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Davis, California

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Understanding the history of protest in our path forward

As students across the country engage in civil disobedience in the name of Palestinian liberation, they follow in the footsteps of student leaders before them 


By EMME DUNNING — features@theaggie.org 


In the past month, college students in the United States have gained increasing attention from the public through their support of the Free Palestine movement. Students across the country have asserted their opposition to the conflict by erecting encampments, holding rallies and occupying classrooms and administrative buildings. As the UC Davis encampment enters its third week of demonstrations, we take a look back at past UC Davis protests that have paved the way. 

In the spring of 1970, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was at the forefront of many people’s minds. This was particularly true for college students, as young people across the nation organized rallies, sit-ins and boycotts in protest of the conflict — and UC Davis was no exception. 

Brett Stone, a UC Davis alum who was set to graduate in 1970, found this issue particularly pressing. 

“There was a tremendous amount of protesting and concern and outrage,” Stone said. “The question was — for me and my friends — what can we do? How do we express our anger? How can we make a difference?”

Their anger was twofold, as students were not only appalled by the actions of the United States in the war but also acutely aware of the direct role they were set to play come their graduation that June. 

“Once we graduated, we would be in line to go there [to enlist in the Vietnam War],” Stone said.

A UC Davis tennis player at the time, Stone decided to join a large group of UC Davis athletes in Jocks for Peace, an organization whose goal centered around the mobilization of athletes against the war in Vietnam. The group engaged in several actions aimed at educating and empowering communities to reject involvement in the war. 

One campaign involved going door to door in the neighboring town of Dixon to encourage people to write letters in protest of the war. Additionally, the UC Davis tennis team came together to pool the money allotted by the university for food at away tournaments and donate these funds to an anti-war organization, a move that garnered intense backlash. 

“The idea was to get people involved and understand what was happening,” Stone said. “We were confident that once they understood, they would realize what a horrible root this had taken. It was time to stop.”

Although the term “jock” is not necessarily associated with civil disobedience, Stone asserted that UC Davis athletes cared deeply about this issue and wanted their actions as a team to reflect that.

“For athletes in Davis, it was not business as usual,” Stone said. “That was the impetus. People saw athletes as disconnected and privileged — nothing was as important as their sports. It was our effort to change that image. Yes, athletes [were] preoccupied with their sports and their training, except when it [came] to this issue. We were sacrificing our education and our concern with ourselves and saying, ‘This is more important.’”

Despite the efforts of Stone and his teammates, two years later, in 1972, the war continued to rage. But as the U.S. war machine refused to let up, so did the student movement. Reignited by President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, students saw an immediate need for an escalation of their anti-war efforts. This need was, yet again, embodied by UC Davis students.

Bob Black, a city council member at the time and former UC Davis student body president, remembers the events of May 1972 vividly. 

“There was a very major uprising of students,” Black said. “There was a massive rally on the Quad.” 

This rally morphed into a march through downtown Davis, reaching numbers of up to two or three thousand, the majority of whom were UC Davis students.

In an effort to reach a larger audience and reassert a rejection of business as usual, a group of protestors blocked Interstate 80 in its path through Davis, backing up traffic for miles. 

Despite their shared anti-war goals, Black disagreed with protestors blocking the freeway. 

“To me, this seemed like not a very good way of winning middle-class hearts and minds to be against the war,” Black said. “And so I went down to the freeway. I spoke to people and I said, ‘Instead of blocking the freeway, why don’t we go up and block the railroad tracks?’”

The railroad tracks held great significance in the United States’ involvement in the war, as it was a major form of weaponry transport. In this way, Black believed that blocking the railroad tracks could make a similar statement to blocking the freeway.

Many protestors agreed, and over 100 people migrated to the railroad tracks where they effectively held the route to a standstill until their arrest nearly two days later. 

From the demonstrations of 1972 to the ones seen today, Black acknowledged the important role of student participation in social justice movements. 

“I think students can be regarded as the leadership of the future and their initial efforts to elevate public awareness and provoke the conscience of the people of America,” Black said. “I think it’s an early sign of where the generation would like to take us, and I think that’s a good thing. They’re attempting to reframe the debate as well as alter the course of public policy. It is extremely educational and fulfilling to take action as opposed to being a stand-by or a spectator.”

These sentiments of student involvement have been echoed in the years following the Vietnam War in countless issues. The United Auto Workers Union, which represents UC Davis graduate students, has embraced the importance of protesting for social change.

The Union works to protect the interests of its workers, which for strike UAW 4811 means supporting graduate students UC system-wide to secure fair wages, safe working conditions and adequate benefits. In 2022, the student-led union branch executed a UC system-wide labor strike in the name of fair wages.

Emily Weintraut, a teaching assistant and graduate student researcher in food science as well as the UAW 4811 ASE unit chair, has shown frustration with UC administrators’ lack of regard for student protests and demands. 

“As the [2022] strike went on, we stayed strong, but people got more and more surprised with how the university just didn’t seem to uphold the values that it says it does,” Weintraut said. 

She asserted that although student protestors should be commended for their efforts in ensuring their rights are upheld, it should not be their responsibility. 

“We wouldn’t have to have strike authorization votes, strikes, rallies and protests if the university would just implement the contracts correctly and would abide by the law,” Weintraut said. 

Today, the union prepares for another possible strike, this time on the grounds of safety concerns. The concerns stem from the recent actions of UC police at UC San Diego and UC Los Angeles, who the union asserts endangered the health and safety of their members in their violent response to pro-Palestine demonstrations on the campuses. 

If enacted, the strike would follow in the footsteps of many student demonstrations before it, continuing the legacy of student activism that has remained a pillar of the UC Davis community. 

Written by: Emme Dunning — features@theaggie.org


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