up wherever permissible or visible. Many of them were removed by the following morning. With guidance from the students among us and a map, collective members spread out to plaster the campus. There was a hint of belligerent rage in some of the posters – an artist had repainted the grinning face of UCEN Facilities Director Sharon Van Bruggen and a main antagonist in the center of the place’s recently changed name: the “Chéron Van Bruggen Cafe”. Cooperative members called it “a symbolic gesture of resistance and as an act of non-violent protest and satire.”
The UCSD Guardian, a student run newspaper, actually reported the closure of the Ché Cafe in early May, and then had to gracelessly reword its story as the debate raged on and the University Centers Advisory Board (UCAB) issued contradictory information. The media-heavy march that day in June was an effort to inform students of the fact that the Ché Cafe will not become UCSD history so easily.
On June 13, Friday of finals week, the cooperative was given 30 days to leave the space. The eviction is perfectly timed to obliterate the Ché as quietly as possible. Student have seen this before. During the summer, of 2013, walls were painted over and security cameras installed in the locally famous “Graffiti Hall”. The Center for Library & Instructional Computing Services (CLICS), was closed and converted into a study space during a 2011 winter break. The UCSD Crafts Center was shut down in 2012 during a hectic first week of school. Budgets seem to keep falling short.
According to cooperative member Davide Carpano, Vice-Chancellor Alan Houston cited a lack of student support in the decision to evict. Yet as Houston knows, with a voter turnout of less than 25%, student councils represent only a fraction of students. Furthermore, why is “student” support now so crucial? When has University centers spent any of my student fees on supporting the Ché?
As the one April meeting originally scheduled became four, members of the committee heard and saw the support of hundreds of students, teaching assistants, and community members. By the fourth meeting on Friday, May 23rd, they had apparently heard enough, and called a private session, closing the doors on further public input. As promised, the Ché was voted out of the budget, 9-4.
The Ché not only provides a haven for smokers on a “smoke free” campus and an affordable venue for shows that would never be invited to a Price Center ballroom. Throughout its 34 years of existence, it has a rich history of activism, including a 2002 lawsuit by the administration accusing core members of providing “material support” to a terrorist organization (the FARC) under the Patriot Act. Other tactics that have been used against the Ché and other collectives and co-ops on campus have been wildly inflated estimates of repair costs, and changing the locks in the middle of the night.
Why do student governments and UC officials continue to try to shut down the Ché, after years of failure? One obvious reason is the name. Officially, it stands for “Cheap, Healthy Eats”. One look at the vendors in Price Center and dining hall food and you’ll see why the words “cheap” and “healthy” might pose a problem to the UC. Far worse, however, is the accent on the “Eats” and the history behind the name “Ché”.
During the current attempts to close the Ché, administrators and student leaders have offered various justifications – mainly that the place is unsafe, costs too much, and fiscally irresponsible. The Ché may have missed some rent payments in the past, but according to Josh Kenchel, a member of the student-run General Store cooperative, this is nothing new for other coops, and is often ignored.
“It’s a calculated move, which makes me think that someone very high up has finally decided to bring the axe down,” said Kenchel.
Under the University Centers’ Master Space Agreement, an agreement created after a similar, failed attempt to shut down the General Store, the university is obligated to maintain the facility. It claims it lacks the funds to do so. Alternatives to complete annihilation of the cooperative were offered with debatable sincerity. Offers included sharing space with other venues in Price Center, temporary closure for repairs (no time line was offered), and, most significantly, to “permanently move the murals” and allow the cooperative to continue to use the space, according to cooperative member Rene Vera.
“As has historically happened, Ché will overcome and will come out a stronger collective,” wrote Vera in a Google document posted on the Ché’s Facebook page.
I wish I had his conviction. Many of the students who would support the Ché are gone for the summer. I write this from home in Richmond, California, and I have no idea if the Ché will make it through this summer. Never before have so many student representatives sided with administrators and fought for its closure. One thing I am sure of is that in terms of cutting out parts of this UC they would rather not remember, these people are wasting their time.
Throughout the past two years at UCSD I have learned and been reminded that this campus was meant by its founders and chancellors to be its own small city on a hill, the only sanctioned engagement with San Diego through the charter schools Preuss and Gompers. To a large degree, this holds true today. Most students, content in their little college microcosms, are ignorant of the Ché’s history and believe they have more important things to study. But there is an element of dissent, a community of inclusive respect, co-dependence, and love of music that cannot be closed down and fenced off. We may not all get the student discount. We may not be the 20% of students required to declare a student government election valid. But then our music makes the widows tremble and our feet make the floor shake we’re powerful.
It’s not over yet. The collective members are not packing.
This was originally posted at San Diego Free Press, our sister online media partner.