For Jan Reiff, activism means caring about issues beyond one’s self and then acting to make positive change on those issues.
“It’s where you harness your emotions and your strong feelings to figure out how to make that turn into something,” said Reiff, a history professor.
In the past hundred years, UCLA has been home to its fair share of activism.
Students have demanded ethnic studies, the end of apartheid and the end of wars. It doesn’t end there. Robin Kelley, the Gary B. Nash endowed chair and a history professor, attended and organized at UCLA in 1980’s. He said he has seen some extraordinary campaigns since.
Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, said he thinks this activist influence is in part due to UCLA’s location. Los Angeles has the one of the largest disparities between rich and poor in the country, a large immigrant population and vibrant communities of color, Wong said. In 2016, the poorest fifth of Angelenos made $25,190 per year, while the wealthiest five percent made $271,041, according to the Brookings Institute.
Wong said the disparity and its proximity to campus means students find themselves at the forefront of issues they will confront in the future.
“The benefit, from my vantage point, is that UCLA students can get hands on feel for some of the critical issues confronting our communities,” Wong said.
Some issues, like the ones below, have challenged student activists for decades and continue to evolve today.
Reiff, who teaches courses about UCLA history, can trace UCLA’s activism all the way back to the 1930’s, when students protested against war in Europe and later against the anti-Communist House Committee on Un-American Activities.
UCLA students held anti-war rallies and opposed civilian military training, according to archival interviews from the Online Archive of California. Three students were expelled for affiliations with communism.
“UCLA was being called the "Little Red School House," and the Los Angeles Times was attacking it for being a den of communists,” said University of California free speech scholar Peter Franck in an archival interview.
UCLA administrators attempted to bar partisan political groups and religious groups from bringing speakers to campus, Franck added.
Students worked around the rules, holding unofficial gatherings and permissible “balanced events,” in which two opposing speakers would attend but only the normally-banned speaker would talk.
The attempts to regulate students faded away over time, particularly around 1957, Franck said. This was partly to avoid further student organizing which would have been more disruptive to administrators than just loosening their policies.
Now: Kanye Western, Protesting Speakers, and a New Center
Since the 1930’s, the free speech debate on campus has shifted away from issues of Communism. Often, today’s discussions revolve around balancing free expression with respect for other people.
In 2015, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Alpha Phi held a “Kanye Western” themed party, in which attendees wore baggy clothes, padded bottoms and charcoal on their faces.
About 200 people protested in the following days to demand an administrative response.
Administrators struggled with what actions to take, stating while they disapproved the actions were not technically illegal. The Greek organizations ultimately put themselves on probation and but were not otherwise punished.
In response, UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion launched CrossCheck, a platform to discuss free speech issues in 2015, though it has not been updated since 2017.
More recently, conservative speakers invited to campus have revived controversy about where to draw the line between free speech and hate speech.
A little over a year ago, Bruin Republicans invited conservative pundit Ben Shapiro to speak at an on-campus event.
At first, the university said Bruin Republicans must pay the security costs for the events. However, the university ultimately covered the security costs following accusations that the university was suppressing free speech.
Ultimately, the event went went on as planned, although it drew protests.
Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck announced a new policy shortly after the event in May 2018, requiring the university to cover security expenses for all major student events on campus. UCLA hopes Policy 862 will facilitate more events that educate students, Beck said in an email statement.
The UC also established a free speech center to study First Amendment issues in 2018.
Before the 1960’s, ethnic studies did not exist on college campuses.
Ethnic studies were established at UCLA in the 1960’s as a byproduct of student activism, said Marcus Hunter, the chair of African American studies and a sociology professor.
Protests about radical recognition sprung up around the UC. Many were peaceful, but some were not. In 1969, Black Panther Party activist Bunchy Carter was murdered in Campbell Hall.
Only a few months later, UCLA established the Center for African American Studies, Asian American Studies Center and the Chicano Research Center. These were different than the departments familiar to students today; the centers had no staff and no established curriculum.
A few years after, the American Indian Studies Center joined the other ethnic studies centers. Together, they were among the first ethnic studies programs in the United States.
