Feb. 24th Sit-In

Workers and Students Unite

by Cindy Amobi

This article is published here without the permission of the author. It originally appears in the “New University”

“Real pain, real action!” Student and worker voices cut through the silence on the fifth floor of Aldrich Hall this Wednesday as 17 members of the UC Irvine community faced police, armed with a list of demands, and refusing to leave until these demands were addressed.

 Multiple building occupations and mass protests across campuses, riots and fires at UC Berkeley, students demanding that their leaders hear their voices. Sounds like a scene out of the Sixties, right? Across the UC system a general upheaval has been unfolding in recent weeks as students are showing a distinct and increasing dissatisfaction and disillusion with their administration.

On Wednesday February 24, 2010 UC Irvine had its moment as 17 students and union organizers were arrested after holding a nearly two hour sit-in on the fifth floor of Aldrich Hall, in the hallway leading to Chancellor Drake’s office. The 17 entered the building at roughly 9:45am, composed of two graduate students, twelve undergraduates, mostly African-American, and three Union organizers. They then proceeded to sit in a line along the fifth floor hallway nearest the Chancellor’s office chanting phrases such as “Drake’s university? Our university!”

Outside the administration building, a combination of about 50 students and workers protested against the lack of support from administration in light of many of the issues raised in the demands of the 17 inside.

One particular item of insult was the upsurge of “anti-black” activity in the UC system in the past few weeks. Protestors highlighted specific instances that they felt the Chancellor had failed to adequately address, such as the recent “Compton Cookout” held by students from UCSD, where party organizers urged invitees to participate in common racist stereotypes of the Black community “in celebration of Black History Month,” and then went on a UC funded television show, referring to those offended by their actions as “ungrateful n******.” At one point in the morning, copies of the New University were torn and trampled on by protestors, in response to a recent article that not only questioned the validity of Black History month, but also accused minorities of “crying eternal victim hood.” Many present, like third year Art History major Emily Kuhlman, felt that the recent happenings, and those in the past, have deeper implications: “Anti-blackness is a societal symptom of integrated and unrecognized racism.”

Another demand brought up was for the “immediate direct hiring of all out-sourced ABM workers and fair pay for all campus workers.” Jorge Olvera, a custodial worker at UCSD and executive vice president of service for a chapter of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), which represents workers like himself in the UC system has been quoted as stating that in-sourcing hasn’t occurred because UCI management wants to impose citizenship checks on workers, some of whom have been working for the university for up to 20 years. Adriana, one of the workers advocating for in-sourcing, had this to say about the protest: “I am here because I am a mom, a wife, a worker. When you put your mind to something…the power of unity…we can make a big change in our community and in our lives.”

Protestors also revisited the recent 32 percent fee increase, demanding the Regents to reconsider and hold another vote, with public participation. They expanded the issue to include financial aid to AB 540 students, 100 percent funding for a recruitment and retention center for underrepresented students, and a reinvestment in ethnic, queer, and women’s studies departments and programs. Protestors also stood in solidarity with the “Irvine Eleven,” students who were arrested at an event featuring Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, and called for no disciplinary action against them.

Meanwhile, offices on the fifth floor were locked down, and police issued a mutual assistance call to Newport Beach and Irvine police departments. The first warning of arrest came around 10:45am. The mood among police seemed almost casual, as they patiently waited while the 17 continued to chant until the sit-in was declared an unlawful assembly, violating California Penal Code Section 409. At 11:14am the first arrest was made, and for the next half hour police handcuffed one by one, with the sit-in participants chanting and pounding the walls louder each time police approached.

As word spread to the protestors picketing outside that their comrades had been arrested, some formed barricades in front of the Aldrich Hall exits, which the police eventually cleared. Protestors then took to the streets, dragging dumpsters on to Pereira Drive in an attempt to prevent police from transporting the apprehended students and workers. As they waited for news from the inside, students and workers chanted and gave speeches on why their actions were justified: “We are standing in solidarity…against this racist tirade, in solidarity with the workers, the students, and everyone who is struggling in this UC system.” By this time, the protest had gathered more attention, including that of member of the Diversity Coalition of UC Medical School. Nicole Roberts, a first year Black med student, had this to say: “I’m enraged. What happened at UCSD was bullshit. We work so hard just to be here. And our chancellor is Black. I know he’s trying to play it safe but this is unacceptable. We want to show that there are multiple grad students that support.”

By 2:47pm, the 17 had been released, though they face charges of unlawful assembly and violations of university conduct policy. Fourth year Political Science major and African American Studies minor Ryan Davis, one of the 17 arrested, hoped that their actions show the urgency of the situation and help “students on this campus realize their agency to affect the system.” Professor of Comparative Literature Eyal Amiran, believed that these events would not have been necessary if UC administration addressed the severity of the issues: “They need to find a concrete way to show that they really hear what the people are saying.”

And the troubles keep coming. At 12:00am Friday morning a noose was found hanging on the seventh floor of UCSD’s Geisel library. At 8am, concerned members of the UCI community, including Black Student Union chair TeKeyia Armstrong, Umbrella Council chair Hui-ling Malone, and ASUCI President and Vice President Megan Braun and Sarah Bana went to Chancellor Drake’s office, demanding that he address the situation. Able to meet with Vice Chancellor Gomez instead, students expressed that because of UCI’s similar demographics, known instances of racism, and the particularly hateful message of the noose, Drake needed to address the event. Meeting later on with Drake, students expressed that because the Chancellor is the leader of this community, in addition to being Black, it is imperative that he act. And act he did. In a campus-wide email sent Friday night, the Chancellor stressed that “we must remember and rededicate ourselves to our values and guiding principles.” Furthermore, UC leaders sent out a newsroom address denouncing racism and advocating that members of the UC community to speak out “whenever, wherever, and however you confront behavior that violates the values of this university.” Let’s hope that these are more than empty words.

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