By Will Norton-Mosher
The proverbial olive branch that university administrators extended to student activists and leaders turned to tumbleweeds on Jan. 25 when only nine students attended a forum titled “A Dialogue on Campus Activism.”
The forum, which was organized by Assistant Vice Chancellor and Dean of Students Alma Sifuentes, was the university’s first attempt to bring peace to future protests through increased communication between activists and administrators.
The forum was meant to address the breakdown in communication between police and students during the Oct. 18 campus protest of the UC Regents, which was marred by a violent confrontation between police and protestors.
“The purpose of the event was to begin a dialogue,” Sifuentes said. “There’s a perception by some students that the administration is trying to squelch or control protests.”
Students originally criticized the event’s proposed format, which consisted of a panel answering predetermined questions, a style the students felt was biased against activists. Administrators altered the event to an open-mic forum in response, though even that change could not convince many students to attend.
Mariah Cardenas, a student who was invited to the event, remains skeptical about the administrators’ motivations for opening such a dialogue.
“It’s hard to imagine that the administration expects the students to respond or trust this forum,” Cardenas said.
Many staff members were present at the event, including Campus Police Captain Nancy Carroll, who suggested that the nature of student protests has changed over time.
Carroll pointed to a student protest about 20 years ago, in which students barricaded the registrar’s office to block the collection of student fees in protest of fee hikes. Students at that protest, Carroll said, were able to voice their opinions while also communicating with police through the Student Organization Advising and Resources (SOAR) group, and that arrests made that day were mostly peaceful.
“Fast-forward to today and we’re not seeing that happen,” Carroll said. “The demeanors have changed; they throw fruit at people, spit on people, wear masks. I’m hoping this event will help.”
Many people in the campus community, including graduate student Foaad Khosmood, have questioned the appropriateness of the police use of pepper spray at the Oct. 18 protest.
Carroll said that she ordered the use of pepper spray at the event, but defended the use on the grounds that it was necessary under the circumstances.
“I thought it was the least amount of force I could use in the situation,” Carroll said.
Carroll continued to draw an analogy between police action and surgery, saying that the force used by police and the damage caused by a surgeon operating on a patient could both be considered violent, yet both can be necessary to help the situation.
Amy Dexter, a graduate student, lamented that students weren’t informed about what would or would not elicit such a reaction from campus police.
“It comes back to the responsibility of the police and campus administration to make that information known,” Dexter said. “It’s a mutual responsibility because it’s also the responsibility of the protestors to inform themselves.”
Many members of the administration said that students used to speak with the authorities before protests began in order to establish what types of actions would cause a police response.
Steve Stormoen, one of the students arrested at the Oct. 18 protest, presented a speech criticizing the Regents, the administration and its response to the protest.
“â€˜A democratic society depends upon an informed and educated citizenry,’” Stormoen said, quoting Thomas Jefferson. “And if we are to take claim to being the greatest public education institution in the country, this means that we need to also take the responsibility of being a necessary, even vital aspect to the stability and success of American democracy.”
There was little discussion at the event of the cancellation of this year’s job fair, which campus officials cited as a response to the threat of violence at counter-recruitment protests during last year’s event.
Although a number of the event attendees expressed hope that future meetings would bring with them larger student turnouts, they were pleased with the dialogue. Afterward, the event coordinators sent out e-mails to the students who attended the meeting in an attempt to make themselves more available, and suggested holding another meeting.
“You certainly always want to have more students [in attendance],” Sifuentes said. “I’m optimistic about the students talking about continuing the dialogue but in a space more their own. It’s a small beginning.”