Occupy the Capitol?

This Monday’s education protest might end up with protesters taking residence under the rotunda dome

Find out more about this week’s protests at www.occupyeducationca.org and www.refundcalifornia.org.

From Wall Street to Walmart, the Occupy movement has taken aim at some major targets during its half-year existence. And now, apparently, it’s Sacramento’s turn: Occupiers say they might actually try to set up a permanent camp inside the state Capitol this week.

That’s the big, kind of still secret plan, at least, according to student activists at UC Davis and elsewhere. And while the dissenters likely won’t be pitching tents under the rotunda dome—the protest is already on Capitol security’s radar—there will at least be a debate regarding a Capitol occupation this Monday, March 5, during a general assembly planned for inside the building.

“Occupy is probably not going to try to talk to legislators. Occupy is going to try to Occupy the Capitol,” explained third-year UC Davis student Artem Raskin, who’s part of a larger group intending to protest higher-education budget cuts this coming week.

Death processions at local colleges, a 99-mile protest march from the Bay Area to Sacramento—whatever happens during this week’s many actions, they definitely mark a new era of collaboration: students, unions and teachers embracing Occupy, and vice versa.

This will likely be the first time a bystander might witness tweed-clad and tenured university professors toeing the protest line with members of the youth-driven 99-percent crowd. This along with college students chanting side by side with labor-union members, and even far-left, anti-war groups such as Code Pink, who intend to make a cameo on March 5 at the Capitol.

This protest will come on the heels of March 1 actions at campuses throughout California, where students will hold mock funerals for public education and also protest ongoing cuts, including last week’s $149 million hit to community colleges. Others will march from Berkeley to Sacramento on a 99—there’s that number again—mile protest for free education.

But will they up the ante? Will they take over the Capitol dome?

“That is something that you will have to come on Monday to learn,” teased UC Berkeley graduate student and organizer Charlie Eaton. “What we can say is there will be a general assembly at 3:30 [p.m.], and that will be the kickoff to occupy the Capitol.”

The Legislature’s sergeant-at-arms, Ron Pane, who is charged with Capitol safety, said he was actually heading into a meeting to discuss the upcoming protests when SN&R called last week.

“We have a policy that we don’t ‘occupy’ the Capitol,” Pane said, perhaps stating the obvious. He added that his approach is to handle these protests on a case-by-case basis and to engage a dialogue with the groups involved.

“We always like to have conversations with the folks who head these groups,” he said. The Capitol closes to the public on Mondays at 6 p.m.

Most students anticipate a showdown.

“We’re graduating college with a mountain of debt and dim job prospects,” Eaton said. “There’s a widespread sentiment among students that banks got bailed out and we got sold out.”

In a way, UC Davis has become a de facto headquarters for this new Occupy-meets-students movement, and this week will host protesters from all over the state. The campus also finds itself at the forefront of a battle against the privatization of higher-ed, after becoming an international media magnet upon last November’s incident where campus police used pepper spray on peacefully seated students.

Planning for this week’s actions actually started taking place last year. And UCD activists have been meeting twice a week at a fountain next to the campus coffeehouse to discuss logistics.

“This year, because of Occupy, it has a lot more energy,” explained Raskin, a political-science major who’s been a lead planner for a “funeral for education” procession on March 1.

These days of action aren’t necessarily new. Student governments on most campuses have partaken in March protests dating as far back as the ’60s.

In 2010, Davis students attempted to block Interstate 80 and in 2009 many students were arrested during the annual day of action.

Artem explained, however, that the scope of this year’s protests aims to be larger, in part to due faculty associations and unions collaborating for the first time with the Occupy movement.

“I do think that the strategy of reaching over broad segments within the university system and outside of it is the most promising thing the Occupy movement’s doing,” he praised.

The week’s events break down like this: On March 1, campus groups such as the Associated Students, University of California, Davis throughout the Golden State will be the driving forces behind the mock funerals, sit-ins and teach-ins.

“We’ve got the caskets ready,” Artem said.

Protesters who chatted with SN&R last week on the UCD campus shared a universal message: Going on about a decade now, students have footed more of the bill for California State University and University of California education costs than the state of California. And this, they say, is backward.

Davis undergrads, for instance, were hit with a 19 percent tuition increase this academic year. The CSU system lost $650 million in total state funding.

And, because most public universities are collecting more money from students than from the state, students are looking to banks and the federal government for loans.

In 2011, American college students accumulated more than $100 billion in student-loan debt, according to the College Board. The total amount of outstanding U.S. student-loan debt in America topped the $1 trillion mark this past year as well; it now tops consumer credit-card debt in the United States (see “The college bubble”; SN&R Feature Story; October 6, 2011).

It was these statistics that partially inspired Occupy UC Davis to set up encampment on the quad this past fall. The November 18 pepper-spraying brought unprecedented attention to their movement, but did sort of overshadow their cause, some say.

“I think that the pepper-spray incident is overplayed a bit,” junior Raskem argued. “As a longer-term strategy, we can’t rely on one sensational incident to bring people in; we’re trying to show a systemic problem.

“One rogue officer doing a thing is not going to inspire a movement to address longer-term issues.”

To bring the focus back to banks and billionaires, a smaller group of UCD students kicked off a daily blockade of the campus’ U.S. Bank branch in January. Their goal was to highlight what they say is the company’s sweetheart deal with the university; U.S. Bank logos appear on Davis student ID cards and the branch has a monopoly on student loans and accounts, they argue. The branch has had to shut down on several occasions, but still remains open. And the UCD administration is resolved to continue its partnership.

This week, university officials say they will allow students to pitch tents and re-occupy UCD grounds on March 3, the day before marchers from the Bay Area arrive at the campus to sleep before the Capitol event.

“We’re occupiers. We’re just going to occupy the quad,” Artem responded when asked where he was going to house all the visitors this week. “They’ll stay on the quad, we’ll give them some food, and on the morning of the fifth we’ll go to Sacramento.” Some protesters say they will walk from UCD to the Capitol that morning.

Walking will be a common theme. UC Berkeley’s Eaton says more than 100 people have been regularly attending planning meetings for the protests on the East Bay campus. And he says “hundreds” will begin marching to Sacramento, stopping at community colleges along the way to sleep, this Friday.

“I’ve certainly never seen unions and students working together in the scale that we’re working together,” said Eaton, who himself is a member of the 12,000-strong United Auto Workers union.

Other union organizations have signed up, too, at www.occupyeducationca.org: SEIU 1021 and nearly a dozen state teachers unions.

“It’s time for us to have a budget in California that makes banks and millionaires pay to re-fund public education,” Eaton said, reiterating the movement’s talking point.

This protest mantra has evolved a bit from past years. At previous day-of-education actions, people protested to keep their jobs or to end cuts to school funding.

This year, though—and in part due to Occupy’s “99 percent” slogan—the focus is directed on California’s billionaires and uber-wealthy. People still want to keep their jobs, of course, but they also want the wealthy to pay.

The day of action is scheduled to begin Monday, March 5, at 10 a.m., when organizers say tens of thousands will meet at downtown’s Southside Park before marching to the Capitol. Events will go on until early afternoon.

And that’s when things might get interesting.