Campus protesters stand on ’60s legacy


The Orange County Register

BY DAVID WHITING
REGISTER COLUMNIST

To paraphrase an old Buffalo Springfield song, there’s something happening on our campuses, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Consider: At local colleges and universities in the last five weeks 11 students were arrested for interrupting the Israeli ambassador, 17 others were arrested during a sit-in to “democratize education.” And 10 days ago, hundreds of students joined statewide protests over tuition hikes.

Article Tab : protest-chant-recent-curr
Ryan Davis and Russell Curry, right, get their group going in a chant during a recent protest.

To some, the complaints might seem like a hodgepodge of unrelated issues. But conversations with the protesters and a review of social media sites shows there’s a common cry for justice and equality.

Moreover, several leaders told me we may be witnessing a sea change in student unrest not seen for decades.

As with most movements, the tipping point came when something directly affected the participants. In the ’60s, there was a series of such issues – racism, sexism, homophobia, the Vietnam War, the draft.

This time, some tell me, the tipping point was tuition hikes in the midst of a recession.

At least we can blame the youthful protests on aging boomers.

I’ll explain.

•••

“They want you to think being yourself ain’t fly, so put your fist in the sky, put your fist in the sky. They keep you weak and keep you down, they don’t want you to try, keep your fist in the sky, just keep your fist in the sky.”

Russell Curry, also known as Sun E Boi, lays down his rap before a crowd of students at UC Irvine. It’s March 4, and before the day is over thousands of students will take to streets throughout the state to blast tuition increases.

At Fullerton College this day, fists dipped in red paint pump the air. Signs with stencils of a worker’s fist – the same fist that used to bob up and down at hundreds of Vietnam War demonstrations – dance above the crowd.

The connection to the movements that swept the nation in the 1960s and ’70s is no coincidence. Many of the students consciously stand on the shoulders of their predecessors.

I’ll mention from my perspective, today’s students also stand on the shoulders of anyone – conservative or liberal – who has had the courage to nonviolently give public voice to their beliefs.

Before Curry wraps up at UCI, he will cite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Black Panther Fred Hampton and Jon Carlos and Tommie Smith, the two Olympians who raised black leather fists at the 1968 Olympics.

A few days after last week’s massive demonstrations, Curry, 22, agreed to take some time from his busy schedule and discuss the struggle, and what he’s learned in his twin journeys, from drummer to hip hop artist and from biological science major (he graduated UCI last year) to protest leader.

Curry told me his own tipping point came through progressive activism and reading about leaders such as the ones he names in “Fists in the Sky.” As a student, he was a member the Black Student Union and, through that organization, he connected with the Muslim Student Union. Last year, he joined a human convoy that brought medical supplies to Palestine.

He returned from the Middle East to see rising discontent on campus as university trustees coped with a budget crises by cutting services while raising fees.

The actions “sparked an aura of change and an activism in students,” Curry said. “With tuition hikes and budget cuts and the general state of the economy, people don’t have that much trust.”

OK. So what’s with the other requests, like gender-neutral bathrooms?

“Yeah, that one kind of sticks out like a sore thumb,” Curry said, laughing. But he quickly added the theme is serious — equality for all — and that to exclude a group just because their pet cause might be a tough sell would be wrong.

He admitted the organization he works with the most, The Council for Democratizing Education, “has a big laundry list of demands; it’s hard to get through.”

He wasn’t kidding. I plowed through page after Web page. It took me back to never-ending screeds by the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, one of the largest and most organized protest groups in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“The challenge is we have a sound bite mentality,” said Curry, who participated in demonstrations last month, including the Feb. 8 incident with the Israeli ambassador and a Feb. 24 UCI sit-in. He was not among those arrested. “We need to do a lot of grass roots education.”

Unlike their ’60s counterparts, Curry and others have some tools that weren’t around four decades ago – Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Curry acknowledged that the Web is the best communication tool for protest organizers since fliers were tacked on dormitory bulletin boards.

“We can reach so many people so quickly it is really awesome,” Curry said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like without it.”

But Curry, who grew up with his dad in Rancho Cucamonga (his mother died when he was seven), also spoke of the downside to the digital Information Age.

“Facebook and Twitter are so public, there’s such a potential for things to get communicated improperly.”

Curry knows this well. His MySpace page offers videos of his songs – from beginning to end. But when someone posted one of his speeches on YouTube, Curry found it edited.

•••

I smiled at Curry’s observation, recalling how, when boomers marched, angry debates often coupled with misunderstanding. At the same time, I was reminded many boomers also learned skills they carried into future professions.

Is Curry learning anything in his post-university role?

“I feel like I’m learning every day to be more effective leader.”

His response reminded me of an earlier statement Curry made:

“Do something unpopular every day that you know in your heart is good.”

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