In 1971, UCLA students helped to bring American Indian issues into the national spotlight by participating in the occupation of Alcatraz, said Shannon Speed, the director of UCLA American Indian Studies Center and a professor.
Activists cited the Sioux Treaty of 1868 to assert vacated federal lands could be occupied by American Indians. The U.S. federal government disagreed. The resulting standoff at Alcatraz lasted 19 months.
In that span, UCLA student activists used university cars to shuttle from UCLA and San Francisco Bay over participate, Speed said.
They would go back and forth, she said, still completing their homework and taking exams while simultaneously contributing to an occupation almost 400 miles away.
Speed said the occupation had major impacts for American Indian visibility nationwide and on establishing the American Indian Movement, which has gone on to become one of the most powerful advocates for American Indian issues.
The ethnic studies centers were a start, but in the early 1990s, student activists from the Chicano/a studies center wanted to convert the program into a full department.
After years of negotiations, the Academic Senate backed a proposal to create the department. Chancellor Charles E. Young delayed the matter further by insisting the issue required further study rather than approving the proposal. On the eve of Cesar Chavez’s wake on April 28, 1998, Young rejected the proposal.
Students consequently staged a sit-in over the course of May 11 at the UCLA Faculty Center. The protestors broke windows, costing the university an estimated $30,000 in damages. Police arrested more than 80 people.
On May 24, nine people initiated a hunger strike to pressure Young. Their numbers grew, until a small tent villages surrounded Murphy Hall. The effort attracted national media attention.
The strike went on for 14 days, when Young and protestors agreed to rename and renew the center, although Young insisted the strike had not changed his mind.
Hunter said things have changed a lot since the 1950’s in some ways, but very little, if at all, in others.
His examination of the constraints on Black people’s experiences due to racism prompted him to invent the Black Lives Matter hashtag, he said.
“I was in a place of black mattering, if that makes sense,” Hunter said. “...even though research doesn’t attend to that, or wouldn’t have us believe that.”
In the decades since its establishment, the African American studies department has become a crucial training ground for activists.
“In the department, we wind up getting who become central to, for example, Black Lives Matter,” Hunter said.
Case in point, masters student Funmilola Fagbamila is one of the founding members of BLM in Los Angeles.
On campus, the department also serves as a hub for Black students, proving a space from the Afrikan Student Union to hold meetings and helping to make demands to administrators.
Recently, ASU staged a walkout at a UCLA-USC basketball game to draw attention to their long-delayed demands for a Black student center.
In addition to their work in the present, the department is also attempting to capture the history of Black Los Angeles in an archival project, Hunter said. The project will trace the history of Black Angelenos from 1850 onward.
Then: South African apartheid
UCLA students were pioneers in pushing for universities to divest.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, UCLA students mobilized to fight segregationist and white supremacist apartheid in South Africa.
Since South Africa was thousands of miles away from campus, student activists targeted a support for the regime closer to home: University of California funding.
The University of California Regents had over $3.1 billion holdings in South Africa.
Kelley said students assembled shanty towns on campus and held sit-ins at the South African Consulate in Beverly Hills to demand the UC Regents divest from South Africa and Namibia.
He speaks from experience. Kelley was president of the African Activists Association and local chair of the Committee to Keep South Africa Out of the Olympics at UCLA during the 80’s.
By 1986, students persuaded the UC Regents to divest its holdings. The effort took nine years.
Nelson Mandela, a South African anti-apartheid political leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, said [how do i say where this is from] he believed the UC’s divestment was particularly significant in abolishing white-minority rule in South Africa.
Now: Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Students adopting divestment-based strategies to generate change on issues today, including the protection of undocumented individuals from immigration enforcement.
Johana Guerra Martinez elected this month to the Undergraduate Students Association Council as external vice president on a platform demanding the university divest from ICE.
Advocacy in recent years regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has been especially powerful, Kelley said.
Wong said organizing around and by undocumented UCLA students played a decisive role in passing and protecting legislation like DACA.
“Some of the finest leaders have emerged from UCLA,” he said.
