Signs of the Times at UCLA

Students, faculty and staff at all 10 UC campuses walked out of class and work last week on the first day of school to protest severe cuts to higher education. At UCLA, 1,000 demonstrators participated, the largest protest in years.

Student fees are going up. But funding to student services is going down. Courses and libraries are being eliminated. Instructors are being laid off. Class sizes are increasing. The picket signs summed up the situation: “We are students, not ATMs,” “Build schools not prisons,” “Cut the perks. Not what works,” and “Can’t U.C. the injustice?”

Future lawyers made signs detailing, in bullet points, the specific issues being protested. Future designers sketched hands begging for alms.

Hadley Suter, a 24-year-old French and Francophone–studies doctoral student, came out to declare her disapproval of UC President Mark Yudof. The French department is losing its lecturers, the people who train the grad students to teach the undergrads. Suter’s hand-lettered sign read, “Yudof with his head.” Asked if this was a reference to the French Revolution (that little proletariat revolt against fiscal mismanagement), she nodded hesitantly, yes.

“You should have drawn a guillotine,” her friend suggested.

The night before the protests, Tina Ngo, a second-year English major, got together with six friends at the Student Activity Center to make signs. They taped together plastic knives to function as handles. Ngo’s sign said, simply, “FU-rlough.” Economical, cheeky.

“Investment not divestment,” read Carlos Amador’s financially minded sign. Amador, a first-year social-welfare master’s candidate, explained that “divestment” was the process of taking away resources. He had attended one class earlier in the day (“Theories of what-is-it-called? I don’t even know,” he said, trying to recall the course title) but wasn’t technically walking out of anything at the moment.

A few students mixed art with politics. One girl waved a sign depicting a cartoon of President Yudof and Governor Schwarzenegger playing a game of hangman. She had not personally drawn the sign but believed that Yudof did indeed wear eyeglasses and have a bulbous head. The caricatures were reminiscent of Picasso’s late-life sketches, but without checking — the Arts Library was scheduled to be closed down — one couldn’t be sure.

Also, the Young Research Library would no longer be open 24/7. Unfortunate, because someone clearly needed to spend more time there: Fourth-year physiological-science major Frances Borona hefted a sign (made by someone else) that said, “Who’s university?”

Students gave speeches about the difficulty of working part-time while going to school. Professors talked about the impact of the budget cuts on their programs. Then the masses marched to the administration building to demand an audience with Chancellor Gene Block. One guy, caught up in the fervor, scribbled “Chop from the top!” on his spiral-bound notebook.

Of all the day’s picket signs, the ones most reminiscent of the great and terrible bygone age of student demonstrations were Sara Galindo’s and her friend Eowyn Williamson’s: “Books Not Bombs.”

A handful of protests have taken place at UCLA since the Vietnam era — an animal-rights protest here (a dozen people in 2006), a hunger strike there (1993, to gain departmental status for Chicano studies). But nothing rivaled the violent marches of the 1960s and ’70s. Certainly this was nothing like the protest on May 5, 1970. U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia. Ohio National Guard troops fired on student demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four. The subsequent UCLA protest left nine policemen injured and 74 students under arrest. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency, closing down all California universities for four days.

To baby boomers, those were real protests. Kids today? They care more about their pocketbooks.

Then again, students in the ’60s went to school for pennies on the dollar.

One of Galindo’s signs made the point: “UC Tuition — 1960: Free. 1985: $722. 2010: $10,300.”

“We were trying to get across that education was free up until 1970,” she said.

In California today, the state spends $49,000 a year per prison inmate, and $14,000 per UC college student.

At the end of the UCLA protest, the chancellor did not come out. The protesters left, chanting, “We’ll be back.”

One student, George Chacon, collected the signs for later use. Chacon, majoring in international development, swore he would return for more protests. But that sentiment applied to few others in his field of study. New admissions to his major have been suspended.

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