Saturday, December 17, 2011

Occupying Education: The Student Fight Against Austerity in California

[from the November/December 2011 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas; download the PDF version here]

(photo by Andrew Stern)

By Zachary Levenson

On November 18, University of California (UC), Davis police attempted to raid a student occupation on the campus. When a line of UC Davis students refused to move out of the way, Lieutenant John Pike covered their faces with military-grade pepper spray. He returned for a second round, making sure to coat everyone’s eyes and throats.

“When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood,” described Assistant Professor of English at UC Davis Nathan Brown.[1]

Within 24 hours, a video of the incident had gone viral on YouTube, and the media feigned outrage. UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi apologized for the incident, and UC president Mark Yudof announced a task force to address the police violence. UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau was also forced to apologize after campus police clubbed UC Berkeley students and faculty while they also nonviolently defended an encampment on their campus two weeks before.

This is hardly the first time that California students have faced brutal police repression in recent years. This sort of authorized police violence has been a constant feature of campus administrations’ response to students as they have continuously mobilized against the privatization of their public universities over the past two years.


Early in the morning of November 20, 2009, 43 students from the UC Berkeley occupied Wheeler Hall, the building with the most classrooms on campus. When police arrived a couple of hours before classes began for the day, they found the doors barricaded and a small contingent of supporters gathered outside. Within a few hours campus unions were picketing, and students and workers had surrounded the building, chanting in solidarity. By midday, the number of supporters outside Wheeler Hall had grown to over 2,000, now actively defending the occupation in an impassioned standoff with hundreds of riot cops sent in to enforce order. Hanging from a second floor window was a spray-painted banner reading, “32% HIKE, 1900 LAYOFFS,” and the word “CLASS,” circled with a line through it. Purportedly in response to state funding retrenchment, the UC Regents had approved a 32% tuition hike for UC students across the state the day before. Students were livid.

In fall 2009, across the state, students launched dozens of occupations, sit-ins, marches, rallies, and blockades against the tuition hike and austerity measures. The police responded with repression, using batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and even Tasers. During the Wheeler Hall occupation demonstrations, one student was shot in the stomach with a rubber bullet at point-blank range, another ended up in the hospital after her fingers were nearly amputated by a police baton, and dozens reported being beaten.

“Behind every fee increase, a line of riot cops,” read a graduate student nearly two weeks later, standing atop a chair, at a forum organized by the UC student government in conjunction with the UC Berkeley Police Department (UCPD). “The privatization of the UC system and the impoverishment of student life, the UC administration’s conscious choice to shift its burden of debt onto the backs of its students—these can be maintained only by way of police batons, Tasers, barricades and pepper spray. These are two faces of the same thing.”[2]

When he finished reading the statement, the students rose to their feet and followed him out of the room.


The 32% fee hike came in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, with California facing a budget deficit in excess of $11 billion. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested at the time that without immediate action, the deficit would nearly triple.

“I compare the situation that we are in right now to finding an accident victim on the side of the road that is bleeding to death,” he told reporters. “We wouldn’t spend hours debating over which ambulance we should use, or which hospital we should use . . . we would first stop the bleeding, and that’s exactly the same we have to do here.”[3]

The remedy came in the form of sweeping austerity measures, complete with hundreds of layoffs, cuts to campus services, consolidation of academic departments, and a shift of the financial burden from the state onto students. The move wasn’t entirely unexpected. The UC Board of Regents, the 26- member body that approved the 32% fee hike, oversees fee and budgetary decisions on all 10 UC campuses. The majority of its members, however, are not elected, and few of them have a history in education. Eighteen of them are appointed for 12-year terms by the California governor, with backgrounds in commercial real estate, private equity, financial services, investment banking, and consulting.

The state cuts to education came on the heels of a longer term project to restructure California’s public education system. Over the last decade, the Regents and the UC Office of the President (UCOP) expanded top-tier executive positions by more than 120% and roughly doubled middle managers, while only increasing new faculty hires by 25%. Now, under the new measures, a couple thousand staff members were laid off. Eight percent of classes were cut, all university employees faced furloughs, and students were driven into deeper debt. Nevertheless, 10 months after the 32% fee hike, university executives received $11.5 million in bonuses.[4] Although UC president Mark Yudof tried to justify the tuition hikes and austerity measures as necessary adjustments in the face of cuts to state spending, it was clear that the university administration was using the hysteria over very real California funding cuts to legitimize the ballooning administrative apparatus at the expense of students and workers.