Like the anti-apartheid divestment movement, students have targeted the Regents to demand divestment. Others have rallied around proposals to make UCLA a sanctuary campus.
In 2017, students met Pres. Donald Trump’s decision to rescind DACA with protests.
Speed said she found the mobilization to protect undocumented students following Pres. Trump’s election moving.
“Making sure that our students were going to be protected and safe on campus was really emotionally moving to me,” Speed said.
Then: limited documentation
Reiff said between the most visible spikes in activism, students were still working to improve their communities.
This showed up in a variety of ways, she said, including the establishment of food pantries and homeless shelters. She added medical students have gone to war zones like Kosovo to help aid civilians.
“There's a real kind of quiet activism at UCLA,” she said.
Within UCLA and Westwood, student activists continue the century-long fight for institutional support and recognition today.
In areas like local politics student activists are just getting started.
Until a year ago, the Westwood Neighborhood Council represented the neighborhood surrounding UCLA to the LA City Council with little to no student input.
Michael Skiles, the founder of Westwood Forward and the president of the Graduate Students Association said he was shocked by the Westwood Neighborhood Council’s dismissiveness toward students when he went to give public comment in 2016. He knew students were being stonewalled on issues including affordable housing, bike lanes and student-friendly businesses.
“If students could have a say in their neighborhood council, all these things could happen,” Skiles said.
So he created the Westwood Forward coalition, made up of students, homeowners and businesspeople in the neighborhood. A few years, a massive social media and on-campus campaign later, Westwood Forward won an election to subdivide the neighborhood and establish the North Westwood Neighborhood Council.
Other students have worked to get their communities recognized within the university itself.
Justin Feldman, president of Students Supporting Israel and a fourth-year Middle Eastern studies and political science student, said he feels mainstream academia leaves out diverse perspectives.
To address this, he said, members of the Jewish community make an effort to include minority viewpoints into discussions, whether that mean encouraging others to share their thoughts or presenting their own perspective.
“Our representatives have made it a huge effort to be vocal in our own courses and in the mainstream, to give people access to little-known,” Feldman said.
Feldman added he believes it is important to show solidarity and build bridges between communities.
For Javier Rodriguez, a social welfare graduate student, the push for recognition is especially personal.
Rodriguez lobbied UCLA for 20 months to convince administrators to award his friend Jose Ortega, a fourth-year history student, a posthumous degree. Ortega was 12 units away from his degree when he died in 2017.
Rodriguez set up meetings, navigated bureaucratic policies and petitioned. As a formerly incarcerated student, he said he felt the odds were against him.
“For communities like myself that I feel are on the periphery, vulnerable populations… I don’t think UCLA is doing enough,” Rodriguez said. “This institution, the bottom line is, it’s an institution for profit.”
As a member of the Underground Scholars Initiative, a student organization supporting formerly incarcerated students, Rodriguez said he feels a duty to lay the groundwork for all the students coming behind him in a prison-to-university.
We need to build a pipeline from incarceration, a prison to university pipeline,” Rodriguez said. “It’s flipping the school to pipeline on its head.”
Rodriguez said he felt his difficult in obtaining a degree for Ortega is representative of the larger struggle to recognize marginalized groups on campus.
“We just want to feel this space is for us and that’s been a struggle,” he said.
Kelley said he isn’t sure there are many lessons left that current activists haven’t already learned from those who came before them.
“For example they are building coalitions, thinking beyond the confines or limits of their own issues, for the most part,” Kelley said.
Here’s some advice from the UCLA activists and thinkers of today.
For a hundred years, students have worked to balance academics, supporting themselves financially and generating change in the world around them.
Skiles offered a reminder to stay engaged.
“It’s very easy to get so wrapped up in school that one doesn’t take a serious look at issues and see how you can be a part of changing your community,” he said. “But if students do rise up and get engaged, they have tremendous potential to shape their communities.”
Universities give students a space to learn to be activists, Reiff said.
“This is part of your education.”
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the Underground Students Initiative. In fact, the organization is called the Underground Scholars Initiative.
Contributing reports by PHOEBE MILLER and MARILYN CHAVEZ