A version of this article "Occupy ELAC Demands Stop to Education Cutbacks" originally ran in Eastern Group Publications.
Esperanza Ortega makes a crab and shrimp ceviche tostada for a tent full of students camped at the entrance to East Los Angeles College. With the power down, this is dinner.
Less than 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles, where tents have taken over City Hall's lawn since early October, this smaller, more focused encampment took root at the beginning of November. Unlike many Occupy movements elsewhere, they are addressing a single issue: the accessibility of education, especially for people who cannot afford to go to four-year colleges.
“Community college is the main portal of entry for secondary, post-education for most low-income, minority students, so we have to keep the core classes open and also affordable,” said organizer Herlim Li.
The first objective is to stop the fee increases. Because of state cutbacks, tuition costs at ELAC have risen from $16 a unit in 2009 to $36, and there is talk of yet another $10 increase. And even as students are asked to pay more, the resources provided to them are less. At ELAC an overflow situation that is felt at the beginning of each semester when 60 to 70 students pack into a 30-person classroom in the hopes of making the lottery for enrollment.
Organizers are calling on state legislators who represent East Los Angeles College to visit the camp and Governor Brown to address a $400 million cut to community college education.
Class cuts have also meant that there are never enough required courses such as English and math classes to go around. Because many students need them in order to transfer to four-year colleges, some organizers say students have to postpone their education anywhere from a semester to a year.
The more than 30 participants continue their day jobs and take classes, even as most have chosen to camp full time off of Cesar Chavez Avenue. Engineering student Keanu Paar said he was “not okay” with the elimination of a transportation card that he used to get from Pasadena to the ELAC campus. He is struggling to pay for college, and is worried that if cutbacks continue it will become impossible for his younger sister to afford higher education.
Paar said “all of this went through my head” when he read about the Occupy ELAC movement in the school’s Campus News. He decided, “I’m in.”
Occupy ELAC’s first week went mostly as planned, with some supporters coming by their tent to give encouragement, while others stopped by to heckle or give criticism.
But on a recent Sunday, the Occupy ELAC campers woke up to a rainstorm.
A giant puddle threatened their main “study” tent, and water dripped into each of their sleeping tents. Amid the mud and chaos, the camp was reconfigured under the direction of one of their members, Daniel Cristobal, who everyone has now dubbed “the general” for his quick work.
The temperature has also dropped significantly, especially at night, and students are wearing layers to sleep and padding their tents with more blankets. Paar said he has been craving a cheeseburger and misses his mother. One of the main organizers said her mother was crying when she visited her recently.
The students get through the day by studying and doing their homework. They play soccer, cards, hacky sack, and dance. They also make improvements to their shelter and campsite, such as creating a gravel pathway so that they do not have to stomp through the mud.
Paar said that even though they were getting “a little tired,” the situation is manageable. He compared it to the state’s budget crisis. “You know what, it’s not over yet, … [the rain storm and leaking tents] looked bad, but it’s fixable. Like these budget cuts, it’s a big problem, but it’s fixable,” he said.
So far their occupation is sanctioned by the ELAC administration who say they will allow it until January, and is supported by faculty members. Campus security guards check on their safety, and secretaries in the main offices donate food. They also received donations from the community, including from Home Depot and Lilliana’s Tamales.
They continue to try to attract more interest from the community at large, passing out a thousand fliers during the East Los Angeles Classic football game.
But they say what they need the most now is the attention of those in charge of the state’s education budget. “We really need someone to listen. We need someone to come down here,” Angie Rincon said.
As they wait for legislators to visit them, they try not to get discouraged by detractors, as well as people who criticize how they are going about their campaign, people who wonder why there are not camped out at Occupy LA, or at the district offices. Each of the Occupy ELAC participants tries to act as a spokesperson, ready at any moment to explain why they are occupying their school.
Paar said they are camping at ELAC – sitting out the rain and doing their homework in a tent – because this is where they are being affected by the state budget cuts, and he is in no hurry to run home. “I don’t feel a single bit of regret being here. I don’t mind freezing," he said. “Because I know what we’re doing here is a good cause.”