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Davis, California

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Long tradition of strikes, protests characterizes UC Davis

Historically, campus protests have received some form of support from the University, community or police, and as the University of California’s culture continues to host strikes and movements, this UC Davis tradition has as well.

On Nov. 20, 2013, AFSCME 3299, the union for UC service and patient care workers, held a strike disputing unfair labor practices. The strike involved several types of UC workers and students, and one student recalled how her professor held class off campus to show support.

“We went to The Graduate and moved two benches together,” said Falon Darville, a fourth-year English major. “Then we had our usual class discussion.”

Perhaps the most active times for strikes and protests, according to Dr. Jerry Drawhorn of CSU Sacramento, were during the Vietnam War era, when several issues like race, homosexuality and anti-war efforts were swirling together.

For a book he is currently writing, Drawhorn is creating a timeline of UC Davis’ radio station, KDVS, where he once DJ’ed. His research has catalogued the dates of several strikes and protests. Several subjects that students in Davis and surrounding areas have spoken out against were women’s liberation, anti-apartheid, nuclear energy, free speech, the Natural Food movement, Davis’ local D-Q University for indigenous people and field workers’ rights.

“There were enough broad issues to give everyone something to stand for,” Drawhorn said.

Drawhorn also remembered a short blurb in an issue of The Aggie that displayed the era’s general skepticism of authority and the government.

In 1967, a former veteran and off-campus representative of ASUCD was investigated by agents of the U.S. Secret Service. According to The Aggie’s original article, Chuck Papke wrote on the outside of a government return: “Johnson’s war in Vietnam makes America puke.”

The aspersion was seen as a legitimate threat to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s life, and the Secret Service questioned Papke at his home.

Agent Larry Sheafe was quoted as saying in explanation, “If enough people puked on the President, he would die.”

At least three of Papke’s G.I. benefit allotments were not granted because of his statement.

“It’s not a time I’d want to go back to,” said David Lundquist, a former UC Davis librarian who was employed in 1966.

Lundquist remembers casually bumping into a Hell’s Angel on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. According to UC Berkeley’s Social Activism Sound Recording Project, members of the motorcycle club were opposed to the anti-war protesters and even attacked them.

A young student once told him it sounded exciting, and she wished she could have been there. Lundquist responded: “You really don’t want to.”

In 1970, several hundred universities and schools nationwide, including UC Davis, responded to the Kent State shooting in Kent, Ohio on May 4, 1970. The Ohio National Guard shot several unarmed college students during a protest.

“What are we going to do? How are we going to respond?” Lundquist recalled overhearing from the students. They had immediately responded, forming committees in the library and planning protests.

One such protest was held at Mrak Hall, Lundquist said. University administrators appeared to support the students, arriving at the scene and asking students what they could do to help. Lundquist said that even Chancellor Emil Mrak sat with the protesting students.

According to Lundquist, the University knew Kent State was a terrible occurrence. They didn’t want anything like it happening at UC Davis, so they did what they could to accommodate the students’ desires.

A few years later, protesting students found support from the city police. On April 28, 1973, a boxcar owned by the U.S. Department of Defense and carrying 250 pounds of bombs exploded near Sacramento in Antelope, Calif.

The shipment would have eventually been sent to Vietnam, and in response, UC Davis students staged a sit-in on the railroad tracks. Lundquist said that the city asked the students which streets they would need to use, and if they would like an escort.

“I remember seeing the march come down Second Street with a police escort,” Lundquist said. “At least one or two police cruisers were in front clearing traffic.”

Lundquist also recalled an incident where the police specifically took action to protect the students. During the railroad sit-in, one train engineer got fed up with the demonstration. He started moving the train and honked his horn. Students were forced to climb up on the train to prevent getting run over. A police officer promptly climbed up into the cabin and arrested the engineer.

According to Lundquist, it also wasn’t just students involved in this protest. He recalled a professor of environmental sciences and his wife sitting on the tracks. At some point, the police had to clear the tracks and warned the protesters that they would be arrested if they stayed. The professor left, but his wife stayed and was arrested.

“I wonder what their conversation was like the next day,” Lundquist said.

Protests in more recent years have also ended in arrests.

In November 2009, Mrak Hall was used as a demonstration location and 50 students were arrested for attempting to occupy the hall. In that case, students were protesting budget cuts and fee increases.

Again in 2011, students protested rising tuition fees during Occupy UC Davis. The Occupy movement at UC Davis resulted in the campus police pepper-spraying several students. However, Lundquist recalled that several people of the Davis community still brought soup and chili to feed the students, perpetuating a long history of community support.

“The city and the University wanted to take care of them, ” Lundquist said. “The whole pepper spray thing just doesn’t compute. It really tarnished Davis.”

However, not all activism in Davis has ended in arrests. Drawhorn remembered Jose Arguelles, a UC Davis art instructor who, in 1969, put on an “Art Happening.” According to its website, it was an event students used to focus their enthusiasm for activism and environmental issues through art.

After the United Nations’ declaration of Earth Day in 1970, the “Art Happening” was renamed and became the annual Whole Earth Festival.

Instances of community collaboration at the scale of the “Art Happening” have been rare. It’s tempting, then, to draw conclusions or make contrasts between the protests of then and now. However, Duane Wright, a graduate student in the Sociology Department, suggests the relationship is complicated.

“You really will need to understand the ways in which the social, economic and political are tied together, and what the effects of one causes in the others,” Wright said.

Wright said a particular movement may emphasize some of these aspects to give their cause an advantage. For example, Wright said he personally knows many people fighting for accessible public education.

“[They] are deeply invested in the social justice aspects of this cause,” Wright said. “It’s not just about numbers of dollars, but about oppression and inequality.”

Likewise, similar issues may have come up in protests of the past. Although people of all backgrounds were drafted into the Vietnam War, Wright said the poor and minorities were disproportionately sent to the front lines and killed in combat.

In the present day, he also said high tuition fees can make it difficult for these same disadvantaged groups to attend universities.

Wright also mentioned the AFSCME 3299 strike and the protest against President Napolitano, when protesters demanded the UC president’s resignation in November 2013.

“Both of those protests/demonstrations were very upfront about the issues of race, immigration, status, gender and class in the University,” Wright said. “The anti-Napolitano protest had many demands, such as stopping the surveillance against students, making the UC a sanctuary campus for undocumented peoples and fair contracts for campus unions.”

Though history demonstrates that strikes and protests on this campus have and continue to receive some form of community support, Wright suggests that students pay closer attention to the purpose behind the movements, rather than simply joining the crowd.



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