At least, that's how the story goes. But a closer, more local look at the protests brings other issues into play:
The University of California at Irvine, with its sleepy business park façade and large commuter student body, was expected to keep a low profile on the organized "Day of Action." The university, which is home to around 26,000 students, is historically tame in the realm of public activism. Irvine, after all, sits in the middle of conservative Orange County.
But to everyone's surprise, a bit of Berkeley fervor came to campus on March 4 and stirred up a robust protest movement.
A rally in front of Aldrich Hall, the university's administrative home base, kicked off at noon and attracted a couple hundred students. The marching began and those students, armed with homemade noisemakers, bongos and a loudspeaker, paraded into buildings, down hallways and into classrooms, where they interrupted lectures and urged their peers to get up and grab signs.
Three hours later, the march--now 800 strong--had looped around campus and into the street, blocking four lanes of traffic in both directions. Orange County firefighters directed the march back to campus, where the protesters noisily planted themselves outside a library and then occupied a study center.
"I haven't seen this big of protest during my time at UCI," said Abraham Medina, a third year Sociology student. "I don't think this has ever happened here before."
In addition to the shockingly large turnout, there was something else curious about the crowd marching around campus that day: the minority students were the majority in this group. Some waved signs reading "3%," indicating the low percentage of black students on the UCI campus. Some wore long Arab garments called galabeyas. A number of females wore hijabs, or headscarves. Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, Indian Americans--they were there too.
The crowd was not only colorful, but the chanting indicated a compromised education wasn't the only injustice these students were protesting: "Let's do this united. We'll never be divided!"
A recent string of hate crimes on various UC campuses has added yet another layer of dysfunction to the UC hysteria: a noose scrawled on the bathroom wall of a UC Santa Cruz bathroom, another noose found hanging in a UC San Diego library, a ghetto-themed party hosted by UC San Diego students, a swastika carved into a Jewish student's door and homophobic graffiti sprayed on the side of a UC Davis building, and so on.
In early February, 11 students (collectively known as the "Irvine 11") individually heckled Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, during a speaking event on the UCI campus. Those 11 students were arrested and threatened with expulsion. Disciplinary hearings are now underway. This event, which in no way compares to the hate crimes happening on other campuses, does point to an ongoing tension at UCI.
"There is a great divide between Muslim and Zionist groups on campus, whose beliefs reflect the larger issues at play in the Middle East," says Raul Perez, a graduate student in the UCI Sociology department.
In an orchestrated effort to promote understanding and tolerance, members of the Muslim Student Union distributed free hijabs to female students on March 4. Many of the women in the crowd took them up on the offer.
In this way, the March 4 protest at UCI was much more nuanced than most media outlets would have us believe. Chalking it up to a simple rally around the California budget crisis only skims the surface of the problems under attack that day.
While some UCI students were protesting their marginal representation on campus, others were protesting the recent wave of hate crimes across the UC system or the arrests of the "Irvine 11." Still others were protesting the more recent arrests of the "Irvine 17," another group of students that was arrested on campus during a sit-in while protesting everything from budget cuts to gendered bathrooms to the use of Taser guns by campus police officers.
"What UCI saw on March 4 was coalition protesting," says Prof. Mark Petracca, the chair of the university's Political Science Dept. "There was no widespread, unifying interest here. These were fairly small groups of students with discrete concerns who aligned themselves with other students with discrete concerns to make a call for action by the administration."
In other words, students used March 4 as an umbrella opportunity to come together and protest for their own causes on the UCI campus. The administration, in turn, repackaged the march as a UC budget protest to prove a point to lawmakers in Sacramento: Students are fed up with tuition hikes and angry about compromised campus resources.
That may be true, but it's only a sliver of the big picture.