“We refuse to pay for the crisis that was created by the 1%,” Spencer Beswick shouted to the group of 85 people gathered at Dewey Square. The protest, organized by Students Occupy Boston – a consortium of students from colleges in the Boston area – was part of a national day of mass actions for education. Students took to the streets in cities across the country, including Seattle, Oakland, New York, and Chicago.
“We refuse to accept the dismantling of our schools and universities while banks and corporations make record profits,” Beswick continued, over gusts of cold, wet wind. “We refuse to accept educational re-segregation, massive tuition increases, outrageous student debt, and the increasing privatization and corporatization of the university system.” His words were met with cheers.
The protesters consisted of students from Tufts, Harvard, Emerson College, Boston University, Boston College, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Berklee College of Music, Suffolk University, and UMass-Boston, among others. Zack Nestell-Patt, a student at Berklee and one of the organizers of the event, had commented earlier that he hoped the protest would be a kind of “comeback” event for student activism in Boston. “This will help to show us where we are as a group and as a movement,” he said.
Nestell-Patt said that of all the issues that young people might protest, the state of education in the U.S. should be at the top of their lists. “The larger issue is student debt. The average public school student leaves with over $20,000 in debt after four years and will enter a job market that doesn’t really exist for us.”
Indeed, in 2011 graduates of four-year public universities in the U.S. held on average about $23,000 in student loan debt. According to the Federal Reserve, over 15% of adults – about 37 million Americans – hold some amount of student loan debt. Approximately 40% of this national student debt is held by people under the age of 30. In Massachusetts, that number is slightly higher, with 65% of Bay State grads holding an average of about $25, 500 in debt.
The group marched through the rain-soaked financial district, chanting “Education should be free, not just for the bourgeoisie!” and “Education is a right, not just for the rich and white!” Having climbed Beacon Hill, they made their way inside the State House for a speak-out, or public expression of concerns and demands.
In Nurses’ Hall, the ornate and soaring gallery at the center of the State House, several of the students unfurled banners. The scene was almost comical, as police officers scurried back and forth, forcing students to roll up banner, even as another would drop from the marble balcony railings across the room.
When the group dispersed around 4 pm, several of the protesters made their way toward Cambridge. There, Occupy Harvard and rank-and-file members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers rallied in support of university library workers. Last month, Harvard University announced plans to restructure their library system and potentially to eliminate numerous staff positions. (See “Harvard Community Protests Library Cuts,” in this issue.)
About 45 people gathered in front of the Holyoke Center for a picket and march, concluding with a speak-out on the steps of the Widener Library. Sandra, a Harvard undergraduate and part of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), described her recent efforts to gather testimonials from library workers, to help document the specialized and deeply human labor they perform.
“You can’t replace people with robots,” Sandra said, to cheers.
The actions of Boston-area students on March 1 indicate that there’s plenty to protest in current U.S. higher education, but they also suggest that student activists have their work cut out for them. Boston’s rallies were far smaller than organizers had hoped, and the turn-out hardly represented how central colleges and universities are to the life of the city.
In an editorial for Open Media Boston, Jason Pramas argues that the action’s small size should not be blamed primarily on the inclement weather. Pramas urges student activists to hold fast to their visionary political demands but also to “work harder at building [their] ranks”.
“This will require many many one-on-one conversations…And public forums. And smaller college-by-college actions,” Pramas writes.
Bigger showings were made in other areas of the country, with especially notable actions in Seattle, Chicago, and across California. Occupiers rallied outside the headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, to protest the private foundation’s enormous influence on U.S. education policy.
“Rather than devote more funding to providing quality public education, state politicians are putting forward legislation that would open the door to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately owned and run,” explained the Occupy Seattle call to action. “The Gates Foundation is a leading backer and promoter of charter schools nationwide, despite the fact that their own Stanford University study showed that charters, on average, perform worse than public schools.” Protesters outside the sleek headquarters building in downtown Seattle spelled out their demands in large silver letters: “No Charter Schools” and “Fund Public Schools.”
In Chicago, students at DePaul University began the occupation of a campus building to protest tuition hikes. A statement from the group declared that tuition at DePaul increased by 35% in the last seven years, and that DePaul students now graduate $28,000 in debt, on average.
Students began the action by announcing two specific demands: an immediate tuition freeze and the establishment of a forum for public debate of the tuition increases, open to “students, faculty, and administration alike.” In response, DePaul’s board of trustees moved their scheduled meetings to an undisclosed, off-campus location.
DePaul’s student protest marks the first occupation of a Catholic institution of higher education in the U.S. since the Occupy movement’s start last September.
California witnessed the biggest turnout on March 1, with thirty colleges holding large-scale protests under the Occupy banner. At UC Santa Cruz, hundreds of students blocked the entrance to administration buildings. Around 300 students at California State University, Los Angeles, marched to protest college privatization.
According to The Huffington Post, the day’s state-wide actions were coordinated in part by ReFund California, a coalition of homeowners, community members, faith leaders, and students, which describes itself as “working to make Wall Street banks pay for destroying jobs and neighborhoods.”
The group helped organize the massive rally in Sacramento, the state’s capital, on Monday, March 5. The Los Angeles Times reports that 68 were arrested in what some were calling an effort to “occupy the Capitol.” Activists protested cuts to public education and also expressed their support of Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent funding proposal. The proposed budgetary measure would fund education through a tax on high-income individuals (defined as those making over $250,000 per year).
The March 5 rally, which drew an estimated 5,000 teachers, students, and university employees to the state capital, was one of the largest demonstrations of its kind so far in 2012.