by Luke Wigren, ’11
At 6:10pm on Monday, March 5th, I sat in a hallway of the California State Capitol risking arrest and contemplating the importance of education, civil rights, and my own immediate personal freedom. The Capitol had just officially closed for the day and, for a few brief minutes between chants of “education should be free” and nonviolent resistance training, a weighted hush hung over the chessboard-checkered floor.
All around me, whispering, were 100 students from over a dozen state schools, community colleges, and several high schools. A few legal observers, as well as a handful of teachers and one mother also risking arrest, stood guard along the wall. What we were doing – trespassing on state property – we all knew to be illegal.
I asked a Berkeley student next to me if she was going to stay once the police issued a dispersal order. She wasn’t sure yet. She didn’t want her mom to find out, and then added nervously that this would be her first arrest. I said it would be mine, too. We held a brief smile despite the pressing circumstances.
After a daylong people’s assembly inside the Capitol, discussing what to do about the distressing and increasingly unaffordable state of California public higher education, we were all exhausted. Over 500 people, including teachers, parents, and students from all over the state had convened inside the Capitol building beginning at 11am, hoping to set in motion a plan to transform California public education from the bottom up, not just through piecemeal reforms and practically impossible tax increases.
Organized by Occupy Education, ours was a controversial and mostly symbolic action that did not jive with the short, upbeat annual event by 5,000 that morning. With a desire to go further and make our protest felt, our call to “Occupy the Capitol” was a move that had the potential of inspiring more people to take back community power and lay the groundwork for a statewide student movement.
Around fifty individuals, including fellow Stanford alumni Peter McDonald, had already put in a great deal of effort, successfully completing the “99-Mile March for Education and Social Justice” from Oakland to UC-Davis, so spirits and commitments were already high.
On a more personal level, as a recent graduate from Stanford University, I had come to re-commune with public education. And in doing so, I arrived at a much more fundamental question I had never quite thought to ask myself so directly. “Is education a right?”
And secondly, “is it worth getting arrested for?”
I thought about these questions over and over to myself, sitting on the Capitol floor. I thought about them as I looked around the hallway, admiring the differences we had all brought together. We were people from all national, ethnic, and class backgrounds, with a healthy mix of genders and members of the LGBTQ community. I thought about everything I had gained from my K-12 public education, all the opportunities and growth it had afforded me. I thought about the student strikes occurring in Chile, Quebec, England, and elsewhere around the world to save and expand educational freedoms. I thought, tragically, about all those students I went to school with in Renton, Washington, who had probably never even once considered higher education, because they had written it off early on as too expensive – as a dream too far out of reach.
I thought somewhat too about my place in that crowd. All day a line from the hip-hop group Blue Scholars had been nagging at me. The line explains how, at the infamous 1999 WTO uprising in Seattle, “rich kids went and got arrested on purpose.”
While I, like most of us, am solidly in the 99%, I am also a reasonably well-off white male with a degree from Stanford, so I was afraid that people might get the wrong impression about why I was there. How could I prove I was not just trying to get arrested for the sake of getting arrested?
But in this group, my worries of authenticity were quickly dispelled as I realized how my unique background could actually be an asset. We were a diverse group and we were made strong through that diversity. Stronger still, we were collectively dedicated to the idea that public education, being a cornerstone of true democracy, should be free and easily accessible to the masses.
Sure, having already graduated, I would have little to directly benefit from the demonstration and its goals, which included fully funding California public education, passing the Millionaire’s tax, and relieving student debt. However, in the long run, I understood that we all have a stake in public higher education and that not being directly affected by California’s educational injustices should in no way excuse us from confronting them. As one sign put it simply, “public education = educated public.”
This act of civil disobedience to protect and forward “the right to education” was something we had a moral duty to perform, because it was the right thing to do for future students, and that was the case regardless of our differing backgrounds.
So, with arrest imminent, I made up my mind and declared first to myself and then out loud, “Education is a right, we are here to occupy!” My fellow activists repeated the call. This was a mass demonstration at a pivotal moment and there was no telling when we might get this many passionate, thoughtful people together again in a room- or hallway.
When the police dispersal order was finally issued just before 6:30, those unable to risk arrest left. The police bullhorn call, citing some legal code “W.C. 302, B…” echoed throughout the building. A few of us flinched but no one moved. During the next hour before being led away, we counted off one by one and coined ourselves the “Capitol hallway fifty.” We spent what little time we had sharing stories aloud about how we had come to be together in that moment.
At one point we went around calling out our schools. Stanford was received with a surprised, amused chuckle and someone behind me said, “private and public solidarity, right on!”
Across a wall of state patrol officers, in the heart of the capitol, we could hear our twenty-person solidarity group (who I’ll call the “rotunda twenty”) chanting and getting dragged away. The news cameras were swarming. And so it went, with each minute, each chant, each story, and each momentary glance into each other’s eyes, we became more committed to our decision to stay together and, more importantly, more resolved in our belief that access to education must be a right – meaning in practice, a fully-funded, quality option – for all people in California and (as I would soon hope as well) the United States.
Luke Wigren is a 2011 graduate of Stanford University in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity with a concentration in “Art, Community Organizing, and Social Movements.” He is working on cinematic projects about “revolutionary tourism” and is a member of two amazing campus communities, Occupy Stanford/Meyer and the culturally endangered Chi Theta Chi.