Sunday, November 29, 2009

People power – a key driving force in the future of the UC

by Apphia Freeman

Student activism at UCI hit a new peak on November 24 when some 300 plus students gathered in front of the administration building on campus, protesting the budget cuts which have affected almost every facet of the university. The most recent blow came during the November 17-19 Regents meeting at UCLA, in which the vote on the 32% UC tuition hike passed. This was a major catalyst for the November 24 protest, which was probably one of the most energetic rallies the relatively quiet campus of UC Irvine has seen so far. This climax in student protesting was preceded by a number of stop and start efforts to prod students into action, beginning with the UC-wide walkout of September 24.

The walkout, on the first day of official instruction of the Fall 2009 quarter, had support from faculty, some of whom cancelled classes so students could participate. The scene at about 10am was still a pretty quiet one, with some union members out by the tables set up at the flagpoles, but with no major protesting yet. According to the New University, activity soon picked up, with people beginning to “congregate and march in a circle on Ring Road” near the flagpoles prior to the noon rally. Faculty, students, groundskeepers and union members joined in the picketing, and they gathered on the flagpole steps at noon to listen to numerous speakers – including graduate students, union representatives, and faculty – speak out against the cuts. The number of participants that day was a point of contention – the New University article reported about 500 people – which its writer termed a “guesstimate” of the total number of people throughout the length of the event. The OC Register reported that “comparatively few students” joined about “150 union workers and supporters” at the rally, which it generally portrayed as more “low-key,” with few protest signs and few participating professors. Whatever the number, the walkout was to kick-off a quarter of much increased activism on campus.

The teach-in on the budget cuts, held at UC Irvine on October 14, was one of the first motions to try to educate and mobilize the faculty and students of the campus. Organized by Defend UCI – a group made up of students, faculty, staff, and workers who are actively involved in protesting the fee hikes – the teach-in helped to educate the audience on major issues surrounding the budget crisis. The panel was made up of members of faculty – most of which were associate professors – and union representatives. Each of them contributed valuable perspectives on the crisis, based on their field of expertise, and gave pointers on how students, faculty and union members could fight to preserve the standards of the university. There was a lot of audience participation during the Q&A session, in which audience members brought up points for further explanation, or contributed their own viewpoints. Some representatives of political clubs on campus also used this opportunity to make their presence on campus known, and offered their services as organizations that could recruit and rally students to gain support for the cause. This was very much the stance of the Young Democrats Club, whose president was among the audience, and whose attitude was essentially “we’re willing, tell us what to do.”

Ultimately, the teach-in was a much-needed assessment of the situation and of what issues needed to be recognized before the real political strategizing can take place. Horacio Legras – an Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Chair of the Spanish & Culture Department, member of Defend UCI, and one of the panel members at the teach-in – emphasized that “action needs to start from a collection of reliable information,” but that in the meantime, “inaction should not be justified.” He stated that “waging a strategic battle will require a comprehensive plan with demands that are backed by a vision.”

It has been well over a month since that first teach-in on October 14, and much has already transpired in terms of actions to educate and rally support for the fight against the budget cuts. Besides the various protests on campus – including the zombie-themed Halloween protest of October 29 organized by Defend UCI – there was also an action-packed 7th and 8th week, with three teach-ins in Week 7 and two more in Week 8. These teach-ins were organized by ASUCI’s Office of the Executive Vice President and the Office of the Student Regent, with the goal of educating the students, writing letters to the Regents, fostering activism, and preparing for the public comment time during Week 8’s Regents Meeting at UCLA.

A rally was also originally organized for Week 8 – on November 17 at 11:30am – at the UCI flagpoles. However, anyone arriving on site at the slated time would have been greeted by an empty turnaround at the flagpoles, save for two or three dispersed pedestrians – no picketers, and no angry yelling mob.

Emmeline Domingo – the Logistics and Press Secretary in the Office of the Student Regent, member of ASUCI, and a student activist involved in organizing the budget-related events of Week 7 and 8 – responded in an email regarding the lack of activity. She apologized for the lack of communication with regards to the rally, and stated that they had started calling it off the week before due to a change in strategy. In lieu of the rally, 12-15 members of Defend UCI – as well as a reporter from CBS – met at 11:45am and walked quietly over to the Administration building to deliver a signed petition to Chancellor Drake. The petition was drafted by Defend UCI, and they had gotten 1,200 signatures for it. Domingo recounts how they actually got up to his office, and the secretary’s response was, “I’ll tell my boss.” They even requested a meeting with the Chancellor, but were not promised anything. Domingo explained that advertising the action would have prevented them from even getting that far, because the police quickly block off the administration building once they catch wind of ensuing confrontation.

