.Shut Down or Shut Up?

News2 protestPublic opinion in Santa Cruz polarized after 96 hours of student protests

Nonviolent protesting is somewhat of a local pastime in Santa Cruz, but the reaction from community members to six students shutting down the southbound Highway 17 lanes near Ocean Street last Tuesday was less than enthusiastic.

The highway shutdown kicked off 96 hours of disruptive action protesting proposed tuition hikes, racism, and police brutality. In response, social media exploded; GT’s Twitter and Facebook accounts received an overwhelming wave of mostly negative comments from residents—many of whom said they support civil disobedience, but that the students’ anger was misdirected.

“I’m all for protesting … but only when it’s done positively and constructively. Chaos isn’t a bad thing. But today was just plain ridiculous, shameful, selfish and not positive at all,” wrote one Facebook commenter in reaction to the highway shutdown.

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City councilmember Micah Posner agreed that the methods were ultimately ineffective—saying that protests should motivate people, not alienate them. But ultimatel,y the police department came out on top, he says, calling their restraint the “high point” of the week’s events.

Posner says he’s definitely not happy with the tuition increases, but he’s equally disenchanted with how students chose to respond.

“We have the lowest voter turnout in the history of UCSC,” Posner says. “Students aren’t feeling powerful and engaged and I’m really sad about that, because I think that student engagement is a really important part of our civic discourse.”

Ramona Rose, a third-year UCSC community studies major and student organizer who was active in the protests that shut down the campus on Thursday, says that the highway shutdown action was essential in gaining visibility for the movement.

“We operate in this system that doesn’t allow us to speak to our legislators and doesn’t allow us to work with these people who are in charge of the UC—in charge of funding. This is what we’re left with,” Rose told GT on the phone from the protests at the west entrance on Thursday.

In response to community insistence that protests be kept at UCSC, Rose says they’ve already tried that, with poor results. After attending the Regent’s meeting in November, occupying the Humanities building on campus, and meeting with Chancellor Blumenthal and the Student Union Assembly, protesters felt they’d made little headway—so they went for something a little louder to get attention.

Rose says that postponing the fee increase to next Fall, as UC President Janet Napolitano announced in late February, isn’t nearly enough.

“I think the community should just really become educated about these things and maybe if there’s more of an uproar we could stop this; we’re in a desperate situation here,” says Rose. “If we don’t resist this, who’s going to?”

Shortly after the six UCSC students responsible for Tuesday’s highway shutdown were arrested, a petition circulated on the Internet to get them expelled from school. The creator of the petition could not be reached.

“The ironic thing about this is that students are fighting for education and fighting to end police brutality. The people who are in this community and even people who are not in this community who signed this petition—they’re signing something to expel them from an education. It’s very ironic,” says Rose about the petition.

The protest was worth angering locals because of all the media coverage it received, says Rose, and she hopes it will spark conversation about the issues.

Scott Hernandez-Jason, director of news and media relations for UCSC, says that Thursday’s protests went smoothly, but that community members weren’t the only ones inconvenienced.

“A lot of students are really frustrated because the libraries needed to be closed, and students are a couple of weeks away from finals,” he says. “While there are students protesting there are thousands and thousands of students who just want to continue their education, and that’s not happening.”

Scott-Hernandez points out that UC president Janet Napolitano and governor Jerry Brown have been in talks about tuition, and unveiled the Stability Plan so that families can at least budget for future increases—even if they say tuition hikes are inevitable without legislative change.

Chancellor Blumenthal and Campus Provost/Executive Vice Chancellor Alison Galloway condemned the highway actions in a statement released Tuesday that said although the university supports free speech, obstructing traffic in ways that could jeopardize lives is unacceptable.

“You have to wonder how effective it is in building support for a cause if the people who are aware of the cause are now sort of shaking their heads at the tactics,” says Hernandez-Jason. “The line gets drawn when it starts infringing on other people’s rights. That’s no way to have a society—when one group decides to take rights away from another group.”

Some locals do support the student protestors—in a letter to GT, resident Craig Stevens called them “courageous”  and even “heroes” for going through with the action even though they knew it would be unpopular within the community.

Far more numerous, however, were angry reactions like the one from Roberta Ligando of Aptos, whose letter to GT suggested student protesters be given a taste of their own medicine: “Apparently some UCSC students think that we townies are responsible for the high cost of their tuition … I suggest the we gather and block entrances to UCSC on 4-20. Then, students will not be able to get access to the meadow, where they would have smoked pot.”

PHOTO: One of the six protesters who shut down the freeway last week, holding up thousands of commuters last Tuesday. JOHN MALKIN