Students refused to sit back as their university was privatized. In late September 2009, with the tuition hikes looming, Berkeley students staged the first campus walkout in years, drawing between 5000 and 7000 supporters to the school’s main public space, Sproul Plaza—the largest demonstration turnout at the school in decades.[5] A few thousand rallied at Davis, 700 at UCLA, and hundreds more on other UC campuses, culminating in the weeklong occupation of the graduate student commons at UC Santa Cruz, the first in a wave of occupations that would sweep the state in the coming months.

Nearly two months later, the day before the UC Regents vote, students again took action. UCLA students occupied their school’s Campbell Hall. In Santa Cruz, students and workers effectively shut down the campus for the day and briefly occupied the school’s Kresge Town Hall. The next day they took Kerr Hall and held it for four days. In Davis, students occupied Mrak Hall. Fifty-two people were arrested. The next day, students took Dutton Hall, and then Mrak again a few days later.[6]

All 23 California State Universities (CSU) campuses and several of California’s 112 community colleges (CCCS) also saw sustained actions, ranging from sporadic occupations in the fall 2009 to concurrent marches on every CSU campus and 10 simultaneous occupations in April 2011. That month over 10,000 students and workers at every CSU campus marched in a coordinated day of action. Students held brief occupations on the Stanislaus, Bakersfield, Northridge, Pomona, Fullerton, Monterey Bay, San Jose, San Francisco, and East Bay campuses, and a longer occupation at Sacramento State.[7] Like their counterparts at the UCs, CSU students faced similarly astronomical fee hikes in the face of state divestment. The CSU Board of Trustees raised the school system’s tuition by 32% in 2009. Over the past year, they have increased student fees three more times, totaling a rise of roughly 20%, with an additional 9% hike passed in mid November.[8]

These occupations had laundry lists of specific demands, but the students generally agreed that actions targeted the layoffs and fee hikes. Even those occupations with no specific demands—foreshadowing the current Occupy Wall Street model by a full two years—were interpreted by both campus administrators and the general public as challenging the shift toward a model in which students are forced to finance their education by taking on increasing levels of debt.


Along with the tuition hikes and the shriveling state budget for education were sweeping cuts to La Raza Recruitment and Retention Center (RRRC), a volunteer- based campus organization that recruits Latino students to schools across the state. Latino admissions into UC Berkeley declined by 18% for the 2011–12 school year. Faced with these austerity measures, Latino students became increasingly involved.[9] A half-dozen members from UC Berkeley’s student-run Latino Sociology Association participated in the occupation of Wheeler Hall, and many more gathered in support outside. RRRC members became politicized over the course of the spring 2010 with their office increasingly used as an organizing space. In addition to the drop in admission, at least three other factors contributed to the large participation of Latino students in campus actions during the fall 2009 semester. First, a number of key Latino organizers live in Rochdale Village Apartments, a low-cost student housing facility run by the Berkeley Student Cooperative that was in danger of losing its lease agreement with the UC Regents. The students saw the threat to Rochdale as linked to the larger issue of university divestment.

Second, following the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, more than two-dozen Latino students participated in a hunger strike in the spring 2010 on the UC Berkeley campus to force Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau to denounce the bill. Birgeneau, however, refused to meet with them for over a week. When 200 students, workers, and faculty marched to Birgeneau’s on-campus residence (while he was holding a fundraiser dinner), their request was met with scores of riot cops. Much like the Wheeler occupation of November 2009, the repressive response from the administration further radicalized students. The hunger strike lasted for 11 days and was followed by a similar action the following year, with much the same response.

The third development that especially radicalized Latino students at Berkeley was the threatened consolidation of the various autonomous Ethnic Studies departments into a single unit beginning in 2010. The administration was quick to point out that only a single staff member would be dismissed, but for the already underfunded departments, the push was a significant affront. Many feared the step was a means to quietly phase out the departments, as the American Studies Department (encompassing Ethnic Studies) had just been dissolved at nearby UC Santa Cruz, and Ethnic Studies had just been banned in the state of Arizona.


