My faith in the ability of my generation and the one following mine to actually give a damn got a major boost today when I headed down to City College at the (for the under-30 and under-employed set) ungodly hour of 8:00 for the pre-rally to a protest of the educational budget cuts proposed by Governor Jerry Brown.
First off, I’ve got to say that in general, I admire Brown’s apparent willingness to compromise on shrinking the state budget gap with equal measures of cuts and taxes – not tax increases, mind you, any Democratic proposal like that would never fly with the state’s Republicans who represent large chunks of land but small portions of the population – these would just be continuations of tax hikes imposed under Republican leadership that are set to expire. I’m still concerned, though, about the general lack of respect for education the proposed budget seems to show. In addition to what we’ll cover here, there’s talk of shortening the school year in the primary grades (by as much as a month) and increasing class sizes (by as much as 35%), among other concerns that I know other Rag writers are exploring as I type. But on to the show…
The following events take place across campus from where Gov. Brown and Second Lady (is that the proper term?) Jill Biden were to attend a forum focused on improving graduation rates and expanding education opportunities for returning veterans. The topic of the summit seemed particularly relevant, given the contrasting proposals by Brown to slash education funding across the state.
As I approached Gorton Quad at about ten past eight, I encountered a throng of maybe fifty or sixty students, faculty, and community members already gathered and listening to speeches. The free-form demonstration was a refreshing exercise in democracy, as an open-mic format allowed anyone with the gall to speak their mind to line up and take command of the PA.
One of the first speeches I caught (I don’t know how many I missed, as the rally was going strong by the time I showed up just a few minutes late) was a spoken word piece powerfully delivered by a student whose name I didn’t catch – most of those who did identify themselves did so with first names only. The verse that resonated most to me went “Budget cuts feel less like a cut and more like a knife stabbing me in the stomach.”
To visualize the effect of the cuts, a couple girls wandered the crowd with stage blood and paintbrushes, offering to ‘cut’ anyone willing to creatively enhance their support for the cause. Before long I ended up with a dripping gash across my neck.
Hugh, a former student, took the mike and offered up a tale of his own struggles to cover enrollment fees, book costs, and $6/unit tuition as a community college student in the early ‘90s. Before I had a chance to compute that the cost had doubled to $12 by the time I started moonlighting after high school a few years later and actually enrolled full-time in 2000, he informed me (and reminded everyone else) that classes now cost $32/unit. And they’re headed toward $42 by the fall.
Doing some quick math in my head, I determined that a student who wants to graduate with a four-year degree on a four-year timeline (as if that were even possible, given the already-disparate ratio of students to core class offerings) needs to take 15 units a semester, and that those 15 units would cost $630 for a California resident. And that’s before considering general enrollment, books, and transportation – all to attend junior college, not even a full-fledged university!
Abel, a part-time professor of Chicano studies at the City and Mesa campuses, reminded everyone that summer school has been all but eliminated for 2011 – only a small group of students who need to finish studies to transfer to university or attain associate degrees were ‘invited’ to enroll in a very limited class offering. He was set to teach two classes over the summer, but instead will be lining up to draw unemployment. “I’m officially laid off as of May 19,” he told the crowd, visibly shaken. This one really hit me, as the only way I ever was able to knock out any of my classes aside from English, sociology, and cultural studies was through intensive inter-session classes over summer and winter breaks.
It was mentioned several times throughout the event that the crowd gathered was supportive of neither Republicans nor Democrats – heaps of blame was laid upon both parties, with perhaps the lion’s share of the ridicule focused on the Dems. “The Democrats are not your friends!” was a mantra repeated more than a few times, by several different speakers.
Another speaker whose name I didn’t catch reminded us of (or enlightened us as to) several alarming facts. 12% of those age 18-65 live in poverty, but for children under 18 the number is closer to 24%. That doesn’t seem to bode well for future generations striving to excel in a world of continually rising tuition costs. Further, a prominently displayed pie chart on federal spending blamed war costs – $735 billion on the Department of Defense, $125 billion annually in veterans benefits (the only members of our society entitled to socialist-style lifetime cost-free medical care), and $400 billion on general defense expenses – for the vast majority of the national fiscal crisis.
