Hundreds of protesters filled Sproul Plaza on Thursday afternoon to participate in the Million Student March, a nationwide student movement for tuition-free public colleges, the cancellation of student debt and a $15-per-hour campuswide minimum wage.
After several speeches and chants outside Sproul Hall, participants marched to California Hall, where they covered the doorway and front of the building with posters, on which they wrote their amounts of student debt. The Million Student March took place at more than 115 colleges around the country. At UC campuses, the march was jointly organized by members of the UC Student Association.
Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore agreed that the affordability of a college education is critical but noted that UC Berkeley has a “strong” financial aid program that allows 60 percent of undergraduate students to graduate with no debt and the remaining 40 percent to graduate with an average debt of $17,500 — against the national average of $29,000.
The campus closed the Campanile and increased UCPD staffing in anticipation of the protest.
“Essentially our whole department is here,” said Sgt. Rick Florendo during the protest.
Protesters called for the implementation of a tax on stock transactions that would contribute revenue to public education, among other public projects, which Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, introduced via S. 1371 in May.
In addition to addressing issues related to student debt, protesters also spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement and expressed solidarity with students at the University of Missouri.
UC Berkeley organizers stressed the interrelation of the many issues the protest addressed.
David Turner, a campus graduate student in education who helped organize the march, suggested a connection between decreased funding for higher education and increased funding for incarceration, which he said discriminates against underrepresented minorities. He also said he believes that reduced government funding for the University of California under the Reagan administration was a response to the development of strong black student groups, such as the Black Panther Party, at public universities.
“You can’t pick just one issue,” Turner said. “We have to make sure that we organize at these intersections. This is how we can eradicate oppression.”
Turner concluded the protest by leading participants in a chant of Black Panther Party activist Assata Shakur’s quote: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Organizers said they hope the protest refocused discussions about higher education on the needs of students.
“My hope is that when the Democrats are debating two days from now that they’re talking about the Million Student March,” said Mohsin Mirza, the external vice president of statewide affairs for ASUC Santa Barbara.
UC spokesperson Kate Moser said that UC students typically have lower debt than the national average but that she recognized the validity of student concerns about college affordability.
“There is always progress to be made, and we remain strongly supportive of increased funding for public higher education,” Moser said.