Occupying the Capitol

Amid education cuts and tuition hikes, students increase pressure in Sacramento

Thousands of students gathered at the Capitol to demand more state support for education.

It's an unseasonably hot day at UC Davis, and student activists are milling around a tent city, set up especially for 100 people arriving from a four-day March on Education. The school, one of the hubs of the Occupy movement, gained notoriety when public safety Officer John Pike casually pepper sprayed a line students during a sit-in back in November. Now, officers bike through the idyllic scene, smiling and chatting up occupiers.

Everyone is preparing for the next day, March 5, the statewide day to defend education that will bring thousands of students and teachers to Sacramento to demand an end to budget cuts and fee hikes at California's schools, community colleges, and universities.

Those on the march hope to highlight the importance of this issue, marching 79 miles from the Bay Area. The first night, the march stayed in Richmond, and the next day Richmond's Mayor Gayle McLaughlin came out to welcome them.

Students march annually on Sacramento, and say they won't stop until education is affordable (or, as some would demand, free). A climate of worldwide protest over disparities in wealth and opportunity, including Occupy protests in the United States, helped fuel a larger than usual turnout this year.

More than 5,000 people converged in Sacramento March 5 and marched to the Capitol building, occupying the Rotunda all day. Many chanted "no cuts, no fees, education must be free."

Community college student throughout the state are reeling from the cuts, and resulting fee hikes—course units, once free, were raised from $26 to $36 per unit last year, and will be increased another $10 this summer. These costs go towards closing the state budget deficit, and not toward a bigger course catalogue; classes continue to be slashed.

Frances Gotoh of San Bernardino Valley College is back at school after being laid off from her longtime job at Bank of America. She said she desperately needs the retraining; without it her job prospects look dim. She needs to support her family—her 20-year-old son is also a college student—but says she can't afford the increasing fees. "Why is education being taken away?" asked Gotoh. "It belongs to the people."

Josselyn Torres, a psychology major at Sonoma State University, felt similarly. "Every year, the fees are getting higher but the class size is getting bigger," said Torres, who noted that many of her friends won't be graduating with her because so many of the classes they needed were cut. "The politicians have all gone to college. If they keep cutting our education, how can we make it as far as them?"

When the march reached the Capitol, student and state government leaders spoke on the importance of education. Students demanded an end to fee hikes and budget cuts. Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) praised student activists and expounded on the necessity of accessibility to education. Almost all speakers decried the two-thirds majority needed to raise taxes, allowing just a few Republicans to block them.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom also spoke, describing the need to support education in staunchly free-market terms: "You can't have an economic development strategy without a workforce development strategy."

Periodically, the crowd interrupted Newsom and other politicians in the midst of making promises with chants of "show us." They also chanted this election year threat: "You'll hear us out or we'll vote you out!"

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