Looking back on March 5

March 15, 2012

Alex Schmaus and Jessica Hansen-Weaver report on protests and actions in Sacramento on March 5--and assess Occupy Education's attempt to step up the fight.

THOUSANDS OF students, teachers, union members and community activists traveled to the state capitol of Sacramento March 5 for an annual demonstration in defense of public education as Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers of both parties continue to push for austerity measures to solve California's budget crisis at the expense of the 99 percent.

The largest event of the day was a rally organized by three statewide student organizations--held, as it has been in years past, on the steps of the Capitol building. But among the speakers at the rally were Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic legislators--all supporters of Brown's proposal to impose deeper cuts in state programs, while refusing to increase taxes on the rich.

This year, a group of activists, taking their inspiration from the Occupy movement, planned for months for an action to go beyond the mainstream rally--and take the voices of protesters into the Capitol building itself for an occupation of the rotunda.

Hundreds of people participated in the Occupy Education demonstration inside the Capitol, where activists held a "people's assembly," with the aim of being a democratic space for activists to discuss our opposition to Brown's austerity budget, deepen the connections between students labor and community organizations, formulate and discuss next steps.

Protesters hold a discussion while sitting in at the California state Capitol building
Protesters hold a discussion while sitting in at the California state Capitol building (Steve Rhodes)

Unfortunately, the numbers of people who participated in the occupation fell short of organizers' goals. In particular, turnout was low from several unions and local labor councils that had endorsed the Capitol occupation and promised to mobilize members. Harassed by large numbers of police, the GA was largely unable to accomplish its aims.

The action by Occupy Education reflected the widespread discontent with the austerity drive that is being led by Brown and the Democrats--as well as the desire for an alternative, which has expressed itself in broad support for a proposed ballot measure to impose a state "millionaire's tax." But the action also showed the work ahead of us--to reach out and mobilize wider layers of people in actions against the cuts in education and other vital programs.

THE ANNUAL March 5 "March in March" event came in the wake of the March 1 day of action that involved thousands of Californians in walkouts, teach-ins and other demonstrations against cuts in education at every level.

One group of several dozen people from the Occupy Education coalition of students, educators and other activists drew out the connection between the two days of protest with a "99 Mile March for Public Education and Social Justice" that started in Oakland on March 1 and traveled to Sacramento for the March 5 demonstrations.

The marchers' 20-foot yellow "Occupy the Capitol" flags stood out prominently during the opening march in Sacramento, but police refused to allow them onto the Capitol lawn where the crowd for the main rally gathered.

Three groups representing student governments at state colleges and universities--the Student Senate of California Community Colleges (SSCCC), the California State Student Association (CSSA) and the University of California Student Association (UCSA)--organized the main march and rally according to the same plans used in previous years. The crowd for the rally was estimated at more than 5,000.

City College of San Francisco student Carmen Melendez spoke for many in the crowd when she said, "Today is definitely a good start. However, we have to keep mobilizing, we have to keep the pressure on. The 1 percent has stolen so much wealth from the broader public that it's going to take more than just one march to turn the tide."

But many of the speakers on the tightly controlled stage have no interest in "keeping the pressure on." The most prominent were leading Democrats like Newsom, Assembly Speaker John Perez, Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg and former Obama administration official Van Jones.

The Democrats complained about the draconian cuts that Republicans want to impose--but as Charlie Eaton, a UC Berkeley graduate student and an officer in the grad employees union said, "We can't just keep saying don't cut us. Rather, we need to change the debate to 'Who should pay?'"

There were some differences among the Democrats over "who should pay." Protesters cheered when Jones called for "the millionaires and the billionaires to pay California back." Organizers collected signatures for the "millionaire's tax," a ballot measure proposed by the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and California Nurses Association (CNA) that would increase state taxes by 3 percent on income over $1 million and 5 percent on income over $2 million.

But Steinberg spoke for an alternate ballot initiative put forward by Brown to increase the sales tax by 0.5 percent and increase income taxes by up to 2 percent on incomes over $250,000. If this measure fails in November, Brown has threatened nearly $5 billion in additional "trigger cuts" that would hit all sectors of public education.

The CFT and CNA are organizing for the millionaire's tax--though news reports in mid-March indicated the CFT was reaching a deal with Brown to support his regressive tax initiative and drop the millionaire's tax. The much larger California Teachers Association and the state council of the Service Employees International Union already support Brown's tax on the 99 percent. The UCSA has endorsed the millionaire's tax, but the SSCCC and CSSA have not.

WHEN THE rally came to an end around 1 p.m., protesters were asked to board the buses, rented by the three student organizations, to go home. But this wasn't the end of demonstrating for everyone.

During the rally, activists mobilized by Occupy Education moved through the larger crowd, recruiting people to help occupy the Capitol rotunda during the afternoon. The desire among many for independent politics was evident in impromptu speakouts that formed among the rally participants.

Anneliese Harlander, a first-generation immigrant and college student, gave voice to the urgency felt by activists taking part in the action when she told CBS News, "I work two jobs seven days a week to make sure I can go to college. We need people who are willing to fight for our dreams and for universal education."

However, Occupy Education activists were split on the question of when and how to enter the building.

A rumor had been spreading that Capitol police were planning to shut down the building at 1 p.m. to prevent an occupation. Many activists responded by entering the Capitol as fast as possible, ahead of the supposed shutdown. These activists headed for the rotunda in small groups.