Such an action shows that there are many different ways in which faculty and students can make their opinions heard, and goes back to what Professor Legras had said at the teach-in – that “what we do is not inconsequential,” and that “we need to force an opening in order to influence some decisions.” Low-key actions may be just as effective as large, high-profile protests like the UC-wide walkout of 9/24.

Still, it is hard to deny the visual impact of the protests at the UC Regents Meeting, held at UCLA from November 17 – 19 to vote on the 32% tuition hike. These protests marked a climax in terms of the intensity of student activism. I sat down with Emmeline Domingo, who had participated in the protests, to get an insider’s perspective of what went down in response to this unprecedented fee increase.

She described a very promising first day of protests, where everyone was in total solidarity, with the goal to make as much noise as possible so the Regents meeting could not proceed. They went everywhere together so they could make maximum impact with the noise they generated. While the traditional chanting, picketing and protesting was going on, there were also 65 students who were allowed to go in the Regents meeting for public comment, where they had the opportunity, for a minute each, to tell the Regents how they felt, and how the fee increases were going to affect them.

Trouble started when some students’ times for public comment got cut off – 4 students never got the chance to speak – hence inciting the public in the meeting to start chanting and disrupting the meeting. Accused of being an unlawful assembly, 14 were arrested, and ultimately everyone in the room was sent out. When they came back down and told the protesting crowd what had happened, they got angry, and Domingo said that was when things “started getting ugly – people stepped closer to the barricades, and the police freaked out,” responding by pushing the barricades further out, and students got caught in between them. Domingo stated that “people got pushed and shoved by the police and tased.” Despite a number of other disruptions during the meeting, the Regents still ended up passing the fee increase with very little discussion. The vote was unanimous, with the exception of Student Regent Jesse Bernal’s.

John Bruning, a Sociology graduate student and one of those spearheading Defend UCI, participated in an event held that night on the 17th called Crisis Fest, which was basically a tent city, with people camping out in one of the quad areas on UCLA. He states that a lot of students came down from Berkeley & Davis also, camping out so they could be there early the next morning for the protests. There were some workshops and talks, and towards the end of it, around midnight, a group of about 30–50 students took over UCLA’s Campbell Hall at about 12:30am, as reported by the online UCLA Newsroom on November 19. They stayed until 7pm the next evening, according to Bruning. The group that was involved, he notes, was “pretty representative” of all the colleges, with 3 UCs, 2 Cal States, and 1 community college. Although it was a major action, they actually saw very little police intervention.

The second day of protests, Domingo recounts, began much the same way the first day began. Because they had seen the way the police handled the situation the day before, one of the chants was “Put the guns away.” Domingo observed that there was “more police, more backup... (and) a lot more students” as well. Because they were not able to stall the vote on the first day, people were angry. Domingo states that they “were ready for drastic measures – and this created factions.” In contrast to the unification of the first day, now “there were people who wanted to rush the building, people who wanted to march through the school to gather more support, and people who wanted to march into the city.”

Domingo expressed her frustration at the fact that although there were more people the second day, it was “harder for (them) to be a single movement.” She emphasizes that “there is only strength in numbers,” which with regards to the local resistance at UCI, implies the need to involve all levels in the university and the community. Domingo expressed the importance of getting faculty support – and not just from the ones who already advocate for the activist organizations – but from all faculty, by means as simple as offering extra credit to students who participate in the various actions and rallies.

It seems that a lot more could be done in terms of faculty solidarity and support. Professor Legras believes that unity among the departments is essential in making a case for the schools that are feeling the brunt of the budget cuts – needless to say, the Humanities. He stated that the history of the Humanities, not just at UCI but everywhere, has always been one of “big fragmentation.” He emphasized that the hiring of faculty for one department does not mean that another will suffer due to the lack of resources – and that it is “completely suicidal to think that the strength of my department depends on the weakness of yours.” On the contrary, he believes that the existence of any strong department in the Humanities actually improves the prospects of hiring strong faculty or graduate students for his own department, because “the most interesting graduate students and faculty always promote questions that go beyond the limits of their discipline, and you have to provide them with somebody to talk to outside yours.” He gives the example that with regards to attracting graduate students specializing in Latin America, they offer not only the 8-10 professors in that department, but 4 professors from the History department, 1 from Film & Media Studies, 3 from Chicano/Latino studies, and 12 from the Social Sciences – all of whom also specialize in Latin America. So in terms of making a case for the Humanities – to prevent the administration from further cutting back on the Humanities budget – faculty need to recognize that unity is essential in invigorating the department and in attracting the brightest minds. It should be in such solidarity that they can then collaborate to facilitate research and share resources.

