FEEL: The Betrayal of Student Activism?

Despite lasting only a few hours, the protest has dragged Santa Cruz into the center of national conversations about student debt, generational divides, and the efficacy of certain protest tactics designed to attract attention.

By Matthew Renda - The Atlantic

Santa Cruz is a sleepy college town nestled at the base of a mountain range on California’s Central Coast. Recently, the city, famous for its beach boardwalk and redwood forests, experienced an act of civil disobedience by six of the university’s students.

This news might seem unremarkable for a college community known for its alternative lifestyle and liberal leanings. But the demonstration—held in early March in opposition to tuition hikes across the state—has led to some soul-searching for the University of California, Santa Cruz, which is coming under scrutiny for abandoning its tradition of political activism and the values it still uses to market itself. Despite lasting only a few hours, the protest has also dragged Santa Cruz into the center of national conversations about student debt, generational divides, and the efficacy of certain protest tactics designed to attract attention.

The six students are all California residents between the ages of 19 and 28 who decided to protest the tuition increases by blocking a major thoroughfare in the area. They now each face sentences of 30 days in jail for two misdemeanors, including for creating a public nuisance, though the local district attorney is reportedly striving to convince the judge to sentence them to more time. (They were initially charged as felons for criminal conspiracy, but those charges were later dropped.) Meanwhile, the university administration has suspended them each for a year and a half, during which time they will not have access to housing or healthcare. 

UC Santa Cruz, or UCSC, is part of a ten-campus network that is widely considered to be a paragon of state university systems. Traditionally, California residents were able to attend the world-class institutions at a relatively affordable cost, but that has started to change in recent decades, as budget crises and a decrease in state support for higher education prompted sizable tuition hikes. Undergraduate tuition, which is uniform across the UC system, has more than doubled in the last decade to its current level of $12,192. It’s increased at a much higher rate than the national average, which in 2014 was $9,139. Officials point out that financial-aid programs for low- and middle-income families make tuition free for more than half of the schools’ in-state students—but as the recent controversy suggests, that’s not always enough.

Recently, on-campus activism has revolved around the UC tuition hikes, intensifying after Janet Napolitano, who currently serves as the system’s president, announced in November annual increases of 5 percent over the next five years. Students throughout California loudly opposed the measure, marshaling lobbyists, deploying delegations to a Board of Regents meeting, occupying buildings, and coordinating demonstrations across the state—all to little avail.

“I’ve been here for 35 years and I’ve never seen this level of punishment for civil disobedience that was nonviolent.”

For the six students the prospect of even more tuition hikes, especially when university administrators continue to garner high salaries, was intolerable.

So they came up with a plan.

At approximately 9 a.m. on March 3, the students gathered trash cans full of concrete and chains, put them in a U-Haul van, and headed to the Fishhook Bridge, which connects Route 1 and Highway 17, the main thoroughfare between Silicon Valley and Santa Cruz. By 9:30, the protesters managed to form a blockade on the bridge with their materials, shutting down traffic for three hours—and spurring response from 85 uniformed personnel and a helicopter. Officials used a sledgehammer to eventually extricate the protesters.

For much of the morning, commuters—many of whom were on their way to work—sat in traffic until the road was cleared at 2:30 p.m. At one point, a motorist was so angry he marched to the front of the gridlock and launched into a profanity-laced tirade that later made the circuit on social media.

By the end of that afternoon, an online petition calling for UCSC’s chancellor, George Blumenthal, to expel the protesters had garnered 3,000 signatures; as of Thursday, the number had grown to roughly 4,300. Blumenthal didn’t go as far to expel the six students, but he strongly condemned their actions, saying in a statement the day of the protest that the university “deeply [regretted] the impact these events had on our neighbors.” Emphasizing that the university’s students are “all members of this community,” he went on to say that school leaders would “exert” their responsibility and in the future discourage such means of protesting. “It's more than just an inconvenience,” he said. “Obstructing traffic jeopardizes public safety in ways that potentially could put people's lives at risk.” In the afternoon, as the students sat in jail waiting to be processed, the university then notified the students of interim suspensions; the suspension was eventually extended.

(Photograph: Brendan McDermid)