More than five months after Occupy Wall Street began, student protesters in California continue to draw on Occupy themes.
Over the past few years, students from California public higher education institutions have protested on individual campuses and lobbied in Sacramento in response to decreased funding from the state and rising tuition. But on March 5, after thousands rallied on the steps of the state Capitol building, a smaller group occupied the building’s rotunda for about seven hours — demonstrating that the Occupy movement still plays a prominent part in the state’s student protests.
“The nationwide Occupy movements clearly gave the cause of public education a boost because they drew attention to the stark patterns of socioeconomic inequality that have now become entrenched in America,” said Ananya Roy, UC Berkeley professor of city and regional planning, in an email. “Public education, of course, remains a vital avenue for mitigating such inequality.”
The approximately 120 protesters who participated in the rotunda occupation at its peak were significantly smaller in number than those participating in the rally held in front of the building beforehand, but UC Student Regent-designate Jonathan Stein — who was at the rally — said the occupation added an level of pressure to the Legislature.
“The students who take a non-Occupy approach … and work with administrators and lobby the regents … are better served as Occupy exists,” Stein said. “You have students showing up in the hundreds or thousands and making life difficult for decision-makers and putting pressure on people.”
Occupations, Stein added, generate headlines in ways that lobbying visits do not. For example, the Occupy Cal events of Nov. 9 garnered mass media attention after police used batons to disperse protesters who set up an encampment on the steps in front of Sproul Hall.
Though Occupy-related protests have left a mark on student demonstrations, occupations themselves are not the only method employed by students in reaction to cuts to higher education.
Stein was among those who participated in the UC Student Association’s March 5 lobbying efforts, which occurred during the afternoon portion of the occupation, and pushed for legislation that would increase funding for higher education. The lobbying followed the association’s Student Lobby Conference in Sacramento, which is held every year and usually occurs around the same time students protest.
Yet while past protests on individual campuses have shown students’ frustration with higher education funding in California, the events of March 5 indicate a shift in focus from asking university administration to address the issue to demanding results from state legislators directly.
Previous protests at UC Berkeley focused attention on demanding changes at the campus or university level. In March 2011, protesters stood on the fourth-story ledge of Wheeler Hall and called for a cap on campus administrative salaries, among other demands.
And when Occupy Cal started last November, protesters spoke out against the UC Board of Regents in several ways, including labeling members of the board as “the 1 percent.” Regents meetings were also shut down on two occasions — once in November and again in January — after disruption from protesters who demonstrated with Occupy themes.
By protesting in the rotunda of the Capitol last Monday, demonstrators brought Occupy-related messages from previous protests to state lawmakers, urging them to address decreased funding for higher education.
“The occupation is a rejecting, in a manner of speaking, of contemporary politics and contemporary government,” said Frank Luna, a UC Berkeley senior and Occupy Cal protester. “There is no contradiction between wanting to replace a system while simultaneously doing what is in our own power to repair the damage that the system has done.”
Amruta Trivedi is the lead academics and administration reporter.