At least partially inspired by the California occupations, students from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) shut down their campus for two months in the spring 2010 in response to a tuition hike and austerity measures on the island. Later that year, a pair of UPR student organizers visited UC Berkeley. While it would be a stretch to suggest that California students mined the events at UPR for tactical direction, it was hard not to observe some of the parallels. Just as it was sustained resistance to an impending fee hike that would draw the wrath of riot cops at the UPR in spring 2010, so too has this been the case at campuses across California, where the swift implementation of budget cuts coupled with tuition increases has been backed by both physical and legal forms of repression.[10]

During the 2009 mobilizations, students were beaten, pepper sprayed and even Tasered. At the November 2009 Regents’ meeting at UCLA, pepper spray was projected over a crowd from what appeared to be hoses. Masses of UC Davis students who marched onto a nearby highway against the tuition increases were greeted with beanbag rounds. One woman was forcefully dragged across the pavement and tossed in the back of a police car.[11] The pattern has continued into the latest round of occupations, with Berkeley students battered by police batons and Davis students hosed with pepper spray.

If anything, this escalation of blatant coercion has aided organizing efforts. Students and workers who were previously inclined to dialogue with the administration and UCOP have become some of the most radical activists on campus, eschewing negotiations in favor of more militant modes of contesting austerity measures. Formerly “safe” channels for dissent, such as solidarity pickets with campus unions, are now often surrounded by police who intimidate attendees by filming them for prolonged periods. A number of UC campuses have explicitly encouraged police and administrative infiltration. At Berkeley, a young administrator posed as a student while she attended general assemblies organized by student activists. She then passed along information to the UCPD.[12] UC Santa Cruz paid $6,000 to a private investigator to document student demonstrations, while at UC Davis, undercover officers have regularly marched in plainclothes with protesters.[13]

Following the 2009 actions, lengthy extralegal ordeals most effectively stifled student organizing. Roughly 140 students at Berkeley and dozens on other UC campuses faced sanctions ranging from community service and confessional letter-writing to, in many cases, seven-month suspension and even expulsion. While many students were willing to risk minor disciplinary sanctions and even misdemeanor charges, the threat of suspension or expulsion deterred students from turning out for protests over the course of the next year. In 2010, occasional actions drew close to a thousand fairly militant supporters, but nothing like the crowds of the September 2009 walkout or the Wheeler occupation two months later. During 2010, many of the most active campus organizers continued with anti-austerity work in Oakland, as well as sustained mobilization against police brutality following the killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police on New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland.

With conduct hearings now finished and with the threat of extralegal disciplinary sanctions at its lowest point in at least a year, mobilizing is on the rise. The Occupy Wall Street movement has also helped to reinvigorate student organizing against the effective privatization of California’s public universities—tuition now exceeds state contribution for the first time in UC history.[14] On November 2, a few hundred students marched from the Berkeley campus to the Port of Oakland, joining over 50,000 who shut down the docks for the day as part of an attempted general strike under the banner of Occupy Oakland. (The Oakland encampment had been forcefully evicted by riot cops just days before.)

On November 9, in the largest campus rally in over two years, thousands of students gathered in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and launched Occupy Cal, with support from occupiers from Occupy Oakland just a few miles away. But with authorization from Birgeneau the police moved in, sending at least two students to the hospital and dozens to jail.

“The student movement is better able to control the actions of students than the administration is able to control the actions of the campus police,” said Alex Barnard, a Berkeley student whose ribs were broken at the protest.[15]

Meanwhile, tuition continues to rise. The most recent scheme pushes fees above $22,000 by the 2015–16 school year. To put this in perspective, California’s free tertiary education system was dismantled through decades of creeping price hikes, in which a relatively negligible “educational fee” introduced in the 1970s surpassed $1,000 for the first time during the 1991–92 academic year. This year at UC Berkeley, fees exceed $14,000 for in-state students and approach $38,000 for out-of-state. The current proposal would reduce the in-state university population by over 15%, producing an estimated 13% drop in black enrollment and 18% in Latino enrollment.[16]

These numbers are misleading, however, for as Los Angeles Times columnist Paul Thornton points out, once room, board, and books are included, the in-state figures “approach $30,000 per year—and feel a lot like the cost of an Ivy League education with few of the perks.”[17] The Regents’ current proposal is contingent upon increased state funding; under this plan, if the state does not augment expenditure on higher education, fees will increase by 16% annually over four years for a sum total of 81%. According to University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UCAFT) president Bob Samuels’ calculations, tuition would exceed $22,000 by the 2015–16 school year, excluding room, board, and books.[18] This, while departments are being slashed and librarians, staff, and untenured faculty laid off, swelling class sizes.

