State of the (Student) Union – 2014

by James Walker – Editor in Chief

Summer has begun, and life at UCLA has taken on the gentle ambiance of a half empty campus, basking in the glorious SoCal sunshine. Nervous freshmen and transferees can be spotted exploring the buildings in anticipation (or perhaps dread?) of the Fall, half the faculty have vanished to do research, and the other half wish they had, too. During this lull, it behooves us as students to reflect upon the past academic year, in order to take stock of where things stand for those of us fortunate enough to be in college, both here in California, and across the globe.

As the (retiring) Editor in Chief for the Generation, I like to think that there is a kind of fraternal connection between all of us who strive to increase our understanding of the world. As students with an interest in foreign affairs, it is important that we look not only at the academic objects of our interest, but also the people who will be our contemporaries in the years to come – the students who make up the global cohort of tomorrow’s leaders, researchers, (and with any luck) friends with whom we hope to make the world a better place. Therefore, as we cast a wary eye across the past year, it is a little sad to see just how many challenges have been faced by our contemporaries, and how many more they are likely to face in the future.

Perhaps there is no better example of this than Egypt. As regular readers of the Gen will know, we were fortunate enough to host Ahmed Maher on campus last year. Subsequent to his visit with us, he was arrested and sentenced to three years hard labor, and his youth and student based organization, the April 6th movement, was declared a terrorist organization and banned outright. Other student groups have also been targeted by the security forces, with tactics that included the use of tear gas and baton charges at Cairo University, resulting in multiple injuries, and even death.

Much the same (depressingly familiar) tactics were also on display in Sudan, where student protesters are regularly attacked by government forces with tear gas and riot police. One incident earlier this year resulted in multiple arrests, injuries, and the death of a third year economics student at the University of Khartoum, Ali Abaker Mussa Idris. Not to be outdone, the Ethiopian government has apparently instigated a shoot to kill policy, with up to 47 students killed during protests at secondary and university campuses around the country.

Not all students are subject to deliberate violence by their governments, however – some are simply exposed to horrific violence through neglect and indifference. This was the case at the Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology in Kenya, where hundreds of students battled with the police for several hours after the brutal rape of a first year female student. The students were protesting the lack of security available to them – the police responded by attempting to disperse the crowd with tear gas and live rounds.

Lest anyone think I am focusing too much on Africa, a quick look over the state of play in Europe will demonstrate that there are no regional boundaries to the challenges that students face. For example, it is worth remembering that students were one of the most vocal groups to take to the streets in the Ukraine earlier this year. They participated in many of the protests against the Yushchenko regime, and were targeted by the security forces in the lead up to the current geopolitical crisis that is enveloping the state.

Likewise, in Turkey the role of students as the advanced guard of social protest has singled them out as primary targets by the state. A recent funeral for a student killed in the Gezi Park protests quickly degenerated into a battlefield when the security forces used tear gas and water cannons on the gathered mourners, resulting in two additional deaths. The number of students arrested by the Erdogan government over the past year is simply astounding, turning what was a small, localized protest against the destruction of a city park into a fully fledged social movement for regime change.

In a somewhat less violent, yet still politically charged crisis, students across Spain brought major cities to a standstill over the issue of tuition rises and spending cuts – both of which are problems that should resonate with UC students. Unlike here at UCLA, however, the protests in Spain involved hundreds of riot police in full gear, burning trash cans, and running street battles with stone throwing and mass arrests. This link contains some jarring pictures of a modern day student protest in a developed state, and is well worth a look.

Turning to the Americas, the formula looks pretty much the same: student protesters met with tear gas, water cannons, live rounds, mass arrests, and death. A case in point, the students of Chile have been out on the streets for years now in ever increasing numbers. In one incident this year over 20,000 students attended a mass rally in Santiago, to protest for education reform. The tear gas and water cannon quickly followed.

Taking a more proactive route, in Venezuela pro-government militias have apparently taken to simply executing student leaders who dare to stand up to the regime. Daniel Tinoco, a prominent student leader, was gunned down in the street while manning a barricade in the city of San Cristobel. He is probably the most prominent of more than 20 people murdered over the past few months due to their participation in such activities.

So what are we UC students supposed to make of all this? We have troubles of our own, of course, as the graduate and undergraduate protests of last quarter can attest. However, they do seem somewhat tame in comparison. This is not to suggest that the issues faced by students right here are not challenging – simply that the environment in which we find ourselves is less dangerous than for our contemporaries.

Having said that, it is with a heavy heart that we must turn to the epidemic of campus shootings that continue to plague the United States. It is beginning to feel as if you cannot turn on the news without hearing about another mass killing at a US campus. I would list the incidents from the past year, but it is simply too long, and too damned depressing. As UC students we are directly affected, due to the horrific events at our sister campus last month, in which six people lost their lives, and we collectively lost our naivety.

The heartbreak of the UCSB shooting is only compounded by the fact that, as opposed to the deaths of students cataloged above, in many ways the events here are self-inflicted. It is not an oppressive government we need fear, but the kid sitting next to us in class. This is a challenge every bit as desperate as any of the ones covered, but it is also one that we can play a part in helping to solve.

If I can offer one piece of advice from looking at the world of student activism, it is that change only comes about through action. All across the globe students are standing up for what they believe in. They put everything on the line to try and improve their situation, their lives, their countries, and we must try and do the same. Take the summer to reflect, and then take a stand and help to make things better – work on gun control, or mental health access, or campus safety training, or whatever else it is you feel is the most significant way to make a difference – just do something. After all, your job is to help mold the future, and there is no time like the present to get started.

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