Profiling student-led movements that have shaped UC Davis
At the Memorial Union (MU), the eyes of important global and local activists gaze upon passersby to remind them that UC Davis students of both the past and present have felt compelled to advocate for change. “The Unfinished Dream,” a mural at the MU that depicts multicultural art pieces like Greek and Egyptian busts alongside portraits of activists like Harriet Tubman, was commissioned in 1991 to celebrate diversity and acknowledge the importance of activism.
“We wanted [to convey] that things were not perfect, that one always has to keep agitating and going forward,” said Kim Anno, one of the artists who co-created the mural. “This idea of a utopian society, where all people sit around a table, is not yet achieved. We wanted to make something that was triumphant.”
A look through Shields Library’s Department of Special Collections will show UC Davis’ history is deeply characterized by student-led movements. A 1969 protest which confronted then-Chancellor James Meyer in regard to the excessive use of police force at People’s Park was attended by his own children. The 1969 March for Peace at Sacramento, organized by UC Davis, was attended by between 6,000 and 8,000 people. In 1970, the Rally on the Quad for Vietnam involved the planting of 500 white crosses, symbolizing war deaths, which were subsequently uprooted and carried to then-Chancellor Meyer to demand that the university cut ties with the war effort. After the Kent State shootings in 1970 and the deployment of US troops in Cambodia, two molotov cocktails were thrown at the UC Davis Reserve Officers’ Training Corps building.
Students gathered in the 1980s and ’90s to protest Apartheid in South Africa, the first war in Iraq, sexism, racism and in support of Affirmative Action. In 1989, students protested the presence of Robert Bork, the rejected Supreme Court Justice nominee who opposed federal anti-segregation laws, when he came to campus for a university-funded event.
“What the demonstration [showed] to the university leadership and the greater community was that people were not going to be silent and let their rights be squashed to protect the rights of others,” said William Schlitz, who graduated in 1993 and who was involved in the protest. “Just because you have your rights and I have my rights doesn’t mean asking for my rights infringes on your rights. I tell people, ‘What the nation is experiencing now, California went through in the ’80s and ’90s.’”
Four students in 1990 began a water-only hunger strike that lasted six days and called for an investigation into alleged racism in the Spanish Department against native Spanish speakers, the establishment of an on campus ethnic and cultural center and an increase in full-time ethnic studies faculty members. Andrea Gaytan, one of the four hunger-strikers and now the director of the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center, said that the effect of the strike was greater than the granting of the three demands.
“The whole gist of the protest […] was really the mobilization and awakening of the community,” Gaytan said. “Afterwards, […] we had a humongous coalition for the anti-war movement. When we had the anti-fee hike protest, students and the campus community mobilized faster. We had members of the community and staff and faculty […who] became more widely-known as advocates and allies for students.”
Shortly after the hunger strike, the Office of Student Affairs and the Campus Art in Public Places Work Group decided to commission a piece of art that would both celebrate achievements and inspire further advocacy. This piece became “The Unfinished Dream.”
“The demand and the desire to have a mural was part of showing an unfinished dream [for] real equity and international respect and collaboration,” said Miranda Bergman, who co-created the mural alongside Anno. “[The mural] was combatting Eurocentrism in education and also remembering and honoring both students from the school and people throughout history who took that step to stand up for equality.”
Today, Gaytan said that she sees a large difference in modern UC Davis student activism as compared to the activism of 1988 to 1992, when she was a student. The AB540 and Undocumented Student center she directs is the result of student advocacy.
“Watching the students originally organize and […] write a plan and proposal for this AB540 Center was so different from what my experience had been,” Gaytan said. “It’s been really full-circle. Davis has made a lot of progress, just for Davis, but we’ve made even more progress compared to other universities in California and across the country. I feel extremely proud of what we’re doing now.”
More recent movements include the Occupy UC Davis movement with regard to tuition hikes in 2011, during which students were pepper-sprayed by university police. Evan Loker, a 2012 graduate who was involved in the Occupy movement, said that this event resulted in a mobilization similar to what Gaytan described after the 1990 hunger strike.
“What made Occupy unique from other cycles of political resistance was that it localized these new connections and energies into a particular territory — traditional political actions like marches and pickets taking place alongside micro-political processes […like] building relationships alongside ideologies and strategies,” Loker said. “The UC movement and Occupy shared a set of political concerns, symbols and tactics [which] created a set of common experiences and images that offered many millennials and older folks an entrance into radical politics.”
Just last year, the “Fire Katehi” movement played a part in the resignation of former Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. Even more recently, student protests manifested in opposition to the highly-controversial scheduled appearance of far-right conservative Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, accompanied by entrepreneur Martin Shkreli via invitation from the Davis College Republicans (DCR).
“We decided to host [Yiannopoulos] in order to allow our fellow students the opportunity to hear about ideas, policies and theories that may be entirely alien to their background,” said Deborah Porter, a fourth-year biological systems engineering major and political director for DCR. “We had hoped that liberals alongside conservatives would attend Milo’s talk with the purpose of pondering his ideas, asking difficult questions and promoting UC Davis as a place where we challenge the ideas set before us rather than blindly accepting them.”
Eric Gudz, who graduated in 2016 and who provided support and assistance to event protesters, said that he is opposed to the presence of “hatred and bigotry” on campus.
“[Not] having the platform for that speech is not the same as losing your right to be able to conduct free speech,” Gudz said. “[I] wanted to show my support and solidarity to resisting and voicing my concerns over what I see [is the] proliferation of hateful and fearful rhetoric that is becoming more […] normalized in our communities. This provides other communities an example of how [they] can be powerful enough to really counter the spread of hate that’s happening and demonstrate that everybody has that ability to be able to […] stand up for what they believe in and what they know is right […] for the community.”
One day after the cancelled speech, Yiannopoulos returned to campus for a free speech countermarch, during which the 2011 pepper-spraying incident was reenacted with silly string. The “Shkrelopoulos” event directly referenced recent student movements at UC Davis and was similar in character to speaker-related protests like the 1989 Robert Bork controversy. According to Porter and the DCR, the re-enactment “especially reiterated” its rights.
“Just as the Occupy protesters had a right to be there, so did we,” Porter said. “It doesn’t matter the material they discuss, they have a right to peacefully do it.”
According to the UC Davis Policy and Procedure Manual, anybody may exercise First Amendment rights — including free speech — on all public university grounds. Symbolic structures are permitted at a designated site on the Quad meant for “symbolic speech,” but acts of civil disobedience are not condoned. Though the manual acknowledges that civil disobedience has played a historic role at UC Davis, it is not specifically protected.
For those looking to get involved in the future of activism on campus, Gudz recommends that students join established groups and organizations first before launching their own movements.
“Organizing in this era is going to be critical to move things forward,” Gudz said. “A good first place to start is to check in with those pre-existing activism groups. One of the big keys for activism [and] advocacy going forward is that these struggles are intersectional whether we want to realize them or not. The struggles of all these different groups are […] intertwined and they must be treated as such to be able to advance the causes forwards.”
Written by: Hannah Holzer— firstname.lastname@example.org