5 Better Places to Protest Than a College Campus

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

There are few better ways to make your point than with a well-conceived protest. As a journalist, they are fun to cover. I’ve seen clashes between cops and anarchists, watched hotel workers shut down Century Boulevard, and listened as New Yorkers, defending rent control against their then-governor, chanted, “George Pataki! Landlord Lackey!” (Try chanting it yourself—you won’t be able to stop).

So I’m delighted to see California’s college students out protesting program cuts and fee increases this week. Their cause is righteous. Unfortunately, their aim stinks.

They’re protesting in two places—college campuses and outside the Capitol in Sacramento – where they are unlikely to make much impact. College campuses are a waste of time because the protestors can’t make any converts there. Everyone on campus already agrees with them.

The Capitol is a tempting target, but it’s also a waste of time. California’s governing system, combined with partisan polarization, has tied the legislature (and the governor, for that matter) in knots. The main role of legislators, in putting together a budget, is to clean up the mess left them by the broken system. Protesting at the Capitol these days is like protesting outside your janitor’s office.

What would be a better place for these protests? You need sites that will grab public attention – and focus that attention on the people actually responsible for the state’s current dysfunction. For my friends on campuses, I offer my top five protest strategies, in ascending order.

5. Block the big roads. San Francisco State and UC Berkeley students who can’t get the classes they need – and aren’t afraid of getting arrested — might express their frustration by shutting traffic on the Bay Bridge. Perhaps UCLA, Compton Community College and Long Beach State undergraduates could team up to shut down the 405.

Why? California’s system has many authors, but voters – especially talk-radio-listening drivers who spend their commutes listening to radio talk hosts who preach the “something for nothing” gospel of high government services and low taxes – are the folks most at fault. They’ve created the mess that is the California constitution. You want to get their attention. Shut down their roads. They may be very angry with you, but at least they’ll know about your issue.

(Writer’s note here: all of the talk radio shows upon which I appear are exceptions to the above rule, as they broadcast only truth and light).

4. The Sacramento-area headquarters of CCPOA, the prison guards’ union. As prisons have won over and over in the budget process (largely because of tough-on-crime sentences), higher ed has lost. The prison guards are the interest everyone loves to hate. The theater of a student protest there would be catnip to media folks, and would frame the issue in a very memorable way for voters.

While you’re in Sacramento, you students might feel free to march on other big interests, including the Chamber of Commerce and the California Teachers Assn., who also have fought off attempts to reform the governing system.


3. Chevron and/or gas stations.
California is the only oil-producing state without a severance tax. Students could make the case for that tax by marching on the offices of Chevron, one of California’s oldest companies.

2. Retirement communities. Students at Berkeley should take the bus over to Rossmoor, the huge village for seniors in Walnut Creek. You should be very friendly—remember you’re protesting grandma – and it’d be smart to try to get many of the seniors to join you in the protest.

Why seniors? Old people decide elections – the average age of the voter in this state is 60. And since seniors have been voting in California for a long time, they’ve done more damage than us Gen Xers to the state constitution.

1. Unsold homes.

This would be my preference if I were a student—massive student protests outside homes that have been empty and on the market for months.

Why? Because — as USC demographer Dowell Myers and other researchers have pointed out — if California doesn’t produce many more college graduates and high-skilled workers than it currently does, the unsold home will be the future of the state. The state needs a new generation of upwardly mobile people who can buy the houses of boomers who are just starting to retire.

This would be a memorable sort of protest. It would bring home – literally – the point that higher education matters in a very street-level way. And it would remind California’s older votes that they have a personal stake in the future of today’s students, and of the success of higher education. To seniors who say California can simply cut its way to the future, the question is: who is going to buy your house?

The symbolism of such a protest would be powerful. The dream of your own home is essential to the American dream, and the California story. And the protests would provide a new twist on the Prop 13 revolt. So scan the real estate listings, kids, and get to work.

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