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Protests against tuition hikes continue to spread across UC system

(The Open UC)

UC Berkeley students outside Wheeler Hall. (The Open UC)

At noon on Monday, students from across the University of California system walked out of classes as part of an ongoing protest for affordable education.

Protests were sparked as students attended a meeting of the university’s Board of Regents last Wednesday, where the Board voted 7-2 in favor of a fee hike to raise tuition 5 percent in each of the next five years. In-state-tuition students would see a rise to $15,560 in 2019, as opposed to $12,192 in the 2014-2015 school year. Out-of-state students would see an even larger jump, being asked to pay as much as $45,000 — a $10,000 leap — in tuition alone. But that’s nothing when compared to the tuition in 1980, which was just $719 per year.

At the meeting, students used civil disobedience in an attempt to block board members from getting in the room. The Los Angeles Times further reported that on Thursday, as the vote went through, student protesters chanted so loudly that board members’ voice votes could not be heard, and were only taken after the activists were dismissed.

Just before the walk-out was announced, Hannah Berkman, a sophomore at UC Berkeley from West Los Angeles, said that this new round of hikes represents “a continuing effort to privatize public education and put the burden on students.”

The locus of the protests has been at the University of California-Berkeley, which saw a similar series of events play out in 2009. Since the night that followed Wednesday’s decision, hundreds of students have held an ongoing occupation of a main academic building on Berkeley’s campus, Wheeler Hall. Throughout the week at “Wheeler Commons,” as it’s now known, there have been movie screenings, strategy trainings and even dance parties. Protesters began by blocking doors, but later opened the building to those wishing to attend classes. The hallmark of the occupation has been nightly general assemblies, where decisions are made regarding the operations and future of the occupation. Protesters have posted lists on the walls of Wheeler with requests for supplies like coffee makers, toothbrushes and sponges. Academic workers from United Auto Workers Local 2865 have also joined demonstrations.

The occupation of Wheeler Hall is part of a larger effort known as the Open University of California, which is protesting tuition hikes across the UC system. Students have also begun to occupy buildings at UC Santa Cruz, while UC Davis students staged a “sleep-in” on campus grounds.

Berkeley students have three demands: no tuition hikes; full transparency of UC Berkley’s budget, in compliance with California Assembly Bill 94; and the dropping of charges against UC Berkeley student Jeff Noven, who was arrested on felony charges while attending the Board of Regents meeting last Wednesday. This list was trimmed down from an original list of 13 demands and ratified by the General Assembly on Friday.

Yesterday, students also asked that supporters call UC president and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, as well as California Gov. Jerry Brown to speak out against tuition increases. According to the New York Times, Brown threatened to withhold state funding, not increase it, if the system went through with the hikes.

At a popular Berkeley football game against Stanford on Sunday — the schools hold one of the state’s biggest rivalries — students demonstrated support for the occupation by donning green ribbons, representing the financial burden of the hikes. Hundreds of students at Berkeley last week also participated in a global day of action for the 43 disappeared students at the Rural Teachers College in Ayotzinapa, Mexico.

In addition to national and international media attention, the occupiers are also getting international attention: students and faculty in Australia and Egypt have each penned letters of support, while those fighting austerity in Greece spoke with the students via Skype.

While there are ongoing discussions among the organizers about what will happen to the occupation as students leave campus for Thanksgiving break, Berkman seemed confident about the movement’s ability to sustain itself: “Even if we decide to vacate Wheeler Hall, that doesn’t mean the end of the movement at all. We can find another home base. We can find another way to organize.”