Stop privatizing our community colleges

By Marcos Perez

SAN DIEGO--Students at San Diego City College turned up the heat on government officials and proponents of "school reform" who came to their campus for a U.S. Department of Education Community College Summit on April 15.

Headliners at the summit--an invitation-only meeting for some 200 representatives from community colleges as well as state, local, and federal government officials--were supposed to include California Gov. Jerry Brown and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden.

Education Department Under Secretary Martha Kanter—who works for Arne Duncan, the man who gave us the Race to the Top program to make states compete for scarce education funds—and representatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were also on the guest list. So was San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who recently announced harsh cuts to public libraries and recreation centers in order to close the city's $57 million deficit.

When students got wind of the summit just a week ahead of time, they immediately called a protest. Prior to the demonstration going public, organizers received several confirmations through anonymous sources that Brown and Biden would be present.

This turned out not to be the case—Biden and Brown didn't show up. Some protest organizers speculate that they may have got word of the demonstration and decided to cancel.

Besides wanting to stand in opposition to what the summit represented--austerity and privatization of public education--students were furious that no one on campus, outside of administrators, was advised of the event, and that it was closed to the public.

Many students saw a big contradiction in the fact that about three weeks before the summit, the campus got a huge makeover--with walls, rails and sidewalks painted, new grass laid, sprinkler systems installed, plants and trees planted. And all this while the Sustainable Agricultural Department had been taking deep cuts.

During the week leading up to the protest, administrators called in student organizers several times to advise them that Brown and Biden wouldn't show up and therefore the protest should be directed toward the Governor's Building downtown, insisting that they move the protest off-campus.

The administration, while trying to convince students that we are all in this together, warned student organizers that they didn't want San Diego City College embarrassed. But student organizers stayed focused, held their ground and advised the administration that the protest would continue despite their persistence in trying to intimidate us.

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THE PROTEST began at 8 a.m., with about 50 students and community members gathering in the Gorton Quad, where a large white tent with tables, chairs and a stage were being set up for a midday lunch for summit attendees.

An open mic allowed for several students to give speeches where they voiced their concerns about the direction of public education, privatization, the economic crisis, the wars, austerity measures, immigrant rights, veteran rights and the need to fight back.

By 9:30 a.m., about 150 students gathered and began to march toward the summit's opening plenary at the Seville Theater.

Students took the march into the streets and arrived at the Seville Theater chanting, "Tax the rich," “Sí se puede" and "Who's school? Our school." A few more fierce speeches were given, and students demanded the summit attendees to hear what we had to say.

San Diego Community College District spokesperson Richard Dittbenner made his way to the protesters to address the crowd. He began to lecture students about how we didn't understand what was really going on, and that those inside were helping to improve the education system.

He was instantly heckled and reminded that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is leading an effort to privatize education. After some more dialogue, student organizer Wayne Scherer took the megaphone and told Dittbenner, "Your summit is phony and lies; this protest is truth!" Students' enthusiasm increased after this confrontation, and they marched back toward campus.

Marchers headed back to Gorton Quad. Students attempted to reach the Quad through one staircase only to be quickly shut out due to a small sidewalk that two police officers had completely blocked off. Marchers tried to find an alternate route--this time through the front entrance. Police were unable to contain the crowd as they marched through the wide staircase.

Everybody headed to the large white tent and sat in, temporarily occupying it. With high spirits and a sense of power among them, protesters began to discuss the immediate next steps.

At this point, the baseball team from the athletic department huddled near and around the tent. Word had spread to student organizers that the administration had sought to get the athletics department to police student protesters.

Administrators felt compelled to address the crowd and they were given an opportunity. First came Dean of Student Affairs Denise Whisenhunt, who threatened to take disciplinary action, including expulsion, against student organizers, all the while claiming that she is on our side and "feels our pain."

Next was City College President Terry Burgess, who argued that we should focus our attention on protesting local Republican politicians who are holding up Sacramento.

Lastly, Community College District Chancellor Dr. Constance Carroll addressed the protesters and suggested that we are all in this together, that those inside were trying to improve the situation, and pleaded that students leave the tent and meet with her inside the cafeteria.

Student had heard enough of the same old rhetoric. At this point, they took the opportunity to discuss and democratically decide what the immediate next step should be. Students rejected a meeting in the cafeteria and instead proposed a meeting in the Quad, right next to the tent.

The administration was completely opposed to this because they knew students would heckle and chant down the attendees. After more discussion and on-the-spot democratic decision-making, protesters demanded that the administration agree to meet in a public space, Gorton Quad, where student would organize the meeting and present them with demands in a couple weeks. They agreed.

Students felt victorious and their hopes were raised due to these recent actions at City College. The event got significant media attention, which embarrassed City College for hosting such an event.

The local movement, while continues to be in its infancy, has seen an upsurge in actions and protest since the occupation of the Capitol building in Wisconsin. Students are realizing that it's up to them to continue to push the envelope. A comment from a protester on April 15 pointed to a key argument for our side: "This is a bipartisan attack!" Let's continue to fight back.