Around 50 students protested student debt forgiveness, free tuition and a $15 an hour minimum wage in  solidarity with  the Million Student March. Photo by Stephen de Ropp
Around 50 students protested student debt forgiveness, free tuition and a $15 an hour minimum wage in solidarity with the Million Student March. Photo by Stephen de Ropp

What started as a few students setting up a table in Quarry Plaza turned into a powerful speak out and march through campus and into lecture halls. The protesters interrupted classes with collective shouts of “Out of the classroom and into the streets — no hikes, no fees, education should be free!”

On Thursday, about 50 UC Santa Cruz students stood in solidarity with over 110 college campuses across the nation in the #MillionStudentMarch, calling for the cancellation of student debt, a tuition-free education and a $15 minimum wage. About 10 students dressed in all black and a few others held signs with the hashtag #ConcernedStudent1950 in recognition of the movement that began earlier this month at the University of Missouri due to escalating racial tensions on its campus.

The UCSC action began with a speakout in front of the Express Store and ended at the doorway of Clark Kerr Hall. There, Student Union Assembly (SUA) members presented a letter to administration outlining their requests and demanded Vice Chancellor of University Relations Keith Brant’s signature in support.

“I’ll be graduating with at least $30,000 in debt,” said fourth-year and SUA College Ten representative Danny Milla before the action began. “I’m not the only student with that [amount of debt]. There are many students trying to get our government to pay attention to us to tell them, ‘Hey, we need your help, enough with spending on other parts of the world, let’s focus on us first.’”

Milla said the national action was influenced by Dem. Presidential Candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who said in an interview with Katie Couric this past June, “If a million young people march on Washington to the Republican leadership … you better vote to deal with student debt. You better vote to make public universities and colleges tuition free, that is when it will happen.”

The average 2015 graduate has over $35,000 in debt, according to the #MillionStudentMarch organization, whose list of supporters begins with famous linguist and activist Noam Chomsky. Over 40 million Americans share a total of $1.2 trillion in student debt, and almost 71 percent of undergraduates will graduate with student loans this year.

Milla joined a circle of people in the Quarry, some of whom held a banner reading “#DoUCmyStudentDebt,” while SUA Vice President of External Affairs Guillermo Rogel stood behind a bullhorn shouting, “If you’re drowning and you know it clap your hands.” Students clapped along and Rogel passed around the bullhorn for a discussion of students’ concerns about debt and high tuition.

Echoing frustrated words from SUA Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Sauli Itzel Colio, SUA Organizing Director Art Motta shared similar concerns in an interview regarding his $20,000 in student loans.

“We’re calling on our state and federal legislators to find more sustainable funding models for higher education in California, whether that’s looking at Proposition 13 and reforming that proposition, or reevaluating property taxes especially for corporations that are taking advantage,” Motta said. “There are homeowners in California who are paying higher property taxes than companies like Disney. That’s millions of dollars being funneled away.”

Prop 13 is a California initiative passed in 1978 that cut property taxes by about 57 percent. Though the cut benefited individual home and business owners, it financially gutted local governments and public institutions like libraries and schools. Cities began relying on sales taxes for funding, which incentivized local governments to fund the building of retail stores and other lucrative attractions, rather than invest in public services.

According to a study conducted by the California Tax Reform Association, Orange County misses out on more than $4 million a year because Disney pays property taxes at the same rate it did 30 years ago. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, UC Berkeley physics professor and now-retired chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau wrote, “Chevron alone saves more than $100 million a year in property taxes while, per square foot, Walt Disney Co. pays eight times less than the average California homeowner.”

The repercussions of these systemic issues led the UCSC #MillionStudentMarch to Kerr Hall, where about 20 students marched to Vice Chancellor of University Relations Keith Brant’s office demanding he come out and hear their message. After a few moments of lingering in the hall and collective chants, Guillermo Rogel pulled out a letter which he read with a bullhorn.

“Dear Vice Chancellor Brant,” Rogel began. “UC Santa Cruz students are marching in solidarity with over 100 universities across the country today … This march is the beginning of a student movement and a national dialogue that states universal access to public higher education is a right that needs to be prioritized.”

Brant, who oversees UCSC fundraising, marketing and community relations, never made an appearance, but Richard Hughey, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, came out of his office to listen and respond to students’ concerns.

“Great, thank you,” Hughey said holding the letter. “I like your goals. I very much hope that we have tuition-free college and not as much debt. I know that’s really severe on students.”

When Rogel asked him to sign the letter in solidarity with students, Hughey said he wouldn’t right then but he would consider it after he read and discussed it with other members of UCSC administration.

Hughey went back to his office and, similar to the way it began, the action concluded with circle of students, words of solidarity, and the acknowledgment of progress made and the long way they still had to go