Someone else found it intriguing (and I did too) that these cuts to education are coming at a time when minority participation in higher education is finally approaching a level proportionate to the nation’s population. Too many uppity women and dark-skinned folks getting interested in taking a role in shaping the world’s future? Can’t have that!
Another poignant point was made by a gentleman introduced as Lawrence – “How can they possibly expect us to create world leaders spending three cents of every tax dollar on education?” This was contrasted by looking back to the pie chart, showing 50 cents or more of every dollar going to some aspect of the military.
By the time the 9:00 hour approached (the official start time for the protest) the crowd had more than doubled to a population of 150 or so, and we’d attracted a following of a handful of police officers. After running a few minutes past schedule and squeezing in a few more folks who’d lined up to speak, a small mob joined in a chant of “Whose schools? Our schools!” and marched on Park Boulevard.
The crowd spilled into the street and proceeded to shut down the southbound side of Park, gathering honks and fist pumps from northbound cars as we proceeded down C Street and parked in front of Saville Theatre, the site of the meeting of well-heeled politicos. Police could do nothing but stand by and watch, until the force, by now twenty or more members strong, was forced to cordon off C Street due to the gathering in the street and erect barricades in front of all staircases leading to the theatre entrance. When the meetings broke, men with jackets and ties and women in pantsuits milled about surrounded by uniformed officers on the hill above to look down upon the constituency they ostensibly represented.
I caught one police officer darting around the outskirts of the crowd, wielding a camera and hiding behind bushes, trees, and signs while snapping off photos of the most vocal demonstrators. It wouldn’t surprise me if I’m on candid camera next time for pointing him out this time..
Banned by the uniforms from transporting the public address system (allegedly due to lack of proper permits), the free-flow speeches continued via bullhorn, punctuated by boisterous chants of “Si se puede [yes we can], tax the rich!” and “We want money for education, not for wars and incarceration!”
Sandra, a single mother of three, took the mike and described her reluctant return to school, for the sake of “the hope of giving my daughters a life of dignity.” Due to the class cutbacks, she expects to be forced to return to her former occupation as a housekeeper.
Around this time, a rumor milled around the crowd that Gov. Brown and Mrs. Biden, alerted to the negative atmosphere, decided to cancel their scheduled appearances. I couldn’t, however, confirm the accuracy of this allegation.
Daniel, another student speaker, described his attempt to break away from the crowd and actually listen in on the meetings. “I had the police tell me ‘You need to leave. That is an order!’ The police are here because they’re scared of us! Why? We’re students! We just want to talk to you!” The bullhorn was then turned toward the suits gazing down on the masses from atop the hill. “We’re not going to bother you! We’re not going to attack you! Come talk to us!”
Richard Dittbenner, officially billed as the San Diego Community College District’s Director of Public Information and Governmental Relations (now there’s a mouthful of a title), was gracious enough to brave the crowd. He tried to explain the state’s proposed cuts that would ultimately cost the district $10.3 million in the next year, and attempted to offer sympathy. “The state wants to de-fund up to 5,000 classes in a school year . . . 10,000 students are going to be adversely affected.” He also attempted to push the talking point that the forum was more about education opportunities for veterans than anything else. Amidst a scattering of boos and insults, the majority of the crowd clamored for silence during his speech, and respect for the man whose attention they’d managed to muster. One student, however, traded turns on the bullhorn, respectfully expressing his disrespect for the official position.
After Dittbenner dismissed himself from the impromptu debate, the TV cameras rolled in and, as the lunch hour neared, the crowd elected to allow the street to be reopened, instead electing to continue their march back to the quad, where a banquet luncheon was being prepared for the forum attendees. I had to depart at that point, but the protest organizers continued documenting the hilarity that ensued. You can catch that all here…
View the photos at full size by clicking on the images below. All photos by Dave Rice