1,000 Students Protest College Aid Cuts in Downtown Boston

by Alan Shihadeh

Last Tuesday at noon about a thousand college students from
UMass-Amherst, Framingham State College, Harvard, Wellesley, Roxbury
Community College, Lesley, MIT, UMass-Boston, Northeastern, Bunker
Hill Community College, and other schools gathered in a raucous
demonstration to protest the recent $5-$10B cuts from the annual $31B
federal financial aid budget for students. The Coalition to Save
Student Aid (CSSA), a UMass-Amherst group who initiated the call to
action four weeks ago, lost control of the demonstration soon after
the planned march from Government Center to the nearby Republican
Party headquarters began.
	The march followed a rally at Government Center in which
members of CSSA spoke about the need for students to vote out of
office the current Republican majority, and how students in particular
were under attack by the Right: "...this is an attack on students
alone, so the chant should be 'power to the students,' not 'power
to the people,'" said one speaker. Another speaker said,
"it's more economical to be on welfare now than it is to be a
student, with these cuts in student aid." The crowd gave a lukewarm
response to these self-consummed sentiments, and many complained of
the organizer's narrow focus. Basav Sen, one of the student
demonstrators, said that "considering that minimum wage is being
cut, immigrants are under attack, and there's a rally to protest
welfare cuts and the scapegoating of welfare mothers just two blocks
away, these speakers are full of it!"
	Fortunately the organizers allowed a couple of the
demonstrators to approach the microphone. We had all but given up on
the speeches when we heard the last speaker, Dan Rivera, start his
polemic with a jab at the organizers' timid conservatism: "I'm
probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but..." Rivera, a
student and Gulf War veteran, restored a progressive edge to the rally
when he called on everyone present to consider that the student aid
cuts are only a part of a long-standing, larger agenda attacking
women, immigrants, the poor, and minorities. "What about
Proposition 187? Our sisters and brothers in California have been
fighting this all along. What are you doing about racism? What about
the welfare cuts? There are people protesting those just up the road
at the State House." He also asked the students to observe a few
moments of silence in solidarity with the hunger strikers in
California who are protesting the cuts in affirmative action. By the
time he finished, Rivera had thoroughly incited the crowd, and people
began chanting "let's march, let's march...."
	Moments later we began marching - on the sidewalk, the long
way around Government Center, in accordance with the march permit
issued to CSSA, and obeying the anal CSSA "peace-keepers" along the
way. Once we arrived at State Street, home of the Republican
headquarters, everyone ignored the peace-keepers - largely due to the
lack of space on the sidewalk - and took to the street, blocking it
completely from traffic. At this point the tone of the march became
dramatically more militant. "They say cut-back...we say fight
back" became "They say cut-back...we say fuck that." Hundreds
of students spontaneously sat in the street, chanting among other
things "hell no, we won't go." (The next day the Boston Globe
reported that "a dozen protesters sat in the street for 20 minutes
in front of the Republican Party office.") Office workers peered
out of their high-rise building windows, some frowning, others giving
their thumbs-up approval. We never really found out which building
housed the Republicans.
	The entire time we occupied State Street, CSSA peace-keepers
implored students to return to Government Center. After about 20
minutes, some protesters began trickling back to Government Center
along with the peace-keepers. After another 10 minutes passed, about
half the marchers had left for Government Center, but the other half
decided to stay in the street. As we continued chanting Boston police
began increasing their numbers. Eventually the peace-keepers returned
to State Street and begged people to go back to Government Center. At
this point there was some heated discussion among those sitting in the
street over what we should do next: either go to Government Center,
join the welfare protesters at the State House, or stay put. An
outspoken student who had been leading chants from the top of a parked
truck took charge of the discussion.
	I don't know exactly what happened, but I finally heard him
say "OK, but if we're going back to Government Center then let's
at least march in the street," at which point everyone got up and
marched in the middle of the road, chanting, back to Government
Center. Many of us had the impression that we would continue the
protest there. When we arrived, we found that people were still there
chanting, but there was no longer any organization. The protesters had
broken up into several small clusters, and it seemed that no one knew
what to do next, though none of them seemed ready to leave. A few of
the protesters climbed on top of the T station and made short speeches
about how this was just the start, and that we all need to return to
our campuses and organize students.
	One group of about twenty students, mostly African-American,
that were among those reluctant to leave State Street held a meeting
to discuss what to do next. They were upset with the way things had
turned out, particularly that the CSSA organizers had called everyone
back to Government Center but had nothing for us to do when we got
there. The general sentiment was that we should have stayed in the
street. One of them mentioned that the organizers promised to set up a
microphone at the Republican headquarters which would be open to
everyone, but it never materialized. "They just didn't want us to say
anything at the rally," he said.
	Three students from the MIT Coalition for Social Justice
interviewed Lief Utne, one of the main CSSA organizers as the event
was breaking up. We asked why CSSA had planned such a politically
conservative rally. Utne said that the CSSA was a project of SCERA,
the main student advocacy group at UMass-Amherst which in the 60's was
one of the most active radical student organizations in the
country. He said that SCERA had been defunded by the student
government several times in the 70's because of its progressive
stances, and since then has dropped all "controversial issues. We only
work on issues that are important to all students, conservative or
liberal. In fact, our movement is better than the student movements of
the 60's because we've chosen issues everyone can rally behind
instead of issues relevant to small groups." When asked whether this
meant they wouldn't join the fights against racism, sexism, or
homophobia, he said that "those are too controversial." At that
point another CSSA organizer nodded and lamented that "those issues
were brought up at the rally only because we had to let a student
leader [Dan Rivera] speak. What can you do?"
	The answer was obvious to everyone but the organizers: they
should get out of the way.

[thistle homepage] [Volume 9] [9.13 - contents]