We’ve Got the Momentum — Let’s Run With It

Picture 3You know things are heating up when the cops bust out their riot gear.

Kevlar vests, rubber bullets, stun guns and tear gas canisters rarely accompany sunshine and happiness. Zip ties, broken bottles and screams of anger typically signal a ‘shit has hit the fan’ type scenario, wherein some group of individuals is exceptionally pissed off and another is exceptionally nervous.

That was the scene yesterday when hundreds of students gathered outside UCLA’s Covel Commons, picket signs in hand as they bellowed their opposition to a controversial 32-percent fee-hike proposal. Tensions were high and tears were shed. Protestors threw bottles and police officers replied with Tasers. At one point, a group of students rushed the door. Over a dozen people were arrested.

Somewhere inside the red brick building sat the regents, their minds already made up. The fee increases will pass. That decision was finalized a long time ago, away from angry mobs or tear-streaked cries of betrayal. This meeting is a symbolic affair. Like an awards show but without the applause.

The thing about the UC Board of Regents is that no matter how violent a protest gets or how dramatic a scene it are confronted with, it remain completely unaffected. At the end of the day, a few hundred people storming around with cardboard signs is a relatively small inconvenience. Local newspapers will run a couple of stories. There might even be an iconic photograph or two (see: page three). But soon the hype will pass, and everything will go back to normal.

Until next year, that is, when the board decides to raise fees yet again.

And that right there is the heart of the problem. This whole unfortunate charade is an unending cycle. A similar protest took place last year, and the year before. Another one will take place next year and probably the year after that. A protest alone is simply ineffective. It is a flash in the pan, a brief moment of disarray that quickly fades from memory if left without the support of a larger political movement to carry on the momentum.

Anyone can yell angrily at a wall of police officers. It takes real organization and real political action to produce something worthwhile out of all that anger. The scene at UCLA will keep repeating itself over and over again unless some fundamental change is made in the way we address the problem of rising fees. The first thing we need to realize is that the regents are not the enemy — they’re just the most convenient targets. The real problem is the state Legislature, a governing body that has repeatedly demonstrated its disinterest in the wellbeing of our university systems.

Last week, the Guardian editorial board suggested that student leaders pool their resources to launch a statewide public awareness campaign aimed at California voters. The message: public universities are in trouble. We would broadcast the message in television ads, print it on pamphlets, scatter it across the Internet and reinforce it through frequent discussion. The campaign would shift our focus from the regents to the Legislature, making this fight something more than a useless internal skirmish. Rather than going through the same tired motions year after year, we would be working to enact lasting political change by convincing California’s electorate to make public universities a priority.

Politicians listen, especially when their reelection prospects are in jeopardy. But that will only happen if higher education becomes a political issue, something voters can get angry about, put on bumper stickers, talk about at work and hear about on television.

Isolated protests won’t raise the awareness necessary to affect change. It’s time to try something new.