On the other hand, solidarity in activism has really taken off on the students’ side. Domingo says that this may be the biggest student movement since the Berkeley 60s – which is significant in light of the fact that apathy is the biggest thing this generation has been known for. While protests were going on at UCLA, other campuses were also taking action – there was a rally at UCI, Berkeley had a 3-day strike, Santa Cruz occupied buildings like Kerr Hall, and Davis tried to but was prevented from doing so by police.

Bruning affirms the belief that we are at the forefront of a significant undergraduate and graduate student movement right now, both at UCI and statewide. He mentions two of the organizations that are most active within Defend UCI – the Radical Student Union, of which he is a member, and the Worker-Student Alliance, which has been very involved with AFSCME and campus workers. Both groups are a mix of undergraduate and graduate students. There are also a number of other groups, like the Black Student Union, which has been playing an increased role in the protests on campus, and who also sent people to UCLA to participate in the protests there.

This surge in student activism seems to be an indicator of a larger, nationwide trend of increased political participation among the younger generation. Bruning describes the solidarity actions that occurred at a number of campuses nationwide around the same time the UCLA protests were going on. One was the banner drops at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign to show solidarity with the UC – big banners that said “Chop from the top,” as reported in the online Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. He describes another action at NYU, in which – as affirmed by an article in the Washington Square News – 2 students got arrested. Bruning adds that the students there are pretty radical, and that activists at UCI have had “a fair amount of contact with them.” There have been 16 occupations in the past two months around the state, one of which was an action with about 60 students occupying the lobby of the UC Office of the President headquarters in Oakland, as reported in the UC Newsroom on the University of California website. There was also a library occupation at Fresno State, as reported in the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center online. Bruning describes it as “one thing after another; if one school’s not doing it another school is” – and that a lot of schools around the country “are seeing (the UCs) as kind of like the forefront of a new student movement in the country, so they’ve been trying to rally around us a little bit.” He attributes this wave of activism to the extent of what has happened with the UC in terms of state defunding.

When asked about which UC is the most radical, Bruning stated that “Berkeley has a turnout for protests, but in terms of raw action, it’s Santa Cruz.” Santa Cruz has had five occupations so far. As reported in the online Independent Media Center for the Monterey Bay Area, they held Kresge Town Hall on November 18, and took over Kerr Hall – the main administration building – the next day, which the cops put an end to three days later on November 22. They were also the first UC to occupy buildings – the first day of instruction, during the walkout, they took over the Graduate Student Commons and held it for a week, as reported in UCSC’s student-run City on a Hill Press. Santa Cruz has also been very proactive in exporting their brand of activism. As revealed in the online Los Angeles Independent Media Center, they conducted a southern tour, visiting UCLA, CSU Fullerton, and UCI to talk to people about how to organize and rally. Bruning believes that the Campbell Hall occupation at UCLA was partially a result of that. They have also been very active at Davis, Berkeley and San Francisco State. There were even some from Santa Cruz in the Berkeley and Davis occupations that happened the week of the Regents meeting.

As for UCI, Bruning states that they have been trying “to step it up a little, because we have the reputation around the state of being an apathetic school.” And we have got off to a good start. Groups like Defend UCI, besides being organizers of the 9/24 walkout and the various other protests and teach-ins this quarter, are right now trying to regroup in light of the recent fee increase. They are trying to figure out where to go from this point, and what are other ways to support students and enhance their education.

Domingo, who works with ASUCI and the Office of the Student Regent, states that they have interns within their offices who deal specifically with media. These interns look for information that the media has put out that is contradictory to what is actually happening – because, as she explains, “journalists often don’t do enough reporting to get to the heart of the issue.” If they see an article with falsehoods, they email the newspaper companies pointing them out. There have not been any responses – but Domingo feels that they “still need to try.” The Student Regent interns also look up policy to try to find loopholes to get more funding or simply to analyze them to get a better idea of what they are up against.

