It was, as usual, a beautiful day in southern California on November 19, when beneath tall eucalyptus trees and hovering police helicopters, hundreds of students sat cross-legged on the asphalt, blocking the exits to UCLA’s Covel Commons. “We can’t afford to move!” the students chanted. Inside, protected by riot police armed with Tazers, shotguns and assault rifles, the twenty-six Regents of the University of California had just voted to raise undergraduate tuition by 32 percent. Next year’s seniors will be paying almost three times more than students paid ten years ago. Public education just got a lot less public.
If it was too late to prevent the tuition increase, the students were determined not to let the regents leave. “They’re waiting for us to clear out, but we’re not clearing out,” said Rosa Martin, a sophomore who made the trip with a friend from UC’s Riverside campus, about seventy miles to the east, in four hours on public buses. Others came from as far north as Berkeley and as far south as San Diego. Mario Zuniga, an environmental engineering major at UC San Diego, spent the night sleeping on the steps of Campbell Hall, which UCLA students occupied on Wednesday night. Three of his classmates, Zuniga said, have already had to leave school because they couldn’t keep up with last year’s more modest fee increase. “They’re taking everything from us and asking for more money,” he said.
For Zuniga and others, the fee hikes and this year’s budget cuts–the legislature slashed $2.8 billion from the state’s once-proud higher education system–mean fewer available classes, overworked instructors, fewer academic support services, a heavier loan burden, more time spent working to pay the bills and less time available for studying. It will also likely mean a far less diverse student body and the gradual abandonment of the state’s historic commitment to providing an opportunity at a college education to all its residents. “We can’t sit down and let this happen,” said UCLA sophomore Stephanie Anyanwu. “We have to shake things up.”
At UCLA, some of the regents, at least, appeared well shaken. Escorted out under heavy police guard, they were followed to their cars by angry students yelling, “Shame on you!” The takeover of UCLA’s Campbell Hall ended that evening, but by Friday afternoon, it was possible to talk of a “wave of occupations,” as UC Davis Professor Joshua Clover put it. Clover, who helped organize the first action to protest faculty and staff pay cuts, a system-wide walkout on September 24, was one of over fifty arrested Thursday night after occupying an administration building on the Davis campus. He spoke to me on the phone from Berkeley, where students took over classrooms in Wheeler Hall early Friday morning and barricaded themselves into the building’s second floor until police pushed their way in early that evening. About thirteen hours later, police led forty protesters out of the building and charged them with trespassing. In the meantime, back at Davis, undeterred by the previous day’s arrests, students had occupied another administration building. Protesters also took over two buildings at UC Santa Cruz.