Other activists, including the authors of this article, argued for organizing a larger body of people to enter the building together, so that we could be more effective with our numbers.

In the end, there was no early shutdown of the building, but as soon the first 100 people entered the rotunda, Capitol police blocked the entrances to that space. The other 300 or 400 people participating in the action were forced into hallways leading to the rotunda, with a wall of police standing between them and the activists in the rotunda. Had we remained united in going into the Capitol, we might have prevented the police from splitting us up.

Demonstrators attempted to go ahead with the plan to hold a "people's assembly" inside the capitol, despite the challenges posed by the police.

First, activists broke up into small groups to introduce themselves and explain why they chose to occupy the Capitol. The groups brainstormed about demands and issues, such as the question of democracy at school, defense of affirmative action, support for public-sector workers, and opposition to privatization, school closures, rising tuition and student debt. The most popular and unifying idea was support for the "millionaire's tax."

The wall of police separating the different groups of activists presented challenges in communicating, but activists in the rotunda and in the hallways did their best to make the assembly work. The facilitation team inside the rotunda attempted to coordinate a rolling "people's mic" to ensure the maximum number of people could participate.

Unfortunately, the process proved very difficult. Many in the hallways felt they weren't part of the discussion and became frustrated.

Meanwhile, one small group of occupiers began discussing a dangerous plan to push through the police lines. Adding to the tension, someone announced that 200 or more police in riot gear were lining up on the Capitol steps and harassing activists on the surrounding grounds. Plus, Gavin Newsom was allowed to enter the rotunda, where he began a debate with a small group of activists.

These challenges stymied Occupy Education activists' hope for a fully participatory "peoples' assembly" in the center of state government.

At this point, we along with other occupiers argued that, given the threat of mass arrest and possible police violence, everyone should leave the building together. With a 5:30 p.m. labor rally outside, there was an opportunity to continue the assembly in a safer space, with hundreds of union members hopefully participating.

Most people did march out together, but 68 activists decided to stay inside the Capitol, where they were arrested one by one.

THE BRIEF occupation of the Capitol has many lessons for activists to discuss and debate.

First, there was the turnout. During the months of planning, Occupy Education activists set a goal of leading 1,000 people into the Capitol, but our numbers on March 5 were only about 400 or 500--far less than the number of people who participated at the outdoor rally.

Missing from the day were some of the unions and labor bodies that endorsed the occupation. The graduate employees union at University of California, which spearheaded Occupy Education, did turn out members, but SEIU Local 1021, which had promised 20 buses for the protest, had only a small number of members on hand.

The Alameda Labor Council, whose unions represent close to 100,000 union workers in the East Bay, voted unanimously in early February to endorse the March 5 occupation and to mobilize its members, yet it had virtually no presence in Sacramento. Individual workers got themselves to the capital, but there was no organized mobilization for the daytime action from a labor body that could have made a difference.

Moreover, Occupy Education organizers, ourselves among them, may have underestimated the ability of Democratic Party leaders to absorb the political energy of a majority of protesters.

California's austerity agenda is driven by Gov. Brown, Assembly Speaker Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg, all of them Democrats. But more liberal Democrats like Van Jones and Gavin Newsom, and the student government leadership, were still able to persuade many rally attendees that the Democrats are the champions of working people's interests.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has engaged hundreds of thousands of people in struggle and dramatically shifted the debate about inequality and democracy in the U.S. But the coordinated attack on the Occupy encampments late last year took away the movement's organizing centers. With the struggle less visible to the wide layers of people who sympathize with it, participation has become more limited.

In this environment, some core activists in the movement have responded with a strategy of "escalating" our tactics, including inviting confrontations with police and large numbers of arrests.

No doubt some of the people arrested in the Capitol on March 5 thought it was necessary to make a statement against the scale of the cuts. But we need to consider the message this sends to the much larger numbers of people who support our goals--that the only way to be part of the movement is to get arrested. For many working class people, people of color and, of course, undocumented immigrants, this is a barrier to political involvement.

In fact, the opposite strategy is necessary for our movement. Rather than engage in smaller actions involving a core of people who are willing to risk arrest, we need to strategize about how we can involve more people in the struggle--whether on campuses, in workplaces, or in communities of color.

We need to see real participation from organized labor as an important part of the struggle against the cuts, and figure out how to make bodies like the Alameda Labor Council honor their promises to mobilize. And we need to contend with the influence of the liberal student organizations to win more students to independent political action not tailored to the needs of the Democrats.

Despite the harassment of police, the Capitol occupation on March 5 not only showed the desire to fight austerity, but it produced many good ideas about next steps during the brainstorming session.

One proposal was for a statewide public education mobilizing conference in April. This conference can be a top priority for our movement--to provide a space for further political discussion around demands and strategic vision. Other important proposals included supporting a potential California Faculty Association strike in April, campaigning for affirmative action, and participating in various actions planned for May Day.

Also, the widespread popularity of the millionaire's tax shows that this campaign can galvanize the sentiment against austerity. More organizing will be needed to get the measure on the November ballot--and still more after that to turn out the vote.

Brown's latest proposals for spending cuts, tuition hikes and regressive taxes are widely opposed around the state. We have to look now to the ways we can turn that sentiment into action.

Michael Fiorentino contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives