In a broad-based show of support for affirmative action on campus, thousands of students staged demonstrations around the state Thursday to demand a renewed commitment to diversity at the University of California.
Teach-ins, walkouts and rallies were held at all nine UC campuses, including a march of more than 2,000 people at UCLA that shut down busy Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood and led to the arrest of 33 students. Chanting, "No justice, no peace!" the students sat down in the middle of the street and were led away by police, booked for failure to disperse and released.
At UC Berkeley, where a handful of professors canceled their classes in support of the student protest, more than 3,000 demonstrators filled Sproul Plaza to hear the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then marched off campus and into the streets.
Student organizers of the so-called National Day of Action said they hoped the protests would prick the nation's conscience and mobilize students to push the UC Board of Regents to rescind its rollback of affirmative action at the 162,000-student university system.
"We hope to send a clear signal to the regents: We will not allow them to take something away that we've fought so hard to preserve," said Max Espinoza, a Chicano studies major at UCLA. "This is the beginning of a strong and unified movement to fight back."
The protests were part of what organizers had described as a national effort to draw attention to educational access with protests across the country. But other than a Wednesday rally at Harvard that drew 100 students, it was unclear how many campuses outside California had participated.
Opinion about affirmative action is sharply divided on campus. All nine of the UC chancellors opposed the regents' vote in July to prohibit the use of race and gender as criteria in admission, hiring and contracting at UC. And in the wake of that decision, about 1,200 UC faculty members have signed a petition calling upon the board to reconsider.
But the student newspaper at UC Berkeley, one of the system's most prestigious campuses, recently editorialized in favor of the regents' decision. And on UC campuses Thursday, the vast majority of students chose not to participate in the protests.
"We feel the UC regents spoke and they spoke correctly," said Todd Houser, 23, a UC San Diego communications major who is part of a UC systemwide group called Students for Merit-Based Admissions. "They're the voice of the students and we believe it was the right decision."
But those who disagreed said they believe that opposition to affirmative action stems from ignorance, and Thursday was the day for them to take a stand.
At the UCLA protest, law student Eric Winston, 21, held a sign that said, "White Male for Affirmative Action." The Los Angeles native said he disagrees with those who believe admission to UC should only go to those with the highest scores and grades.
"You can't measure [only] merit unless the opportunities that are available are made equal," he said. "Affirmative action takes people who have never had opportunities and gives them a chance."
Around UCLA, law enforcement presence was heavy Thursday, as UC police officers joined with Los Angeles police, California Highway Patrol officers and sheriff's deputies to make sure the protests remained peaceful. Freeway exits were closed at Wilshire Boulevard, and 120 Los Angeles police officers were waiting with helmets and protective shields to intercept students who ventured off campus and blocked surrounding streets.
At Westwood and Wilshire boulevards, the 2,200 marchers converged in the four crosswalks, forming a square. As the crowd chanted, 33 students stepped into the center of the square, joined hands in a circle and sat down.
Police officers warned them to disperse, and when they refused they were arrested one at a time and led away. The students, who had agreed beforehand to be arrested, did not resist.
Chancellor Charles E. Young, a vocal supporter of affirmative action, had issued a statement earlier in the week warning that any disruption of the educational process would be counterproductive.
UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien also urged students not to shut down the university in their effort to deliver a message in support of affirmative action.
But Albert Retana, a 20-year-old political science and Latin American studies major at UCLA who was among the 33 students arrested, disagreed.
"Martin Luther King said sometimes you have to step out of mainstream society to show your commitment to progress," he said after being released by police. "Getting arrested was very empowering."
At UC Berkeley, Jackson took the stage just after lunch, exhorting the crowd not to sit idly by and watch affirmative action be dismantled. "We must choose schools over jails. We must choose affirmative action and inclusion over negative action and exclusion," he told a cheering crowd. "We must make some choices."
Later in the day, students--who had earlier led each other in singing a modified version of a well-known spiritual, "We Shall Not Be Moved"--marched off the campus and into the streets. Some attempted to march onto Interstate 80, but were turned back by 50 police officers in riot gear.
The other seven UC campuses were much quieter, but each was the scene of events to defend affirmative action, some accompanied by calls for reductions in university fees and increases in financial aid.
At UC Irvine, about 600 students and professors gathered for a two-hour teach-in at a campus park. Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening attended, wearing a red armband to show what she called her "solidarity" with the students.
Before the teach-in, about 60 students marched around the sleepy suburban campus urging students to join them. "The people united will never be divided," they chanted. Most students they passed chose not to join them.
At UC San Diego, hundreds gathered under a red-on-white banner reading: "Welcome to Freedom City."
And at UC Davis, about 300 people attended a midday rally at the campus quad, some chanting and carrying placards. Some students wore masks made out of white paper plates. "Class of 2001?" the masks asked.
Thursday's demonstrations were not the first to be prompted by the UC regents' decision. In August, 700 protesters gathered at UC Berkeley on the first day of classes to protest the vote, which students have charged was intentionally taken during the summer, when campuses were largely empty.
Then, at the regents' September meeting--the first regularly scheduled session since the affirmative action vote--angry students and other demonstrators repeatedly interrupted, making it impossible to conduct business.
In recent weeks, students have picketed the homes and offices of individual regents. Regent Ward Connerly, the Sacramento businessman who spearheaded the effort to end race- and gender-based preferences, said a "puny" contingent of about 20 people showed up at his office on Thursday, and Regents Tirso del Junco and Sue Johnson have received similar visits.
Still, students organizers described Thursday as the beginning of intensified action.
"I see it as an educational day to begin outreach," said Kimi Lee of the UC Student Assn. In that spirit, students at UC Irvine and UC Riverside announced plans to continue the protest next week with a hunger strike. Beginning midnight Tuesday, they said, as many as 20 students will set up camp in front of UC Irvine's administration building. Calling themselves the United Front, they will fast until the regents change their minds, they said.
Organizers said the extreme action is necessary to dramatize what they perceive as a wave of assaults on minorities, including the passage of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration measure, and the Republican Party's so-called "contract with America."
"There's a snowball effect here and we have to stand up now before it gets any bigger," said Cesar Cruz, a 21-year-old UC Irvine student majoring in history, Spanish and women's studies. "We are prepared to go all the way."
The regents' vote on admissions does not take effect until 1997, but UC is already feeling its effects. According to Judith Levin, an alumni representative to the regents who attended UCLA's rally Thursday, applications to UCLA from blacks and Latinos are dropping.
"It's as if they're saying, 'If you don't want me next year, why do you want me this year?' " said Levin. "A lot of students of color felt this [vote] was a slap in the face."
But regents who voted to end race-based preferences at UC said Thursday that they still believe the decision struck a blow for fairness.
"I don't see us revisiting this subject as far as a vote on the issue," said Regent Meredith Khachigian of San Clemente. "I haven't wavered in my vote."
And Connerly described the protests as the work of a "vocal minority."
"As protests go, this one fizzled," he said, adding that he hoped that professors who participated in the actions were taking vacation time to do so. "We don't pay them to protest. We pay them to teach."
Times staff writers Martin Miller and Paul Johnson and correspondents Darren Franklin and Susan Steinberg contributed to this story.