UC students turn up the heat

November 29, 2011

Protesting the repression of student activism and increases in fees, demonstrators at the University of California (UC) shut down a Board of Regents teleconference meeting, and activists at the Davis and Santa Cruz campuses occupied buildings. Alex Schmaus and Michael Fiorentino look at the background to the latest protests in the UC system.

STUDENTS AT the University of California Davis, the scene of the vicious pepper-spray assault by police last week, forced members of the UC Board of Regents to abandon the board's teleconference November 28 as similar protests took place at UCLA and UC San Francisco.

Later, students at Davis and UC Santa Cruz took over campus buildings in solidarity actions focused on both the repression of campus activists and the spiraling cost of a UC education.

USA Today reported that after the public comment period of the meeting was over, Davis students took matters into their own hands:

Calling it "the people's regents meeting," they began holding their discussion over the sound from the speakers carrying the regents meeting live from the four UC campuses. While the meeting went on, a crowd of 60 or so students and protesters stood with placards, speaking to the news media and each other.

Similar actions in San Francisco and Los Angeles effectively shut down the Regents meeting.

Later, hundreds of Davis students, chanting "No cuts, no fees" surged into the campus' Dutton Hall, which houses the university's cashier's office, where students pay tuition. A similar protest unfolded at Santa Cruz, where an activist blockade prevented the opening of Hahn Student Services, where the cashier's office is located on that campus. A few hours later, students climbed through an open window and launched an occupation that lasted into the night.

The sadistic police attack on activists at UC Davis spurred protests on campuses across California
The sadistic police attack on activists at UC Davis spurred protests on campuses across California

"The workers at Hahn were sympathetic" to the blockade, said Melissa Cornelius, a senior at Santa Cruz and a campus activist. "There was a lot of debate on whether to go inside" and launch an occupation, she said. "But then we got the word that there was an occupation at UC Davis, and we voted to adopt their demands."

The demands by Occupied Dutton are: immediate resignation of Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi; removal of police from campus and their replacement by an alternative safety force; and an immediate freeze on tuition.

The Santa Cruz action was full of lively political debate, said Ian Steinman, a UCSC senior, speaking by phone from the occupied Hahn building. "People very clearly tie what's been happening at the UCs to the Occupy movement around the country, and to a lesser extent, around the world," he said.

Cornelius agreed. "People are realizing, especially college students, that they have been put in an impossible situation," she said. "People are starting to feel desperate. Inside the occupied building, someone had written on a dry erase board the end of the Communist Manifesto: 'We have nothing to lose but our chains.' And in different handwriting, written above was, "We have a world to win."

THE NOVEMBER 28 actions are the latest in a series of student protests that have only gotten bigger since being attacked by campus police with clubs at Berkeley on November 10 and drenched in pepper spray at Davis eight days later.

The action at UC-Berkeley was part of the ReFund California coalition's November 9-16 week of action to Make Banks Pay for Public Education. Thousands of students, faculty and staff participated in demonstrations throughout California's higher education system that week.

UC Davis, a campus 65 miles northeast of Berkeley, is not well known for protests. But when 5,000 people struck in Berkeley November 15 to protest campus police brutality, students and faculty in Davis took action in solidarity, occupying the Mrak Hall administration building on their campus.

Nathan Brown, an assistant English professor at UC Davis, proved prescient when he said in a speech during the occupation of Mrak Hall:

Police brutality against students, workers and faculty is not an accident--just like it has not been an accident for decades in Black and Brown communities. Like privatization, and as an essential part of privatization, police brutality is a program, an implicit policy. It is a method used by UC administrators to discipline students into paying more, to beat them into taking on more debt, to crush dissent and to suppress free speech. Police brutality is the essence of the administrative logic of privatization.

With the Berkeley campus mobilized, the Board of Regents cancelled its planned November 16 meeting, whipping up fears of "a real danger of significant violence and vandalism" from campus activists who had planned to mobilize in large numbers to prevent the meeting from taking place.

But the world saw the real source of violence in the UC system two days later when UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike pepper-sprayed at point-blank range dozens of seated student protesters attempting to defend their Occupy Davis encampment. The video, seen by millions, has become a symbol of the police repression faced by the Occupy movement nationally.

Some 8,000 gathered at Davis the following Monday for a rally to defend free speech on campus.

"Chancellor [Linda] Katehi and police forces are the primary threat to the health and safety of our university community" said Nathan Brown, a featured speaker at the rally who risked his job as an assistant professor by releasing an open letter calling for Katehi's resignation.

Thousands of students cheered enthusiastically when Brown echoed the demand of the UC Davis Faculty Association that Katehi be removed--and the demand of the campus' English Department that "all police forces [be] ordered permanently off of UC campuses."

IN A development that confirms the views of Katehi's critics at UC Davis, journalist Mark Ames recently uncovered the chancellor's role in the termination of her native Greece's "academic asylum" law, which had prohibited police and military from setting foot on the country's college campuses.

Katehi served last year as the only Greek on an international committee of academic experts tasked with recommending policy changes for the Greek universities. The committee justified its call for the revocation of the academic asylum with the following argument: "The politicization of the campuses--and specifically the politicization of students--represents a beyond-reasonable involvement in the political process. This is contributing to an accelerated degradation of higher education."

If Katehi's role in squashing dissent at UC Davis was not clear enough, this new information about her role in squashing student dissent in Greece supports the argument that high-level UC administrators are committed to advancing the program of austerity and budget cuts favored by the 1 percent the world over.

California's students, however, are not willing to allow the privatization of the state's public education system to progress without a fight.

To that end, an open letter to the state government, UC Regents, California State University Trustees and all education administrators was issued by a 5,000-strong General Assembly at UC Berkeley on November 15.

The letter calls on education administrators to endorse a statement in support of an end to budget cuts and fee increases, taxes on the rich and corporations to refund public education, full implementation of affirmative action to stop the re-segregation of public education and an end to police repression on campuses.

If the demands are not met, the letter pledges a wave of strikes and occupations starting on February 1.

These are very exciting developments for supporters of the Occupy movement. Police repression may have been able to clear out Occupy encampments in many cities around the country, but it has been unable to stop a rising tide of social struggle.

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