CSUN Marchers Protest Attacks on Affirmative Action : Demonstration: Hundreds of students join in peaceful but noisy event targeting proposed state ballot measure.
In one of Cal State Northridge’s largest political demonstrations in years, hundreds of students participated in a three-hour march and rally on campus Wednesday to protest attacks on affirmative action policies, focusing much of their wrath on the proposed California Civil Rights Initiative.
In a peaceful but noisy event, the chanting and sign-carrying crowd of mostly Latino and black students paraded through a series of campus buildings, drawing stares from bystanders and students in class. Organizers had talked of shutting down the campus, but the demonstration did not appear to cause any significant disruptions.
Campus police estimated the crowd at about 600, but some student organizers said attendance approached 2,000. Campus Police Lt. Mark Hissong said the event was the largest student-orchestrated political demonstration at CSUN he could recall in his 15 years on campus. "[There was] nothing that’s sparked this much enthusiasm,” he said.
“We’re living in a time that is a free-for-all attack on minorities and people of color,” said Vladimir Cerna, a Salvadoran immigrant and a rally organizer. If today’s university students do not fight to preserve affirmative action programs, the doors to higher education for minority students eventually will be closed, he said.
“We’re trying to get people aware and educated about what’s going on in the political system,” explained Darius Riggins, a former officer in CSUN’s Black Student Union.
Student demands included a call for CSUN President Blenda J. Wilson to take a public stand on the Civil Rights Initiative, which, if ultimately approved by voters, would end state race and gender preference programs. They demanded that University of California regents reverse their controversial July decision to end race-based preferences in hiring and admissions, and want CSUN to continue its efforts to serve minority students with programs such as remedial education.
The event, led by a group of dancers and drummers in Aztec costumes, took on a festive rather than angry tone even as students chanted slogans such as “Wilson’s Gotta Go--Pete!” a reference to Gov. Pete Wilson, who has helped lead the fight against affirmative action.
“Affirmative action is something that still needs to be in place. Without affirmative action, people of color are going to suffer,” said Tonye Barango, a 23-year-old black student sitting beneath a shade tree during the demonstration. “There’s a lot of fields women wouldn’t even be in if it weren’t for affirmative action,” she said.
Whitney Howell, a 22-year-old black student who marched, tried to explain the casual demeanor of some students.
“On one hand there’s a rage,” she said, “but on the other hand there’s a numbness. We’ve been dealing with this for hundreds of years.”
Blenda Wilson, who is black, was off campus at a Cal State trustees meeting in Long Beach for much of the day. But in a telephone interview with The Times, she said she plans to issue a public statement next week detailing her stance on affirmative action in general and specifically on the initiative, which is still in the signature-gathering stage.
“It is a given I have views on every public policy issue that exists,” said Wilson, who commended students for the orderly and educational tone of Wednesday’s event. “What I’m most pleased about is our students did what I think the public hopes university students should do. They shared information and were responsible.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the controversial initiative, which backers are aiming for the November, 1996, ballot, downplayed the magnitude of the CSUN student demonstration. “They have 25,000 students and they were only able to muster about 600 students. I think the real news is 24,400 students chose not to participate,” said campaign director Joe Gelman.
Gelman also challenged a statement CSUN issued last week in which Wilson encouraged faculty and staff members who supported the protest to participate. Gelman said that would amount to taxpayers subsidizing the political activities of state employees.
Wilson on Wednesday called the press release statement “an error,” maintaining that she never gave that instruction.
Jeanette Mann, CSUN’s director of affirmative action programs, said the initiative probably would not affect Cal State’s current admissions policy, which the system maintains is not race-based, nor its hiring programs. Mann said the proposal, however, could kill a range of special academic programs aimed at minority students.