Last week, UCR played host to the University of California’s first major student protest since peaceful activists at Davis were pepper sprayed by UC police in November. Many hoped that the demonstrations, which took place in conjunction with the regents meeting, would show that students were not afraid and that they would continue to stand in peaceful solidarity against what they feel to be regents’ support of economic injustice. Some protesters even called for regent reform. Unfortunately, protesters wound up communicating something quite different.
Not everyone at the demonstration conducted themselves in as peaceful or responsible a manner as students at past protests have. Some used steel barricades to block police from getting from place to place on campus. Others pushed those same barricades towards police in an effort to clear space for the growing crowd, a move that police understandably interpreted as threatening. Many more goaded police on, cursing and yelling as though they were trying to get a rise out of them.
It should be noted that nowhere near all of the people at the demonstration behaved as combatively as those mentioned above. The vast majority tried throughout the day to maintain a productive protest environment, chanting and giving speeches to inspire the group to constructive action. There was an incredibly diverse group of different student and outside populations at the demonstrations, each of which had varying goals and utilized many different tactics during the protest, and it would be wrong to blame all of them for the demonstration’s hostile tenor. Regrettably, the actions of the few individuals who were responsible had serious ramifications for all.
Meanwhile, inside the regents meeting, seated protesters voiced their concerns about recent tuition hikes, rising administrative costs and a lack of communication between regents and students. This portion of the protest was probably the most civil and successful of the day, despite interrupting a discussion on alternative non-tuition based revenues. Many protesters were also needlessly disrespectful, often yelling and injecting profanity-laden commentary into their speeches to regents. At times, they complained that their voices weren’t being heard, even though the public comment portion of the meeting was extended in order to give them more time to air their grievances.
In all the ruckus, it is no wonder that much of the protesters’ message was lost. Unlike the demonstrations at Davis and Berkeley, the UCR protests seemed, for many, to be much more about making noise than making a point. For most of the day, there was a vocal minority of students that remained unnecessarily aggressive.
Police used reactionary force in response to acts of protester aggression, like using signs to encroach on police lines, in order to keep the situation under control. At various times throughout the day, they fired pepper-pellet guns at people’s legs and shoved them with batons in order quell unruly sections of the crowd. Unfortunately, some students who were not involved in police confrontations were caught in the crossfire, but officers did not target these students.
None of the force that police exerted against protesters on Thursday could realistically be called “police brutality,” at least not to the extent of what was witnessed at Berkeley or Davis. The authorities used extreme caution in judging where and how force ought to be used, and they only resorted to it when it was a necessary recourse to student action. Clearly, officers learned their lesson from the Davis and Berkeley protests; they remained calculated and composed throughout the day.
Sadly, the small sect of protesters who thought it more important to provoke authorities than rally support for their cause marred the event for everyone. That should not, however, discourage the peaceful majority of individuals who showed up in astonishing numbers to support student rights. Their passion and vigor was, undoubtedly, in the right place. Their message, cruelly, was largely drowned out by the provocative tactics of the few overly aggressive individuals among them.
Protest, an irrefutably powerful tool, must be wielded with caution and purpose. A more creative, constructive approach would have made last week’s demonstrations much more successful. Protesters could have, for example, sat down in the middle of the road by which it was believed regents would be leaving, quietly impeding their exit. The symbolic power of a demonstration of this nature would’ve drastically and positively altered the tone of the day’s events.
And let’s not forget that protest is not the only way to make a difference. The regents are well aware of students’ disapproval of budget cuts and tuition increases; most of them dislike it too. Students’ voices have been heard—it might not be such a bad idea for them to take the next step and start working with the appropriate leaders and legislators to develop a solution to the problems the UC is facing.
After last week’s protest, the regents announced that they would be moving their May meeting to Sacramento, where they hope to join students in protesting continued state budget cuts. Perhaps it’s time to take peaceful, creative protest to the capital.