About 200 students from University of California campuses across the state occupied Royce Hall on the UCLA campus for four hours Wednesday evening, forcing the cancellation of a debate by candidates running for Los Angeles mayor.
The impromptu sit-in took place at the end up a long day of marches and rallies to demand that the UC Board of Regents repeal its six-year ban on affirmative action.
The daytime demonstration peaked at more than 1,000 students, including busloads of high school students from around Los Angeles.
It was only after the regents wrapped up their business for the day at UCLA's West Alumni Center that lingering protesters, about 200, marched across campus and decided to take over Royce Hall about 4 p.m.
Demonstrators initially said they were not about to budge until the regents took immediate steps to lift the ban, which has resulted in dramatic drops in the numbers of black and Latino students attending UCLA and UC Berkeley.
But a few minutes before an 8 p.m. deadline to leave or be arrested, the protesters filed out.
"We can leave with our heads held high," said Karren Lane, UCLA student and member of California Statewide Affirmative Action Coalition. "We got a commitment from the community to continue the struggle. That is a victory in and of itself."
Student regent Justin Fong apparently appeased the protesters when he told them he would push to bring the issue to a vote at the May meeting.
But even the most sympathetic regents said it wouldn't happen any sooner. They didn't want to bring up the contentious issue at this week's two-day meeting because not enough like-minded regents were present to reverse the board's 1995 decision.
"We have the votes, if everybody shows up," said Regent William T. Bagley, who has been championing the cause. "What we want is a significant majority to convey the right message to the public . . . and send a message to future regents: Stay the devil out of politics."
Bagley and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a regent, both have said they might bring up the issue in May or July.
Such a repeal would be a symbolic gesture, given that Proposition 209, passed by California voters in 1996, takes precedence over university policy. That constitutional amendment bans race-based preferences in state agencies.
"It's hollow symbolism," said Regent Ward Connerly, who orchestrated the ban in 1995. "Not one black student, not one Latino student, will get into the university because of such a vote. They cannot restore racial preferences, because it's in the California constitution."
Student organizers said that they knew the vote wasn't scheduled for this week, but that they have grown frustrated by regents who have talked about repealing the ban for more than two years.
About 2,000 students converged at UC Berkeley last week to rally in favor of affirmative action. That demonstration was marred by some looting and violence as demonstrators marched through downtown Berkeley.
Some protesters on Wednesday addressed the regents, scolding them for allowing the decline in the numbers of African American, Latino and Native American students at the most prestigious campuses.
"We are not going to stand for the University of California becoming the Alabama of the 21st century," said Hoku Jeffrey, a member of Coalition of Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary.
Tania Kappner, another coalition member, said, "You have no future other than villains if you don't take action now."
Some activists at Berkeley and UCLA said that for years they have been helping campus administrators recruit the most academically talented minority students. But they warned that they would instead engage in "active discouragement" of prospective black, and Latino students if the regents don't reverse themselves.
"All we are going to tell them is the truth: what it feels like to be a minority student at UC Berkeley," student Aracely Sifuentes-Ordaz said at the UCLA protest. "What it's like to walk into a class of 500 students and see only a few students of color. How you rarely see a faculty member who looks like you."
The protest was orderly through the day, with students holding rallies outside the regents' meeting and marching around campus.
It wasn't until after the regents had left for the day that some protesters from UCLA, Berkeley, Irvine, Riverside, San Diego and Santa Barbara started marching for Royce Hall, the campus' performance hall.
Chancellor Albert Carnesale went into Royce Hall to determine if the students were willing to leave before the mayoral debate. They weren't, Carnesale said, so he canceled what was to have been a televised event.
It wouldn't have worked, he said, "because you would have two shows going on at once."
Nor did he want to call campus police to eject the protesters. "I was not going to remove them forcibly in time for the event, because it wouldn't be safe to do it in a hurry," he said.
The protest, the largest at UCLA in years, attracted busloads of minority high school students from around the Los Angeles Basin, including Dorsey, Santa Monica, Venice, Crenshaw, Belmont and Carson high schools. They left in the early afternoon--hours before the Royce Hall sit-in.
Ashlei Fesolai, a sophomore at Carson High School who wore "Admission Denied" stickers and carried a placard, said she wasn't exactly sure what students were protesting.
But it was much more exciting than the chemistry class she was missing. As a student involved in a UCLA outreach program, she had been to a cheerleading camp at UCLA and two other events. "This is more fun," she said. "This is the best time we've had."
Times staff writer Bob Pool contributed to this story.