This fight is about saving hope

January 18, 2010

Student activists at San Francisco State University (SFSU) organized an occupation of the business administration building December 9 to protest budget cuts, furloughs for faculty and fee hikes. About 14 students barricaded themselves inside--at the occupation's high point, some 300 supporters circled the building outside.

Police in riot gear attacked the protest early on December 10, arresting dozens of students, who were given charges ranging from traffic citations, to failure to disperse, to trespassing. Here, five students who were arrested that day--Giovan A, Halston Chapman, Hunter Bolin and Juan Macias, who were part of the occupation inside the building, and Emily Caruso, who was arrested outside as part of the solidarity demonstration--talked to Alex Schmaus.

WHAT IS the fight to defend public education in California all about?

Giovan: Before this semester, I never really thought about the social dynamics of a university. I've learned from the many people I've met in the new movement at school. Going to college isn't just about getting a good job and a secure future. The modern world is very isolating; physical and figurative walls are erected between people. So higher education is essential because it provides a social space to really think about the world.

Emily: We grow up with the concept of the American Dream--if you work hard and play by the rules, and if you study, you can do well and make it like everybody else. The cuts to education in California are eliminating that opportunity.

The cuts mean that people aren't able to go to college because they can't afford it. This fight is about saving our hope. This fight is about showing that when we get together, we have the power to change the world. We're intelligent and creative, and this fight is about reaffirming that.

Students defend the doors to the occupied business administration building at SFSU in December
Students defend the doors to the occupied business administration building at SFSU in December (Luz Clemente |

I'd like to see education used as a way to help people find ways to make themselves happy. I want see people studying things that will help them to think creatively and flourish.

Halston: I went to the Defend our Education conference at SFSU and saw some literature about ethnic studies being cut at a different rate as other programs. I know ethnic studies was fought for; it wasn't just something that was always there. Look at California State University Dominguez Hills, which is 80 percent Latino and Black. Whole programs are getting wiped out there, so there's obviously the need to deal with racism and discrimination in the fight for budget justice.

I heard this was the first year that funding for the prison system had surpassed funding for education. That's scary, you know? There are 2.3 million Americans in jail. A million of them are Black, and half a million are Latino. I'm half Latino and half Black, so that directly affects me. What are my odds, my family's odds, of staying out of prison, compared to getting an education?

Lack of opportunities creates desperation, desperation creates crime, and crime creates inmates. It's almost like they're taking students and turning them into inmates. These private prisons are run by for-profit corporations. You build more prisons, you have to get more inmates. If you have resources like these corporations do, you can go lobby legislatures and governors to fill the prisons.

So the fight for budget justice is not just isolated to campuses; it goes through the whole working class, and everyone is being affected. It's an "us" and "them" thing.

Juan: Being 100 percent Mexican, I see how the lack of opportunities affects my family. I see my friends' dads going in and out of jail, my cousins in and out of jail. It's ridiculous; they're just trying to provide for their families. What opportunities have they had with their access to education cut?

I see how the schools are being mistreated; we aren't really learning anything. We're just being trained for business or whatever makes money. I'm fighting for a public education system that allows me to learn about my family and my people, rather than just a one-sided view of things devoted to business and money.

I'm a business major. I chose that major because I thought it would secure me some kind of job when I left school, but I think we should have a more humane education system. We're on Earth to help each other. We're meant to make mankind go as far as it can, not try to cut people and leave them out in the dust.

WHY ARE students turning to the tactic of building occupations?

Giovan: As children, we're forced to go through the education system. When you're forced to do something, it's hard to feel like you own it. Occupation allows you to break out of that mindset. You're taking a space and owning it--it's empowering.

Halston: Rallies and petitions and lobby days in Sacramento acknowledge that the power is in the hands of politicians and university administration, but an occupation is really empowering for students. We were defending something that already belonged to us; it's not the case that we're asking for anything.

An occupation forces people on campus to take a side. We tried to run a part of the university in the interest of students and workers. We built community. In a sense, capitalism didn't exist in the occupied space. People were offering support; they were bringing us food and blankets.

HOW DID the campus respond when you occupied the business building on December 9?

Hunter: We were expecting to be inside the building for a couple hours, but the people who had gathered outside totally kicked it up a notch. Students were ready to engage in civil disobedience, even get arrested, for this cause. There was a cultural change--people met new friends, they had discussions about the budget, bonds were established, and the picket formed a community.

