The protesting students at UCLA sounded familiar to me. Full of ethnic pride, they have marched and sat in to dramatize their demand that a Chicano studies department be created on the Westwood campus. They believe in the correctness of their position.
Campus administrators also said things I’ve heard before. They reminded me of their predecessors from the 1960s, saying they wouldn’t be bullied by demonstrators into changing their decision not to elevate Chicano studies to department status.
Moreover, the administrators quickly called in the police when students occupied a faculty lounge to criticize professors who agreed with the decision. Ninety-nine persons were arrested, most of them on suspicion of trespassing. Several were arrested for vandalism.
I mention the 1960s because that’s what the UCLA controversy reminded me of. I didn’t occupy any buildings or get arrested during my college days. Instead, we surreptitiously copied names from the college president’s appointments book and told a recruiter from Dow Chemical Co., the maker of napalm, to drop dead.
I did, however, learn a couple of things from those days. One, students always lose the public’s sympathy when a campus protest results in violence or destruction.
And second, college administrators who underestimate the off-campus support that students can muster for their cause are only asking for more trouble.
When word of last Tuesday’s disturbance spread, the 50 or so calls that I received were unanimous in their denunciation of the violence. Even the baby boomers were critical because of the $50,000 in damage in the lounge.
Many callers recalled how public opinion turned because of the violent nature of ‘60s protests in California. Among other things, it boosted the political career of Ronald Reagan, who promised in his successful race for the governorship in 1966 to get tough with campus radicals.
“I remember protesting this, getting arrested for doing that,” said one Chicano lawyer, who graduated from UCLA in 1968. “Every adult I ran into away from campus said it was time to clean things up. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing then. Now, I find now myself saying the same thing.
“I support the students’ demand, but I also think that public support won’t be there if the students are seen as causing damage or violence.”
Local politicians who support the UCLA students were careful to include a denunciation of violence. Democratic state Sen. Art Torres, for example, said that behavior that results in destruction of property “is not acceptable.”
Several of the students arrested said after their release from jail that campus officials and the police were to blame for the trouble. “Everything was calm until the cops showed up,” they said.
But the point has not been lost on them. The daily demonstrations following last Tuesday’s unrest were loud but peaceful.
Meanwhile, UCLA administrators have hurt themselves by ignoring the growing public support for a Chicano studies department. When UCLA briefly toyed with abolishing the existing program--due to lack of funds and declining enrollment--a group of labor and Chicano activists formed to support the students’ call for elevating it to department status. But the group’s requests to meet with Chancellor Charles E. Young were ignored.
“In three years, the man never saw fit to meet with us,” said Vivien Bonzo, a member of the group and president of the Olvera Street Merchants Assn.
Even the timing of Young’s announcement angered many. It was made the day before the funeral of farm workers union founder Cesar Chavez. “If that isn’t disrespect, I don’t know what is,” Bonzo said.
Young’s decision galvanized support for a Chicano studies department from many Latino officials and professionals.
Statements of support came in from City Hall and Washington. Numerous lawyers came forward to bail out those students arrested at the faculty lounge. And Torres managed to temporarily hold up $838,000 in state funds for a law school library addition at UCLA.
Young met late Friday with Torres and other lawmakers, but did not change his opinion that Chicano studies should remain as it is for at least two more years.
For the record, I support the creation of a Chicano studies department at UCLA. It would be an excellent opportunity for Latinos, non-Latinos, students, academicians and anyone else to learn about Latinos in this country. It would be a meaningful sign in Los Angeles, where Latinos make up 40% of the residents, that the study of them is worthy of scholarly pursuit.
I’m surprised UCLA officials haven’t figured that out.