California Students Protest Cuts in Education

News & Politics

In the heart of Silicon Valley, in front of the very elegant Fairmont Hotel, a bunch of fired up students and nurses stopped a limo trying to enter the hotel. They surrounded it and rocked it back and forth. It looked like they might tip it over completely. Union officials, the ones who initially called everyone here, now had to personally escort the limo out of the teeth of danger. The besiegers only relented when they were told their target, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was not inside the vehicle.

When limousines are protected by union officials in Silicon Valley, you know California is in a hot political moment.

Authentic, car-rocking protest, not seen since Vietnam War protests and anti-Proposition 187 demonstrations, has returned to California. In 1994, Prop. 187 -- a bill that barred undocumented immigrants from services such as public schools and medical care -- triggered mass protests by the Latino community that made national news. In the days before the vote, over 100,000 people took to the streets, marking the largest march in Southern California's history. Although the proposition went on to pass, and was later struck down by the courts, it would be credited for alienating Latino voters from Gov. Pete Wilson and the state Republican Party, leading to the GOP's successive loses in state polls.

After this show of organizing strength by undocumented immigrants and their advocates, unions and Democratic politicians started taking Latinos more seriously, spearheading citizenship drives and organizing workers in the service economy.

Today, it is California students who are shaping up as the force giving muscle to street-level organizing against the governor, perhaps ushering a new era of mass protest over local issues in the state. This time, instead of an anti-immigrant initiative, it's the governor's proposed cuts in education and public services that is fueling grassroots mobilization among affected constituencies -- "special interests" to Arnold.

Students are adding bulk and confrontational energy to protests by firefighters, teachers and nurses that have grown in size -- 15,000 people in late May in Sacramento; thousands in Los Angeles on the same day; hundreds in San Francisco the month before; 2,000 in San Jose, which is not known for mass mobilizations.

At the San Jose protest against Schwarzenegger on March 25, labor officials scrambled to control the surge of students, mainly from East San Jose high schools, some of which have been ranked as the worst-resourced in the state. The angry students came in the hundreds, by bus or skateboard, and unaccompanied by teachers or community organizers. Police, hotel security and even union officials had to form a protective barrier to protect the hotel and the governor inside. The organizers kept asking the students to "take three steps back," to which one young woman responded, "We've taken too many steps back!"

If union bureaucrats protecting the governor sounds strange, consider the student walkouts that led up to the protest. The Bay Area Clear Channel station WILD 94.9-FM, popular among high school students and condemned by media critics as another brain-draining corporate entity, took calls by students across the Bay talking about how bad their schools were and how youths needed to fight back. When "The Dog House," the station's popular morning talk show that usually focuses on crank calls and strippers, uses airtime to support student walkouts, something new is emerging.

Early in the governor's term, university students and community college student activists were at odds. The state decided to give students who qualified for the UC or state system priority status for class registration and counseling at community colleges if they went to those schools first, as a way to make up for budget cuts in the university system. Community college students, however, were already sitting in overcrowded classrooms.

But the once-divided community college and university student movements are now strategizing together. Their statewide actions just weeks ago at the governor's offices in San Francisco, Fresno and Los Angeles were testimony to their new united front. For the first time in state history, the students have created a cross-system (UC, state and community college) coalition called Action in Defense of Education (AIDE).

The high school students' chants in front of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose showed the youthful energy that could electrify future protests. First in Spanish, then in English to accommodate non-Hispanic union members, they stood shoulder to shoulder, chanting to the governor, "Nobody likes you!" It's a line usually aimed at the school bully; in this case, it was aimed at California's governor.

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