UMN students occupy Regents meeting to demand free tuition

A throng of leftist protesters at the University of Minnesota (UMN) chanted their way into handcuffs Friday as they attempted to hijack a board of regents meeting and stop a tuition increase.

Moments after the public Board of Regents meeting began, students in the packed audience walked up to the front of the meeting room, waving homemade signs and two large banners painted with the words “Students Fight Tuition Hikes” and “Chop From The Top.”

Cameras were rolling as students lined up to shout their disapproval of board actions, saying they were neglectful of marginalized, working-class students. The protesters also loudly chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, tuition hikes have got to go.”

Most board members promptly left the room without engaging the protesters, though Chairman Dean E. Johnson remained, repeatedly asking the protesters to stop. After the protesters refused to disperse, police confiscated banners and arrested six. Those who were arrested kept chanting as police escorted them past other protesters and out of the building.

The meeting eventually reconvened, though the protests continued in a courtyard near the university building where the Regents met. There, students explained why they were protesting, and the protesters who had been arrested were released and returned to their friends.

Students held a banner that read “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” This statement served as the theme for the protest.

The leader of the protesters, Joanna Nunez, led the group in the chant, “Students live in poverty, this is an atrocity.”

Some faculty held signs and joined the students in protest, as well.

One protester said she was part of the Anti-War Committee and reminded students that tuition wasn’t their only problem.

“We know that this institution is also part of the military-industrial complex,” she proclaimed. “Some of those same people in that elite boardroom are supporting systems of empire, systems of oppression.”

The protesters called themselves the Differences Organized Coalition, or Do! Coalition, which consists of multiple groups fighting together against student debt and tuition increases. At publishing time, the group has fewer than 40 likes on their Facebook page.

A Do! Coalition manifesto tweeted out by Unicorn Riot reads in part, “We are driven by a spirit of self-determination as we work to redefine higher education, dismantle systems of oppression, and distribute resources in a just manner.”

The protesters had four main demands: treatment of college education as a public good, immediate free tuition for American Indian students, the immediate resignation of university president Eric Kaler, and divestment from BlackRock investments.

UMN investments handled by the BlackRock investment management company include holdings in construction equipment maker Caterpillar, defense contractor Raytheon, and private prison management group Correction Corporation of America. The Board of Regents determines how UMN invests its major gifts, endowment, and public funds.

The protesters’ manifesto claimed that the burden of paying for college has shifted onto families, whereas the state used to pay for higher education. The first demand includes calls to “reduce tuition exponentially by 10% over the next 5 years until we achieve free education for everyone,” institute a $15 per hour minimum wage for student university workers, and unionize both the student and faculty bodies.

Subsequent items on the list claim that president Kaler has repressed students, that the land UMN was built on was stolen from Indians, that new student housing causes gentrification, and that university investments include human rights-violating corporations and private prison corporations.

Nunez told reporters that the coalition is keeping a watchful eye on the Board of Regents, saying, “We know that we’re not going to stop, and we’re not going to be complacent and let them get away with trying to meet during the summer, without the voices of students present.”

Nunez said that the Regents, who are elected by state legislators, don’t represent the interests of working class and minority students, declaring, “We know that we’re more likely to be criminalized as students of color by this university than to get our degrees.”

Despite the pleas of the protesters, The Duluth News Tribune reports that the Board nonetheless passed a new budget by a 10-2 vote that would raise out-of-state tuition 7.5 percent and in-state tuition 2.5 percent on the main UMN campus.

Campus Reform reached out to the University of Minnesota public relations staff, but no one was available to comment on the protest by press time.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @RiersonNC