Most importantly, though, they strategize ways to continue informing people to gather support. Some ways they use include posting information about the budget crisis on the Student Regent website. They even enlisted the help of students to write letters to the Regents, which they presented to them during the public comment time in UCLA. There was a total of 150 handwritten letters from UCI students that were presented to the Regents, and Domingo believes that UCI “probably had the most representatives out of all the schools at the public comment – at least 6.”

These efforts to rally support from students have definitely paid off. The protest of November 24 was arguably one of the biggest and most energetic to hit the UCI campus, and the most impressive thing is that it was initiated by students themselves. Bruning states that the idea for the protest came from a single undergraduate student, and that the word just started spreading. It was posted as an event on Facebook on Friday night or early Saturday, and it grew in two days from 500 people who RSVPed their attendance to over 2000 people.

The crowd started protesting in front of the administration building, which was already closed off to the public and had about 14 police officers standing guard, and they eventually started down Ring Road to gather more support, inciting students to “Walkout!” as they passed by instructional buildings. By the time they started heading back to the Administration building, the crowd had swelled to hundreds of students, high off each other’s energy, yelling in unison slogans like “They say cut back, we say fight back”, “No justice, no peace”, or the question-response rallying calls like “Whose university – Our university!” When they reached the administration building, they went right up to the barricades – behind which the police officers held their ground – chanting “We want Drake!” It was quite a spectacle, probably unlike anything UCI has ever seen. The protest led to the arrest of John Bruning himself – details can be found in his statement online at

Such protests may have more of an impact than what meets the eye. While Professor Legras did not expect the walkout of 9/24 to have the impact that it did, he now firmly believes in the efficacy of such protests. Most of the people at the walkout were from the Humanities department, who were protesting the impending staff layoffs. Legras states that there was going to be “originally 29 layoffs, but I think we’re looking at 8 or 9 layoffs now?” He believes this to be “a direct result of the walkout, and the walkout being reflected in the press and media.”

Even if the impacts of such protests are not immediately explicit, they will still likely affect future decision-making. All the media publicity these protests have been receiving has an impact on public opinion as well as on UC administration. Legras believes that the Regents are now “much more reluctant to approve another increase in student fees” after the one that already passed during the meeting at UCLA. He also stated his belief that the furlough program is “already dead,” and that he “(doesn’t) think they will continue the furloughs next year.” The impact of the protests may even reach as far as the legislature, “because faced with all this bad publicity, the legislature has not been as tough as they would be with the UC,” and that they may be “willing to compromise a little bit” in terms of how much of the UC budget they will cut. Legras believes the lesson here is that there is “some kind of informality in the whole process” of budgetary decision-making – and that the walkout of 9/24 “communicated to ABC much more effectively than anything else we have done or said.”

While no one expected that the protests at UCLA would prevent the Regents from passing the 32% fee increase, Domingo explains that they are still essential for stirring people out of apathy. One of the more immediate impacts she has seen as a result of these protests is that people are now “actively trying to find out” about these issues – and she emphasizes that “we have this momentum and we need to keep riding on it.”

As for whether or not student-led protests have ever influenced administrative decisions, Bruning brings up the example of the protests revolving around labor issues with campus unions and sweatshops – stating that students have had a number of significant successes around sweatshop organizing. They had the opportunity to meet with the UC President (Bob Dynes at the time) and were actually able to implement policy changes, as affirmed by a 14 May 2006 article in the Oakland Tribune.

It seems safe to say that the future of student activism on UCI looks like a bright one. As announced on the Defend UCI website on November 23, there is an occupation of Langson library planned for December 4 to 11. Students are planning to use studying as “a form of resistance” in protest of the reduced library operation hours, by forcing the library to stay open from the end of week 10 and all through finals week.

Domingo tells us that what we will be seeing in the months leading up to March are more teach-ins and more actions, in which she aims to invite representatives from different activist organizations to come together to strategize and figure out the best ways to continue this movement. She also revealed that there will be a march on Sacramento in March 2010, in which students will take their case directly to the state’s headquarters, to force them to “reconsider their priorities” and “reinvest in higher education.” She emphasizes the need within these next three months “to mobilize students and the communities to get support,” without which nothing they do will be effective.

1 comment:

  1. For half an hour reading your articles. instead of coursework to do (and not his own, and to order), I sit and almost devoured every written word.
    Long time I was interested in nothing:)