By Jacob Solis
On a brisk November afternoon, roughly 45 students stood clumped together on the sloping steps of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center. A third of the crowd stood with signs in their hands, slogans of defiance, slogans like “education should not require a debt sentence,” scrawled by hand onto the stark white cardstock.
Part of the so-called “Million Student March,” a student-led nationwide effort that took place last Thursday in schools from Oakland to Pittsburgh, students at UNR demonstrated and marched to demand free college tuition, cancellation of all outstanding student debt and a $15 minimum wage for all student workers during an hour-long demonstration.
Turnout for the march varied wildly from school to school, from the University of Nevada, Reno’s less than 50 students to over 1,000 at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The name “Million Student March” may have been a bit auspicious for student Jose Olivares, who helped the Reno Justice Coalition with communication and outreach for the event. In his eyes, the outreach didn’t go far enough, making the event a far cry from some previous RJC rallies held last semester.
He added, however, that the turnout wasn’t really a disappointment as the quality of the demonstration was more important to him than the quantity of demonstrators. Additionally, RJC co-founders and event organizers Thio Marigny and Chenay Arberry felt that the event was merely a first step in a longer fight and downplayed the relatively low attendance.
As to why students decided to stay home for this rally, Olivares felt that students just don’t care as much about education compared to gun regulation or systemic racism, the targets of the RJC’s prior protests.
“It’s disappointing to see how a lot of university students are just walking by even though it’s something that directly affects them,” Olivares said. “There seems to be this really disappointing sense of apathy towards it. A lot of people maybe think that nothing can get changed anymore and nothing’s ever going to change, that doing these direct actions isn’t going to do anything”
What the protest may have lacked in attendance was more than made up for by the passion of the speakers. From Reno/Sparks NAACP President Patricia Gallimore to the student heads of the Young Democrats Club and the Reno Justice Coalition, more than a few voices were raised for the cause.
Bob Fulkerson, a co-founder and state director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, had some choice words for the powers that be.
“[This is] to get the attention of your peers, who should be goddamned pissed off at a system that is killing them,” Fulkerson said. “It is a system that has been created by people that look like me, privileged white people who are lobbyists and who are legislators and who are people who have created a system to jack up your tuition and to extract wealth from students and working-class communities in order to funnel wealth to the upper 1 percent.”
Fulkerson went on to praise the role of student activists and activists in general for bringing things such as feminism, apartheid and climate change to the forefront of political discussion and “kicking ass” in the process.
Following all the speakers, the students finally took to the sidewalks in a march to UNR’s historic Quad, shaking noisemakers and chanting “education should be free, no hikes, no fees” and “education is a right, not just for the rich and white” all the way there.
Once at the Quad, the students found some opposition in a lone heckler standing in front the Paul Laxalt Mineral Engineering Center who shouted “no one cares” down to the protesters.
While the heckler was met with a heavy mix of expletives and level-headedness alike, the idea that no one might care was emblematic of a greater partisan divide for marcher and president of the UNR Young Democrats Taslima Shams.
“Economically speaking, conservatives are much more likely to think, ‘OK, nothing comes free,’” Shams said. “Many students will say, ‘No, we don’t support it because it’s going to make it free,’ but at the same time they don’t understand that they’re one of those students who are in debt, they are the ones in the ‘Game of Loans,’ so why not support it?”
The presidential campaign trail has reflected this divide, as the two Democratic front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have each proposed robust plans to overhaul the way students currently pay for college. On the other side of the aisle, only Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed some reform on the issue, a student debt relief fund, according to ontheissues.org. Every other GOP candidate still in the race has had little to say on the topic.
On top of the inattention from the Republican side of the ticket, the demonstrators have faced some heat on social media, with TIME Magazine reporting that “commenters described them as whiny, entitled, and yes, even delusional.”
The student leaders behind the “Million Student March,” both in Reno and across the country, have vowed that Thursday’s demonstration was only the beginning. Though whether or not the movement survives may just depend on who sits in the White House come January, 2017, and in any case, the battle looks to be uphill.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.