From The Trenches - Occupy The Capitol
3/7/2012 7:23 PM
March has been the time of student rallying and lobbying efforts in support of public education. I have been involved over the past three years with various groups in support of this cause. This year was the largest year of protests and actions that I have seen.
Events from the Week
On March 1st with a 99-mile march to Sacramento by students, staff, faculty and community groups. Our own Russell Kilday-Hicks, VP for Representation, participated in this exhausting, yet rewarding effort. The effort took three days, culminating in a group of tired activists crashing out in church basements and the home of other protestors in the Sacramento area.
On March 5th, 2012, three different events took place. In the morning, over 10,000 students marched in support of higher education funding, organized by the California State Students Association (CSSA), University of California Students Association (UCSA), and Student Senate of the California Community Colleges (SSCCC). The participants gathered at Southside Park in Sacramento, CA to march to the Capitol building for a massive rally, attracting big names in progressive politics as speakers. This amazing effort was just the start as students flooded the Capitol to meet with legislators and to demand funding for higher education. It was the first time a rally of this size has been seen for higher education funding in many, many years and is in response to continued cuts to education and escalating tuition costs.
Occupy the Capitol
A different contingent called Occupy the Capitol also organized actions for the day in support of higher education funding, along with multiple other demands to ensure access to higher education. The activists marched in solidarity with the student organizations to promote increased taxes to fund higher education. After standing in solidarity with the student organizations, about 350 individuals entered the Capitol and began an occupation of the rotunda and adjacent hallways.
I was personally involved with planning events for Occupy the Capitol, spending over twenty hours on teleconferences, phones calls and meetings. I was working with multiple student, labor and community organizations, with a variety of different goals. The decisions to occupy the Capitol was made by a series of general assemblies of Occupy Education CA taking place at UC Berkeley. However, many individuals and groups from across the state who believed in the action got involved. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to be involved with such a great group of people.
Just getting inside the Capitol building took almost an hour. CHP and Capitol Security enacted a variety of new restrictions, including: only two water bottles per person, no metal canteens, no fruit that could be thrown, no bandanas, no masks, and whatever else they could do to severely restrict the ability of the occupiers to stay. The restrictions not only affected the occupiers, but all the students there to lobby. Many of the occupiers were dismayed that this nonviolent direct action brought with it the sense we were being treated as hooligans.
My role for the day was the inside police liaison, which meant I would relay communications to and from the CHP officers. I had the pleasure of working with Officer Ed Bertola to smooth out communications and ensure everyone understood the order of events. By the time I arrived at the rotunda, CHP was closing off access due to fire codes. Protestors began lining up in the hallways to participate.
Once inside the rotunda, things got a little awful. CHP had blocked off access to the restrooms on either side. Anyone who left to use the restroom was not let back in. One chant that broke out was “C-H-P, Let Us Pee!” This restriction whittled the group down from about 200 people inside the rotunda to the 68 individuals who risked arrest at the end of the night.
The general assembly was difficult, given the anxiety of folks being trapped and the poor acoustics within the space. The facilitation team did a marvelous job given the constraints. We also felt the support of the 500 folks on the outside on the West steps. The presence of the outside supporters brought in a line of police in riot gear, again with the assumption violent action would take place. One mounted officer nearly trampled a young girl, and ended up apologizing to her.
Mike Geck broadcasted the incident on UStream, which you can find here:
We attempted to have pizzas and water brought into the rotunda, but both items were denied access.
A list of demands was eventually produced, including:
1) Pass the Millionaire’s Tax
2) Cancel all student debt
3) Democratize the UC Board of Regents and the CSU Board of Trustees
4) Fully fund all education
5) Amend Prop 13 to move to a split roll tax, commercial vs residential.
The facilitation team emphasized this effort did not end at the Capitol, but that these demands would be taken up by the associated groups to develop strategies, working in the legislature, within the various education systems, and in the streets through grassroots organizing.
Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom wanted to speak to two “leaders” in his office, with the assurance they would be let back into the rotunda. The inside tactical team and facilitation team asked me to relay a message that if Newsom wanted to speak with the group, he could come down and participate like everyone else. And he did, the only government official to do so. His participation was an exercise in horizontalism, where no one person gets special treatment. It is easy to speak from a stage, but much harder to roll up your sleeves and get involved on the same level like everyone else. The only drawback was the media encroaching on his presence and disrupting the general assembly in the process.
As the CHP officers were preparing to issue the dispersal order, the facilitation team made it very clear to everyone understood the consequences of being arrested. Ultimately, about 75 people stayed as either protestors or legal observers. CHP had over 100 officers in and around the rotunda area preparing for arrests. The organizers performed a non-violence training on how to be arrested and let everyone know the resources were available through the legal team. I stayed and continued to work with the officers to ensure it was an orderly and safe process. Big ups to Jono Schaffer and Les Kleinberg for helping me through the process and lending insight into the history of protests at the Capitol.
Here’s a short video I put together from the inside:
The two student groups - official organizations and the occupiers - were contentious at times, due largely to feelings that the occupiers were attempting to co-opt the message of the day. I know individuals in both groups who strongly opposed the tactics or messages of the other group. I believe this was in large part due to the mass media have trouble doing even rudimentary investigative journalism. Multiple news reports and alerts conflated the two groups as one large contingent of activists in the lead up to the day. Articles after the actions inevitably mashed the two events together, and depending on the newspaper or news station, added their own personal slant to the events. I passed at least two news crews that were already reporting on “tensions between the two contingents” even as the day had just begun. One welcome change, though, is that the groups are debating which actions to take, instead of whether to take action at all. We are moving in the right direction.
The message was heard loud and clear from both groups: fund higher education. The difference was in the tactics used to get that message across. I have been involved over the last couple of years with the annual March protests for public education, and have seen the same message ignored by the legislators, or using the actions to score political points and blame the opposing party for legislative gridlock. Their inability to do anything furthers a “culture of blame”, where gridlock or a lack of resources have caused the legislators to blame each other for bad things happening, in this case the continued cuts to higher education. If the legislature continues to ignore these demands, whether from the 10,000 students assembled or the 1,000 occupiers and activists, they will have answer for their lack of action. Blaming the occupiers doesn’t negate the fact they still control the purse strings of the state, and that they should be held accountable if they care about quality, affordable public education for all in California.
Joseph Dobzynski, Jr.
California State University Employees Union
Vice-President for Member Engagement
Statewide Organizing Committee - Chair
Member of the 99%
Note: The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the opinions of CSUEU.
2 comment(s) so far...
By Diana Askea on
3/7/2012 11:29 PM
Re: From The Trenches - Occupy The Capitol
Good work, Joseph! Wish I could have joined you.
Interim Labor Rep
CSU, Chico - Chapter 302
By Pat Heath on
3/8/2012 8:29 AM
Re: From The Trenches - Occupy The Capitol
Ditto what Diana said!