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Thousands Rally at UC Campuses for Affirmative Action : Education: Protests are held at all nine schools, pressing for Board of Regents to rescind vote on admissions and hiring policies. UCLA march closes Wilshire Boulevard.

October 13, 1995|AMY WALLACE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

In a broad-based show of support for affirmative action on campus, thousands of students staged demonstrations around the state Thursday to demand a renewed commitment to diversity at the University of California.

Teach-ins, walkouts and rallies were held at all nine UC campuses, including a march of more than 2,000 people at UCLA that shut down busy Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood and led to the arrest of 33 students. Chanting, "No justice, no peace!" the students sat down in the middle of the street and were led away by police, booked for failure to disperse and released.

At UC Berkeley, where a handful of professors canceled their classes in support of the student protest, more than 3,000 demonstrators filled Sproul Plaza to hear the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then marched off campus and into the streets.

Student organizers of the so-called National Day of Action said they hoped the protests would prick the nation's conscience and mobilize students to push the UC Board of Regents to rescind its rollback of affirmative action at the 162,000-student university system.

"We hope to send a clear signal to the regents: We will not allow them to take something away that we've fought so hard to preserve," said Max Espinoza, a Chicano studies major at UCLA. "This is the beginning of a strong and unified movement to fight back."

The protests were part of what organizers had described as a national effort to draw attention to educational access with protests across the country. But other than a Wednesday rally at Harvard that drew 100 students, it was unclear how many campuses outside California had participated.

Opinion about affirmative action is sharply divided on campus. All nine of the UC chancellors opposed the regents' vote in July to prohibit the use of race and gender as criteria in admission, hiring and contracting at UC. And in the wake of that decision, about 1,200 UC faculty members have signed a petition calling upon the board to reconsider.

But the student newspaper at UC Berkeley, one of the system's most prestigious campuses, recently editorialized in favor of the regents' decision. And on UC campuses Thursday, the vast majority of students chose not to participate in the protests.

"We feel the UC regents spoke and they spoke correctly," said Todd Houser, 23, a UC San Diego communications major who is part of a UC systemwide group called Students for Merit-Based Admissions. "They're the voice of the students and we believe it was the right decision."

But those who disagreed said they believe that opposition to affirmative action stems from ignorance, and Thursday was the day for them to take a stand.

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At the UCLA protest, law student Eric Winston, 21, held a sign that said, "White Male for Affirmative Action." The Los Angeles native said he disagrees with those who believe admission to UC should only go to those with the highest scores and grades.

"You can't measure [only] merit unless the opportunities that are available are made equal," he said. "Affirmative action takes people who have never had opportunities and gives them a chance."

Around UCLA, law enforcement presence was heavy Thursday, as UC police officers joined with Los Angeles police, California Highway Patrol officers and sheriff's deputies to make sure the protests remained peaceful. Freeway exits were closed at Wilshire Boulevard, and 120 Los Angeles police officers were waiting with helmets and protective shields to intercept students who ventured off campus and blocked surrounding streets.

At Westwood and Wilshire boulevards, the 2,200 marchers converged in the four crosswalks, forming a square. As the crowd chanted, 33 students stepped into the center of the square, joined hands in a circle and sat down.

Police officers warned them to disperse, and when they refused they were arrested one at a time and led away. The students, who had agreed beforehand to be arrested, did not resist.

Chancellor Charles E. Young, a vocal supporter of affirmative action, had issued a statement earlier in the week warning that any disruption of the educational process would be counterproductive.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien also urged students not to shut down the university in their effort to deliver a message in support of affirmative action.

But Albert Retana, a 20-year-old political science and Latin American studies major at UCLA who was among the 33 students arrested, disagreed.

"Martin Luther King said sometimes you have to step out of mainstream society to show your commitment to progress," he said after being released by police. "Getting arrested was very empowering."

At UC Berkeley, Jackson took the stage just after lunch, exhorting the crowd not to sit idly by and watch affirmative action be dismantled. "We must choose schools over jails. We must choose affirmative action and inclusion over negative action and exclusion," he told a cheering crowd. "We must make some choices."

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