The Sacramento Bee
Published Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010
The protests, teach-ins and walkouts that swept through University of California campuses this fall are scheduled to come back this week. But this time the activism is moving beyond UC – to include Cal State, community college and K-12 campuses – and beyond California to other states as well.
Buoyed by the influence they believe their demonstrations have had on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, student and labor activists have planned a series of events to highlight the impact the state budget crisis is having on public education.
Thursday is expected to be the big day of activism in California and about a dozen other states, with promoters urging people to “march forth on March 4th.” Teachers and other workers will be fighting for their jobs, while students will demonstrate their desire for more classes, lower fees and increased funding for education.
“It’s looking to be a really, really momentous day,” said Victor Sanchez, 21, a UC Santa Cruz student who is president of the statewide UC Student Association.
Some campuses have already begun heating up. At UC Berkeley late Thursday, a party intended to promote the upcoming events turned violent when protesters vandalized a campus building, broke windows of a nearby business and lit a dumpster on fire.
But the violence is not prompting UC officials to clamp down on activities planned for the coming week, said Peter King, spokesman for the university’s Office of the President.
“Most of the student protests so far have been peaceful and robust and noisy. And that’s fine,” King said.
Cause hits close to home
Berkeley is one of many college campuses where political activism has long been about as common as English comp. Across the country, students led the way in civil rights protests in the 1960s, Vietnam war protests in the 1970s and apartheid protests in the 1980s. In more recent years, students have organized against sweatshop labor and environmental concerns.
But historians who study social movements on college campuses say the current wave of activism is different. Students are mobilizing around an issue dear to their pocketbooks, not a distant moral outrage. And they’re protesting arm-in-arm with university employees, who are feeling the budget crunch in a very personal way.
“With this upcoming protest on March 4, there’s a … coalescing of these forces to identify the problem more clearly as a real lack of public investment,” said John Aubrey Douglass, a historian at UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education.
“This is a financial crisis of significance and we’re having some major policy shifts that could redefine the institution.”
Last year – after voters rejected measures to raise taxes – lawmakers cut state funding to UC and CSU by 20 percent. That prompted the university systems to furlough workers, cancel classes, cut back programs and raise student fees by 32 percent.
UC campuses erupted in protest after regents discussed the fee hike in September, and again when they approved it in November. Thousands of students rallied at Berkeley, while hundreds walked out at Davis, Santa Cruz and other campuses. Activists occupied UC campus buildings throughout the state. Students and employees on CSU campuses began holding protests, too.
By January it appeared the rabble-rousing had paid off. In his State of the State speech, Schwarzenegger said higher education must take a higher priority. He proposed a budget that increases funding to the universities by 12 percent and a constitutional amendment that would give them more money by shifting some away from prisons.
Other branches of California’s education system, which also had suffered cuts, noticed how influential the UC protests had been. So it wasn’t surprising that unions representing teachers at community colleges and K-12 schools – which together had been cut by $6 billion – jumped in when activists began organizing the March 4 protests.
“This is the first time that I know of in history that we have K-12, community college, CSU and UC all in one place with one message,” said Kevin Wehr, president of Sacramento State’s chapter of the California Faculty Association.
‘We are being heard’
The timing of the protests is no coincidence. Interests like to lobby for their share of the budget pie after the governor’s January budget proposal and before the May revision. And K-12 and community college teachers receive preliminary layoff notices on March 15, so the protests this week allow them to make the cuts vivid to the public.
At some Elk Grove Unified schools on Thursday, for example, teachers will set out chairs in front of school to signify how many are expected to get pink slips. At a Natomas school, teachers who are getting laid off will dress in white, while the rest of the staff will dress in black.
Protests also are scheduled at most UC and CSU campuses and many community colleges. Nationwide, about 100 colleges likely will participate in Thursday’s demonstrations, said Angus Johnston, a history professor at City University of New York who’s been tracking the influence of California’s student movement on other parts of the country.
“This March 4 day of action started as a California thing and it has really taken off,” Johnston said. “California is giving students around the country a sense of the possible.”
UC Davis senior Sarah Raridon has seen the impact of her activism in ways big and small. Earlier this month she helped organize a demonstration at the UC Davis library, in which students planned to stage a “study-in” and stay put after the library was supposed to close.
But before the protest even began, campus officials decided to keep the library open around the clock for the weekend. That avoided a confrontation and gave students what they said they wanted: more space to study.
“We are being seen. We are being heard,” said Raridon, 21. “Our actions are having reverberations around the country, and even the world.”