Just Us in Davis: The change we seek

By From page A13 | November 27, 2011

This is the autumn of our discontent. When the gap between the average CEO salary and their lowest-wage worker is 400 to 1 (up from 40 to 1 in the 1970s). When college students and professors are subject to baton charges and pepper-spray assaults by university police. When the educational, government and financial institutions that make up the foundation of our society seem to — at best — have lost their moral compass and — at worst — to be working against the interests of their public constituents.

In these dark times, the Occupy Wall Street movement offers some crucial rays of hope.

By now, the wrenching images of UC Davis students sitting in nonviolent protest being pepper-sprayed by university police in full riot gear have gone viral across the globe. Along with the Iraq war veteran felled by police in Oakland, the senior citizen in Seattle gasping for breath after being sprayed, these images have been seared into the collective memory of the campus, the Davis community, the nation and the world.

As a professor at UCD, as a parent of teenagers, not so much younger than those brutalized students, as someone who believes in the power of nonviolence, I am sickened by this brutal treatment of our young people.

Likewise, while I am encouraged by the review promised by Chancellor Linda Katehi and UC President Mark Yudof of the campus policies and practices relevant to the protection of free speech, lawful assembly and nonviolence, this only addresses the immediate issue, not the deeper challenge and opportunity of the Occupy movement.

In particular, the students’ demand that the University of California — and, by extension, all California taxpayers and residents — confront the wave of privatization of this public university through successive fee hikes and defunding by the state is in danger of being lost in the furor over the campus police actions.

At the same time, I am also moved by the dilemma facing Katehi and similar public leaders accountable to their constituents but without the power to make the fundamental changes sought by the Occupy movement. Clearly, they must ensure that their institutions act ethically and humanely and must be held ultimately accountable for violations of this standard. But university chancellors do not set tax policy, they do not regulate the financial sector or housing markets, and they don’t control state or federal budgets for higher education.

And yet, it would be a mistake to let the chancellor, UC president and the broader institution off the hook for addressing these deeper issues. A new social movement organization, ReFund California, (www.makebankspaycalifornia.com) has arisen to highlight the political and economic structures that threaten to destroy our public higher education system, one of the jewels in the crown of this golden state.

In particular, the ReFund California coalition calls for University of California, California State University and other civic leaders to commit to a set of fundamental actions. These include:

* Increasing income taxes on the wealthiest Californians;

* Closing the “split roll” loophole in Proposition 13 that limits taxes on corporations;

* Implementing a federal sales tax on financial transactions by major banks;

* Rescuing homeowners with “underwater” mortgages; and

* Opposing the continued defunding of public education through budget cuts, fee hikes and layoffs.

With the caveat above that these actions are not in the direct purview of the chancellors, UC president or Board of Regents, I do look to them — as leaders of one of the most powerful institutions in the state in terms of both budget and moral authority — to use their considerable influence to address issues.

Consider the potency of the University of California demanding that the investment banks that handle its operational finances, pensions and other accounts agree to improved regulation and greater contribution to the public welfare or face divestment.

Consider the symbolic and material impact of the UC Board of Regents, advocating not only for their own state budgets, but on behalf of all California residents victimized by an out-of-control banking sector and a reverse Robin Hood tax structure that robs from the poor and gives to the rich. This is the silent violence that wounds not only the physical bodies of protesters, but saps the spirit and health of our collective social body.

Conversely, imagine if UCD and California’s higher education system made a proactive commitment to building economic opportunity for the most vulnerable and under-served places or populations of the state. This progressive vision could serve as one of the pillars of any of the university’s initiatives for “innovation,” “excellence” and “engagement” with its home region and not simply the further enrichment of the wealthiest sectors of our society.

With the recent failure of the congressional “super committee” on the federal budget, it is clear that the change we seek will not come from our elected officials unless they are compelled from below. The students and the larger Occupy Wall Street movement offer a powerful reminder of this fact. Their nonviolent determination not to be moved from these demands for fundamental changes offers an inspiring way forward.

I hope the pressure on the chancellor and other university leaders is maintained to hold them accountable for the structural as well as physical violence committed on their watch. I also hope that the trajectory of the protest moves the university to remember its populist roots and to make democratic political and economic values the bedrock of its pursuit of excellence.

— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at [email protected]

Jonathan London

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