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USC defends tough protest stance

Times Staff Writers

When students demanding a living wage for campus employees took over a Harvard University administration building six years ago, their occupation lasted 21 days and ended with relatively mild reprimands. Hunger strikers seeking an expanded Chicano studies program camped out at UCLA for two weeks in 1993 without penalties or arrests.

In contrast, 13 protesters’ sit-in Tuesday at the office of USC’s president ended in about six hours after administrators threatened to suspend them from school and boot them out of dorms. The school also began telephoning their parents.

USC’s swift tactics -- giving students 15 minutes to decide -- have triggered a debate beyond the original issue of how the campus seeks to ensure that none of its themed clothing is made in sweatshops.

USC administrators strongly defended their actions Wednesday. “Universities are open places and we provide lots of opportunity to protest, to make their concerns known,” said Michael L. Jackson, vice president for student affairs. But, he added, the demonstrators went from acceptable protest to illegal disruption, and the university “needed to make the best decision for USC, given the circumstances.”

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About 35 other students had rallied noisily outside the administration building, but they were not threatened with suspension.

“If people do want to engage in civil disobedience, there are consequences that come with civil disobedience,” Jackson said. He stressed that sit-in participants no longer face discipline because their protest stopped in time to avoid penalties, which potentially included expulsion.

Critics called the university’s tactics unusual and extreme.

“They threatened them with some very serious repercussions,” said history professor Joshua Goldstein, who has supported the protesters on the sweatshop issues. “That strategy was a huge amount of psychological pressure to exert.”

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Former state Sen. Tom Hayden, a leader of student protests in the 1960s who serves on anti-sweatshop advisory boards for the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, spoke at the rally Tuesday. He said he was particularly angered that the university contacted parents of those who sat on the floor outside President Steven B. Sample’s office in Bovard Hall.

“I thought it was very insensitive to manipulate the students and their parents emotionally,” Hayden said Wednesday.

Hayden, who teaches at Pitzer College, said political activism is part of students’ education and emotional growth: “The reason they’re at college is they’ve left parents behind and are becoming independent.”

Divided opinion was reflected Wednesday in an admittedly unscientific poll by the Daily Trojan campus newspaper’s website. Forty-seven percent of respondents said that the administration was wrong in threatening expulsion and that “students’ politics should be separate from their academic status.” A pro-administration stance received 34% support, saying the university “has the right to do what it sees fit.” Nineteen percent said both sides were wrong. USC student body President Sahil Chaudry said that although he supports the students’ right to protest, university officials were within their rights to phone parents.

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“It’s not out of line for the university to have dialogue with all parties involved,” said Chaudry, a junior political science major. “Parents are financing the education.”

As they started the sit-in at 11 a.m. Tuesday, the students were told they faced possible suspension and arrest. They had prepared for a stay, bringing pillows, food for three days and a bucket of kitty litter for bathroom breaks. Although officials collected their student ID cards, the protesters stayed upbeat until about 4 p.m. when parents contacted by the university started making frantic calls to the protesters.

“She called me freaking out,” Meher Talib, a junior international relations major, said of her mother in Kansas. Talib’s father also called, worried that the family could not afford her education if she lost her scholarship.

“I almost felt violated ... that the school would go so far to cause my parents pain,” Talib said.

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“It was really just a tactic to emotionally manipulate us,” said Jon Danforth-Appell, a senior cinema student whose parents were called. Even one student’s ex-wife was called.

Arizona resident Barbara Bucca, mother of student Mario Bucca, said she was initially frightened by the school’s call, which urged her to contact her son. But after Mario explained his group’s side of the issues, “I stood by my son’s beliefs,” Bucca said. She told him to “do what you think is best.”

Jackson then entered the room with personally addressed suspension letters and told the students they would lose class credit for the semester without a tuition refund and forfeit scholarships and campus housing.

After 15 minutes of discussion, a few students were adamant about ending the protest, and the majority went along to stay unified, sophomore Teresa Cheng said. The students, some in tears, walked out peacefully.

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Elizabeth Kennedy, USC’s director of trademarks and licensing services, stressed that the school has taken many steps since 1998 to ensure decent working conditions and pay for workers who create products bearing USC’s name and logos.

Among other things, the demonstrators want USC to join a group that has independent monitors examine factory conditions and designate acceptable suppliers for university apparel. Kennedy said it was premature to consider that until a legal review of whether it would violate antitrust rules was completed.

After much discussion in recent months, the protesters issued an ultimatum and said “dialogue was over,” Kennedy said, adding that such an attitude influenced the university’s actions. Students said they held the sit-in because they were never allowed to talk to Sample, and other administrators kept repeating the same responses.

Other colleges have taken different approaches to student protests.

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The hunger strike at UCLA in 1993 ended with a compromise that gave the Chicano studies program more power. At the time, UCLA administrators were cautious about ending the strike aggressively in part because they feared negative publicity if a weakened hunger striker was harmed. Also, the camp was outdoors, not in an important office.

That contrasted with previous University of California actions, such as the arrests of 773 protesters who occupied a UC Berkeley administration building during the 1964 Free Speech movement there.

At Harvard, the three-week sit-in in 2001 ended after the university agreed to form a group to study better compensation for lower-paid workers. Most of the 30 students involved had reprimands placed on their transcripts.

Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn recalled that campus leaders had decided to avoid any physical confrontation, though plenty of police were on hand. “The philosophy was to have it play out and not remove the students,” he said Wednesday, adding that he was not commenting on the USC situation.

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Benjamin McKean, a leader of the Harvard protest, recalled that no direct threats were made but that many were insinuated in the press during negotiations.

McKean, who attended high school in Los Angeles and is a graduate student in politics at Princeton University, said he had no regrets, except that a settlement took so long. “I certainly don’t regret having a reprimand in my file,” he said.

larry.gordon@latimes.com angie.green@latimes.com


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