Before dawn on Tuesday, March 3, a group of six students at the University of California Santa Cruz went to the fishhook connecting Highways 1 to 17. Evoking the practice of highway blockades popularized during the Black Lives Matter movement, they chained themselves to aluminum trashcans filled with cement and blocked traffic for nearly five hours. The traffic jam this caused stretched over the hill to snarl Silicon Valley commutes, an act of peaceful civil disobedience that has since become the most controversial of the “96 Hours of Action” declared across the UC system for the first week of March, in protest against tuition hikes and police violence. After their arrest, the students were informed in jail that the university had suspended them indefinitely, leaving the campus residents homeless and without access to dining plans or healthcare.
Since then, student activists have vigorously debated whether such tactics can effectively build towards a mass movement – all while insisting on defending these six students from excessive and unprecedented punishment. In the meantime, we have been drawn into a difficult discussion with community members and apolitical UC students who fail to see why a protest of tuition hikes and police violence warranted this level of public disruption – and what these two topics have to do with each other in the first place.
Ironically, UC president Janet Napolitano has herself already laid out the political stakes for us, in a recent article for the Washington Post. “Too many states, including California,” she writes, “spend more money on prisons than on higher education.” Such lopsided priorities, which emphasize repressive policing at the expense of our futures, expose the deep hypocrisy of the state’s budget cuts. Even the former Secretary of Homeland Security recognizes that it’s a problem when our society is more interested in locking people up than sending them to school.
Of course, Napolitano did not refer to the highway blockade, let alone the Black Lives Matter movement. Her impassioned defense of higher education wasn’t intended as a critique of the state’s prioritization of incarceration over education – it was part of a process of backroom politicking and closed-door negotiations with the state, in which talk of “university privatization” was used as a bargaining ploy. In November 2014, the UC Regents, an unelected board composed of politicians, CEOs, and investment bankers, voted to raise tuition by 28% over the following five years. This decision was met with widespread outrage, attracting student protest across the state and consistent opposition by Governor Jerry Brown. Yet both Brown and Napolitano have tried to use students as pawns in their game. Their decisions have resulted in a very real crisis at the UC – a crisis of governance.