by Sharat G. Lin
Thursday, Mar. 26, 2009 at 10:28 PM San Jose Peace and Justice Center
Students and educators from public colleges all over the state converged on Sacramento on March 16, 2009 to demand that California fully fund higher education and not raise tuition. Many had meetings with legislators. While protests were entirely peaceful, one student was arrested by police for no apparent reason.
Amid the deepening budget crisis in California’s public colleges and schools, over 6,000 students, teachers, administrators, and education workers converged on the State Capitol in Sacramento on March 16, 2009. They came to demand, “Keep the doors open,” “No budget cuts,” “Bail out colleges, not banks,” “Fund education, not war,” and “Money for schools, not prisons.”
They came from all over the state. Students from Los Angeles Mission College had boarded buses before 3 AM to arrive in Sacramento in time to march from Raley Field to the steps of the Capitol for an 11 AM rally. De Anza College in Cupertino sent four buses with some 200 students. Altogether, over 70 buses converged at Raley Field from which participants marched across the drawbridge over the Sacramento River, down the Capitol Mall to the State Capitol, a distance of approximately one mile. They were joined on the steps of the Capitol by students from local area public colleges.
Fresno City College students came in red T-shirts emblazoned with the words “March in March: rescue education!” City College of San Francisco students declared that “education is a human right.” Evergreen Valley College students from San José were joined by faculty and Chancellor Rosa Pérez on the steps of the State Capitol.
Chancellor Pérez reminded the rally that community colleges provide the only practical entry point for the majority of Latino and other minority students into higher education. Thus, budgetary suppprt for community colleges is essential for the future of the state. “We must have free education for all.” She continued, “Stanford and Harvard are becoming free [for students who cannot afford tuition], so why are we raising fees at state colleges?”
Speaking about all students who aspire to higher education, Pérez called upon supporters to struggle to “keep the dream alive.” She continued, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!” (“The people united will never be defeated!”)
Mark Wade Lieu, President of the Academic Senate of the California Community Colleges, warned about the ever-increasing cuts in programs that are inflicting irreversible damage to higher education and the future of California.
Richael Young, President of the Student Senate of the California Community Colleges, urged state legislators to reject proposals to again hike tuition and fees.
The president of the associated students of a city college in Sacramento warned against cutting the education budget. He called upon voters to “terminate the Governator” for the cutbacks.
Although the march focused primarily on the squeeze in community colleges, students from the California State University and University of California systems also participated. San José State University sent 90 students, including SJSU Associated Students President Vosa Cavu-Litman.
Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi addressed the rally, voicing his support for investing in higher education and job retraining. He urged students to continue the protest in their local communities. Yet statewide budgetary decisions are made in Sacramento, which is precisely the reason why students to took the struggle to the State Capitol in the first place.
California’s 2009-2010 budget passed by the legislature called for cutting $8.6 billion in one year from public education at all levels. This has already triggered the California State University system to admit 10,000 fewer students in September, and the University of California to reduce admissions by 2,300. Tens of thousands of K-12 teachers, school librarians, counselors, and support staff have already received pink slips warning of impending layoffs.
Meanwhile, the state budget calls for no cuts in prison spending. This has led to long-standing criticism that the California criminal justice system and partially-privatized prison system are out of control.
The California budget, which has been plagued by perennial funding gaps, has been hit hard by the severe economic crisis, causing an additional shortfall of over $8 billion in lost tax revenues projected for 2009.
As the rally continued on the Capitol steps, the front doors were opened to allow students and educators to queue for the security check to enter the State Capitol to speak to speak to their elected representatives.
On the bus with Chabot College students
Sara Kjono, a student at Chabot College in Hayward, who talked to Nicoline Hernandez, a legislative aide to State Senator Ellen Corbett, said the lobbying effort was “productive.” Kjono was told that efforts were underway to get more funds for schools and to lower textbook prices. Kjono also met the chief of staff of Assemblymember Mary Hayashi, who told her that additional funding for community colleges would have to come from the state because “community colleges do not quality for federal funding.”
Kjono said that she decided to make the trip to Sacramento because of the difficulties facing community colleges. In her own case as a full-time student, even paying $20 per unit for 15 units per semester is difficult. She said she works two jobs that each pay little more than minimum wage. Despite her low wages, her income disqualifies her from receiving a fee waiver or getting financial aid. So she feels left out of the system, and caught in the middle between more highly-skilled employees and the very poor.
Shirley Mathews, a Chabot College student on a fixed income, reflecting on the march, observed, “I hope it leads to activism. While big company CEOs are being paid big bonuses, I don’t see any new funding coming for schools.” She continued, “I hope [Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger gets the message, and that legislators stop the budget cuts.”
Paul Maush, also a student at Chabot College, was more pessimistic. “I don’t think Schwarzenegger will do anything. He will increase fees. He does not want to work with students.” Nevertheless, Maush came to the protest because “this is only way to bring about change.”
Ryan Belden, who is running for student body president at Chabot College, said that the march helped create awareness. “Now we need to get things done. We need to pressure legislators and be a pest.” He observed, “While California is forty-eighth in the nation in [per capita] education spending, it is first in prison spending.”
Based on his own personal experience in the Hayward Unified School District, Belden said that the K-12 school system is “setting up students for failure.” “We need more rallies for all schools, not just for colleges,” he continued.
One student arrested
As students were walking back to their buses at Raley Field, a dozen students were turned back by police from jaywalking across the Capitol Mall. Minutes later, with all students walking on the footpath, a Sacramento policeman raced with his motorcycle up to one particular student dressed in an orange ‘I can afford college’ T-shirt, worn by many march monitors. The policeman abruptly demanded, “Give me your ID!” When the student asked why, the policeman refused to answer and continued to demand his ID. The student was immediately arrested without knowing the charges against him. Scores of witnesses who were with him all along observed that he had done absolutely nothing wrong. The entire march and rally had been peaceful.
One possibility is that, among the jaywalkers, the orange T-shirt made that student uniquely identifiable in the crowd of march participants. The offense of jaywalking is at most a traffic citation with a possible fine. Singling out one student for arrest after he had complied, along with others, in returning to the footpath, then could only be an act of arbitrary police harassment designed to intimidate students from coming to Sacramento to exercise their constitutional right of assembly and freedom of speech.
The youths who had come to Sacramento in the hopes of reversing budget cuts and saving education will learn through bitter experience that the struggle to bring about fundamental change does not come easily. The same state apparatus that funds public education, not only can take away that funding at will, but can act arbitrarily to repress political opposition as well.
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