Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eyewitness Description of UCLA Protests

bservations from the student protest at UCLA on November 19th

On the way into my office yesterday, I joined the student march as they rounded Campbell Hall.  There were not many faculty in the crowd but another colleague soon joined when the student marchers stormed his class in Haines Hall. We then walked with the students through campus into Westwood and back to Covel Commons.  Throughout the march the students were bold, spirited, organized, and they chanted for more than a no vote on the fee hikes.  Rather than simply focusing on this more immediate concern, the students articulated broader claims to a strong, public education system as a fundamental right rather than a privilege and thereby located their opposition to the fee hikes within a broader movement against retrenchment and privatization in California’s public colleges and universities. Further many students criticized the state's bloated prison system as a wicked alternative to investments in schools and students.  They marched against fee hikes but they were organizing for so much more. Their commitment was made clear when several of the students put their bodies in front of a car as it tried to drive through their protest at the intersection of Westwood and Wilshire boulevards.  The driver continued to push against them until a police officer intervened, reminding the driver that his frustration over traffic was not a reasonable cause to run the students over. As the marchers continued toward Gayley, my colleague passed the driver’s car and took note of the UCLA blue parking permit hanging from his rear-view mirror, suggesting that the driver was a UCLA staff or faculty member.

When we returned to Covel Commons, the students and their labor union allies awaited the vote on the fees hikes. They made speeches, chanted, played music, and joked around. When the vote for the fee hikes was announced, the students took it in stride. No one was surprised and they quickly moved into the next planned phase of the protest by blocking all of the exits from the Covel Commons area. They were going to make the UC Regents hear their protest and make it clear that they were ready for more than a one-day action. The students chased, harassed, harangued, and hollered at anyone in a suit who left Covel Commons. “Shame on you!” they chanted while pushing against police barricades and escorts.  Even Karen Bass was caught in a crowd of students as she tried to reach her car. She spoke with the students and they let her be but most of the regents kept their eyes down as the students pushed and hollered, and as the police pushed and hollered back. The students chased one group of regents into a nearby building.  The students shouted into the building but a guard reached out and pepper sprayed the students at the door. Most students turned and ran, but one fell to the ground and laid slumped over at the door. While the students expressed their outrage, the regents were quickly evacuated through a backdoor after changing their clothes and crouching down in a getaway car.   A little while later, students chased another four regents exiting Covel to a van parked in the Sproul Hall turnaround. The regents got in the van. The students surrounded the van and sat down.  This standoff lasted quite awhile. In a heated debate, university officials asked the students to move but they refused and dozens of officers were required to escort the regents from the van to a back exit through Sproul Hall.

Within a few hours all of the regents were out of the building and many of the students boarded the buses that had brought them from across the state.  The vote on fee hikes had come and gone but the students had made clear that a committed and highly organized generation of students along with critical allies in the labor movement were going to loudly fight back against the cut backs and, in the process, make broader claims about rights and privileges in California's changing economy.

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