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.