It's Time for a Protest

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When I teach California politics, I try to pitch it to a packed room of undergrad class shoppers as the most relevant course to their daily lives that they'll take at Cal.

And it's no lie-even for those who don't care a whit about politics (the majority of us, I'm afraid), what's been happening in Sacramento has had the most direct impact on students' experience and wallets.

The latest budget agreement was stewing in an interminable impasse before it was approved yesterday-and it only passed once a single legislator's demands were met (so much for negotiations between the parties). But this may prove to be a big slap in the face to current and future students.

The yawning chasm of the $40-plus billion deficit will likely eat up millions of dollars Cal needs, crippling future generations of students. UC stepped up this month when Cal Grants were threatened, and Berkeley's campus has some deep-pocketed private donors who often provide a financial cushion other campuses don't have. But even they can't save students from steep tuition hikes and a reduction in class options. Neither can the federal stimulus package, which supposedly provides $11 billion to California schools. That little boost is likely a one-time-only deal.

When I stroll around campus, I don't see a lot of fire and brimstone from angry students. I don't see marches or sit-ins or anything that might generate a news story about students' plight. I'm not saying we don't have our campus activists who are intensely engaged in Sacramento lobbying and professional outcry. I applaud their tenacity and determination-and thank God somebody's paying attention. I'm saying that the average Cal student has a hard time caring unless his beer and snack budget is affected.

The only way people change their behavior in the long term is through painful backlash effects. Hence people only stop buying SUVs when gas gets above $4, and raising our debt levels way above our heads makes perfect sense until we're drowning in it. Students won't protest on a mass scale until the extra-large cow patties hit the fan-meaning Cal will reject qualified students, impose large tuition increases and arrange class capacities and schedules that make it impossible for students to graduate when they need to.

I know campus apathy has been around since the end of the '60s. The Free Speech Movement itself was probably driven less by genuine student outrage and more by zeitgeist.

But in order to protest something effectively, you must first know enough about it to get angry. The people who get angry over something they understand little about-I'm thinking of those who find it impossible to have a low-decibel conversation about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because they're so entrenched in their positions, or those who go wilding on Oakland streets and bust up innocent small businesses because they hate the police-are usually those who hurt their cause rather than help it.

What's happened in Sacramento is genuinely something to get angry about. The perpetual budget impasse existed for all sorts of reasons you can find out about in PS 171. But I can sum it up for you: Legislators don't care about what you need because you don't have a lobby with muscle in the capital. And unless you're on the streets making news or standing in front of Arnold's hybrid Hummer Tiananmen Square-style, they will continue not to care.

So why do anything if Sacramento isn't listening? Because you're about to be priced out of your school if you don't come up with something. This community is as creative as they come, but I haven't had a good laugh over a protest since Dumpster Muffin screamed from the treetops near Memorial Stadium. Let's spell out, "Do your job!" with 2,000 students on some open space and get the helicopter-view photo on the national news wire. Let's dump printouts of class wait lists on the steps of the Capitol. I don't know, I'm just a grad student-I'll leave it to the more imaginative to give higher education funding some real visibility.

The cynical among us (yes, me included) might argue that these attention-grabbing gimmicks are useless given some political facts. It's easy to go back to a drowsy apathy when you realize that almost no incumbent legislators are ever in serious jeopardy of being voted out because of how their districts are drawn.

But if there was a time to ignite Berzerkley ingenuity and unlock the rusty gears of government, it's now… before your beer money is gone.

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Grab a sign and protest Josh's column at [email protected]



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