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Students in California Take to the Freeways Students in California Take to the Freeways

Students in California Take to the Freeways

by Lillian R. Mongeau
March 6, 2010

Last night in Oakland, over 150 people protesting education budget cuts were arrested.

Sebastian Beretvas, a 12-year-old who attends a local charter school for the arts, was among the nine minors taken into custody.

"Then we were led onto the freeway, and I was like, OK, this isn't a good idea, that was one side of my brain, and then the other side was like, I want to keep going," said Beretvas, who was cited for being on a freeway as a pedestrian and disobeying an order by the police to disperse.

All nine minors were eventually released to their parents with only a citation.

"I think that the people who took the highway acted bravely," said Callie Maidhof, a first year PhD candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley and spokesperson for the campus' organizers.  "I am sure that they understood the risk that they were taking. They acted out of principle, out of support for something that the Bay Area and people across the country have been fighting for today together."

As for Beretvas, he had been taking part in the mostly peaceful rally in downtown Oakland's Frank H. Ogawa plaza earlier in the day with his parents' permission.

But his venture up an off-ramp was not expressly permitted.

"It was a day of protest, so they decided to just go with the flow," Jill Davidson, his mother, said. "Bad idea."

She was quick to add: "We support our son for protesting, it's just too bad it got carried away."

But before it got carried away, the East Bay was alive with earnest, organized energy. UC Berkeley students held a peaceful rally at Sproul Plaza, the campus' historic central gathering place, and then led a march down Telegraph Avenue and into downtown Oakland. Along the way, they were joined by Oakland public school teachers, concerned citizens, high school students and at least one 12-year-old.

Once downtown, speakers decried the cuts to public funding for education in California and they were met with cheers and spontaneous dancing from a friendly crowd. Despite the seeming frivolity and relative peacefulness of the event, however, those at the rally were there for a very serious purpose.

"Us youth, we are the future," said  Eric Bagley, 17, a junior at Oakland Technical High School. "By cutting off the schools, they're cutting off the future."

Bagley said that the after-school activities at his large, public high school had been cut significantly. He said that he had a good GPA and hopes to attend a University of California school in southern California where he will be the first in his family, along with his twin brother, to attend a four-year university.

But that plan now comes with a steeper price tag.

Last semester, deep state cuts to higher education prompted the Board of Regents that governs the UC system to raise student fees by 32 percent. The hike precipitated massive protests across the state. In particular at UC Berkeley, where 38 students were arrested after occupying a campus building for over 12 hours. By the time the students were released, a huge crowd had gathered in support of the occupation and many in the group vowed that the event would mark the beginning of a long series of protests "in defense of public education."

A few weeks later, the California Coordinating Committee, a loose network of students, faculty, and concerned citizens issued a call to make March 4 a "National Day of Action in Defense of Public Education." Californians took the call especially seriously with groups up and down the state planning marches, rallies and symbolic gestures to call attention to the drastic reductions in public school funding.

Yesterday, Beretvas did not attend school, instead spending all of the day in protests. But he came away with an important lesson: "I learned that, if you want to protest, make sure you stay on the streets and don't go on the freeway."

Lillian Mongeau is a Teach for America alumna who taught seventh grade English on the Texas-Mexico border. She is now a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, where she reports on education in Oakland at OaklandNorth.net.

Photos via Mongeau.

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