UC tuitions are now increasing at the highest rate of any public university in the United States. While the Regents may still call off the impending 81% fee hike, the damage has been done: workers laid off, students driven into increasing debt, and affordable education thrown to the dogs. We will see in the coming months how successful the convergence of the national Occupy movement and sustained student demonstrations is in pulling off further mobilizations. Will students in California, like those in Chile or Puerto Rico, be able to shut down their campuses indefinitely in order to demand an end to austerity? With the current round of rallies and actions exceeding the size of the 2009 mobilizations, and with the increasing popularity of the tactic of occupation, this seems to be precisely the direction that the statewide fight against austerity is headed.



[1] Nathan Brown, “Open Letter to Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi,” Bicycle Barricade (blog), November 19, 2011.

[2] Reclaim UC (blog), “Statement from ASUC/UCPD ‘Forum,’” December 1, 2009.

[3] BBC News, “California ‘Faces Budget Crisis,’” December 2, 2008.

[4] John Bruning, “Rancor Surrounds Contract for University of California Grad Students,” Labor Notes, December 6, 2010.

[5] Mary O’Hara, “University of California Campuses Erupt into Protest,” The Guardian (UK), September 24, 2009.

[6] For a map of statewide actions during the this period see After the Fall: Communiqués from Occupied California (Winter 2010): 2,

[7] Those Who Use It (blog), “Wave of Brief Occupations Sweeps California; 10,000 March on All 23 CSU Campuses,” April 13, 2011.

[8] Lisa M. Krieger, “CSU Proposes 9 Percent Fee Increase,” Mercury News, November 15, 2011.

[9] Josh Keller, “As Berkeley Enrolls More Out-of-State Students, Racial Diversity May Suffer,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 4, 2009.

[10] Rima Brusi-Gil de Lamadrid, “The University of Puerto Rico: A Testing Ground for the Neoliberal State,” NACLA Report on the Americas 2, no. 44 (2011).

[11] The video is available at

[12] See pp. 70, 147, 152, and 232 of a dossier of administrative documents from fall 2009 obtained via public records request, available at

[13] Laurel Fujii and April Short, “Public Records Reveal University Surveillance of Student Organizers,” City on a Hill Press, March 3, 2011; see also Janelle Bitker, “Students, ACLU, Media Scrutinize Attempts to Monitor Protests,” California Aggie, April 12, 2011.

[14] Larry Gordon, “A First: UC Fees Exceed State Funding,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2011.

[15] Tyler Kingkade, “UC Chancellor Orders Internal Review in Light of Police Violence,” The Huffington Post, November 14, 2011.

[16] Keller, op. cit.

[17] Paul Thornton, “Is a $26,000 UC Education Still a Deal?,” Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2009.

[18] Bob Samuels, “UC Might Increase Tuition 81% over the Next Four Years,” Changing Universities (blog), September 12, 2011.

1 comment:

  1. University of California campus chancellors are not controllong the costs of delivering higher education. Paying more is not a better university. I love University of California (UC) having been a student & lecturer. Like so many I am deeply disappointed by the pervasive failures of Birgeneau from holding the line on rising costs & tuition. On an all in cost, Birgeneau has molded Cal. into the most expensive public university. Faculty wages must reflect California's ability to pay, not what others are paid.
    UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) dismissed many needed cost-cutting options. Birgeneau did not consider freezing vacant faculty positions, increasing class size, requiring faculty to teach more classes, doubling the time between sabbaticals, freezing pay & benefits, reforming pensions & health benefits.
    Birgeneau said such faculty reforms would not be healthy for Cal. Exodus of faculty, administrators: who can afford them?
    We agree it is far from the ideal situation. Birgeneau cannot expect to do business as usual: raising tuition; granting pay raises & huge bonuses during a weak economy that has sapped state revenues & individual income.
    We must act. Chancellor Birgeneau’s campus police deployed violent baton jabs on students protesting increases in tuition. The sky above Cal. will not fall when Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) is ousted.

    Email opinions to the UC Board of Regents