Juan: What happened on campus that day was amazing. The business building is in the front part of the campus, so if you walked in through one of the main entrances, you would see that students were locked inside, and that people outside were forming human chains to defend the occupation. What does that say to you?

We were inside for 24 hours, and people were out there supporting us for the whole time. It was freezing outside, and hundreds of people were willing to throw down for the cause. They came in waves, coming and going and coming and going.

SFSU PRESIDENT Robert Corrigan sent an open letter to the campus which said that he cherished students' right to protest, citing his experience in the civil rights movement. But he went on to denounce the occupation, arguing that students should be fighting to keep classrooms open, rather than shut them down. What's your response?

Hunter: Take it in perspective: 3,000 students missed a day of class, but 40,000 people are being barred from an education this spring.

Emily: If President Corrigan was really in support of student activism, he would negotiate before using riot police. He wouldn't spy on student organizers with undercover cops. He always tries to present himself as being on our side, but his actions have shown the opposite.

Juan: I took Corrigan's letter as a slap in the face. He's using his administrative power to say that these kids are stupid and they don't know what they are talking about. We shut down one building for 24 hours, but furlough days have shut down the whole campus many times this semester.

We want Corrigan to listen to us. We demand that Corrigan come out to our general assemblies, but he has been denying us that--he's been hiding from us. President Corrigan can take shots at us from behind a computer, but why doesn't he come talk to us? We want to ask him, why are you approving this attack on public education?

Halston: I think that the letter was an attempt to discredit what we did. He got rid of us in the middle of the night, because he foresaw the potential of another group of students arriving in the morning. He knows that it isn't just the 14 kids inside the occupation that he should be concerned about.

THE STUDENT occupations in California have made headlines around the world. What's the relationship between the new student movement here and other struggles?

Emily: Other things are being cut from the state budget--public-sector services that people need to live. When you see an elite minority make cuts to services that affect a whole mass of people, depriving them of their health care or their housing, we are talking about class warfare.

Giovan: We want to apply deeper politics and address broader issues than just the problems of the university. Capitalism perpetuates war and the prison-industrial complex. When you bring this up, people disagree sometimes, but if you don't talk about political problems outside of the university, you aren't able to get at the root of the budget cuts or anything else.

We feel these issues are just as important as ours. There are already enough divisions. We don't need to bring that into our vision. An injury to one is an injury to all. It might seem unrealistic to fight capitalism, but it doesn't always have to be that way.

Juan: We went to a couple of the [UNITE HERE] Local 2 picket lines, and they actually came out to our occupation. They got on the megaphone and were leading chants. They brought numbers out, so it was really great. We help each other out, that's how it's going to work.

Halston: I went to hear Bobby Seale speak in Oakland the other day, and I talked to a former Black Panther while I was there. I asked him the difference between our generation and his generation. He said that there was all this dissatisfaction in all these different pockets of society--the student movement, the antiwar movement, the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement.

The difference back then was that all the dissatisfaction began to bleed into one another. All our dissatisfaction comes from the same source--exploitation and profit. So if there was an antiwar movement that asked for the military budget to be spent on education, it makes total sense for a student movement to demand an end to wars.

HOW DOES the March 4 statewide day of action against the cuts fit in, and how should we organize to respond to that call?

Juan: Lots of people are dissatisfied with the way the country is being run right now. People feel that they don't have any power. They think, "What am I going to do about it, what is this one person going to be able to do?" If K-12 on up, if all sectors of education strike together on March 4, then we're all going to be in the same mental state. How can they kill that?

If we don't go to work or go to school, what are they going to do? They're just going to sit there in their $500 suits. The strike on March 4 may not bring complete justice, but it will definitely show them that we are a force to be reckoned with.

Giovan: March 4 was the agreed-upon date of the first statewide general assembly at the University of California Berkeley on October 24. The resolution was for a strike/day of action. President Corrigan told some students that the administration is supporting March 4.

They're only supporting the call to action because they feel the pressure from below. I'm scared that March 4 might be turning into a holiday or something. Some want to turn March 4 into another furlough day. The action has to stop business as usual. I want to see March 4 as the start of an extended strike.

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