The Face of a Democracy? UCLA students protest the US Presidential Inauguration as an uncertain future looms over the nation

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Written by James Rodriguez Daza

29, JANUARY 2017, LOS ANGELES–On a cool, brisk Friday morning, in front of the US Capitol building in Washington, Donald J Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017 as the 45th President of the United States of America. Following a contentious and polarizing election campaign, President Trump delivered his inaugural speech describing a dystopian nation under siege by unemployment, poverty, a failing education system, violent crime, a crumbling infrastructure, immigration, a weakened military, foreign trade, Islamic terrorism, and an out-of-touch federal government. Mostly catering to his base that put him in the White House, President Trump vowed to return the US to its greatness from which it had purportedly fallen uniting the country in the process. However, his nationalistic, populist rhetoric (as it has become known) along with his growing distrust and antagonism toward the media and frequent posts on social media have widened the rift along partisan lines raising eyebrows on Capitol Hill while concerning foreign allies abroad.

Recent debate stirred from Trump’s camp over the inaugural ceremony’s attendance numbers had received heightened attention during the administration’s first week which have frustrated some in the Republican Party noting that it has distracted from tackling major policy agendas important to the party itself. The Trump administration had disputed claims that the attendance numbers at the inaugural ceremony were far less in comparison to President Obama’s 2009 inaugural ceremony attendance numbers arguing that (according to Trump’s White House Press secretary,  Sean Spicer) Trump’s ceremony attendance was actually “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”

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According to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) statistics on public transportation ridership, which operates the Metrorail, on that day, 193,000 passengers rode the Metro before 11 am. The whole day recorded 570, 557 passengers—a considerable lower number to the average weekday ridership of 639,000 passengers. Since the US Park Service does not track crowd estimates during events held at the National Mall where the ceremony actually took place, the only measurable figures were the WMATA stats and overhead imagery photos which were shared throughout social media and in print publications with comparison shots taken at the Obama inaugural ceremony. According to a New York Times estimate, 160,000 people were in areas in the National Mall, which is a far lower number to the estimated 1.8 million who had attended Obama’s inauguration setting the highest attendance record to date for people attending the National Mall. The controversy escalated when Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, had said during an interview with Chuck Todd on MSNBC’s Meet the Press that Spicer’s claims were presented as “alternative facts” prompting Todd to correct Conway by calling them “falsehoods”.

The Trump inauguration itself prompted a little over 60 Democrats to boycott the ceremony while inspiring a nationwide walkout among college and high school students to protest Trump’s transition to power and igniting an increase in attendance for the worldwide Women’s March that took place the following day. The UCLA walkout in particular highlighted the degree of fear, anger and discontent with the direction the country was heading as the Trump inauguration was taking place foreshadowing the height of organized social resistance that the Women’s March eventually demonstrated globally.   

Organized by Socialist Students UCLA, the UCLA Walkout on the Trump Inauguration was scheduled to take place on the same day Trump took the oath of office. Several student groups and organizations attended and sponsored the event. Young Progressives Demanding Action, the UC-Student Workers Union (UAW), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) public service worker union, The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (BAMN), and BASH (Bruins Against Sexual Harassment) were among them. According to the Facebook event page for the walkout, approximately 1,000 attended the event. The rally began in front of the Powell Library where protesters gathered during the heaviest of a weekend –long string of torrential showers and freezing temperatures to hear a number of speakers announcing their reasons for attending the walkout while declaring their collective resistance to an administration whom they felt did not represent but instead threaten their interests and security. It was a collective rallying cry against the administration’s efforts to conduct mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, the promotion of xenophobic rhetoric and policies against the Muslim community, sexual harassment and efforts to curtail women’s’ reproductive rights, discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community, the reopening of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and corporate tax policy initiatives. The crowd then (accompanied by police patrol cars staying vigilant against any potential unruly behavior) marched to the Reagan Hospital and through the neighboring Westwood Village up to the Wells Fargo Bank chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!” while a few speakers lent their voices to the crowd. Upon returning to campus, protesters gave one last round of public speeches reminding the audience that this day of resistance is only the beginning. They encouraged on-lookers to stay vigilant and call out the administration on its activities.

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The student march was an opportunity for all to voice their grievances against the new administration, but it was also an opportunity to bring attention to issues directly affecting the university and the UC system as a whole. Hannah Birch (UCLA researcher and one of the event’s organizers) said that the rally was an opportunity to call on the UC regents “to develop a system to hold perpetrators of sexual assault on [campus] accountable. Making the UC a sanctuary university and to pay its workers living not poverty-level wages.”  Although the linkage between Trump’s inauguration and the university’s own issues concerning student and staff grievances may seem mutually exclusive, organizers claim that they are related in that the Trump administration’s policies reflect an ideology of bigotry, misogyny, bullying, and corruption that are symptomatic of the current state of the recent administration of university affairs at the UC level. Considering that the US Senate confirmation hearings were still being conducted during the weeks leading up to the inauguration, protesters were concerned about the new President’s appointees particularly that of Betsy DeVos for the US Secretary of Education nomination who received scrutiny after her responses to education policy questions and issues.  According to Birch, “students are frustrated to see an official [like DeVos] appointed to [positions] only because of the money and the influence that she has given to the Republican Party. It emphasizes an un-democratic system–an appointee that wants to privatize education which would dismantle education and devalue the quality of education. You see politicians like Bernie [Sanders] question her about these issues of corporate money. When these politicians are tied to corporate influence, obviously they can’t represent the interests of ordinary people like you and me and Wall Street. I feel that her position in education is the epitome of a system that is failing us and not representing the people.”  Viola Ardeni of BASH also cited the growing trend in the privatization of education and feared that the UC system is dangerously following a similar path especially as the new administration takes over and has the authority to affect education policy that would benefit the upper class more than the middle and lower classes motivating her organization to protest the inauguration. She said, “We want to make sure that education is available, but not only to the people who have the money to pay for it. Education has to be more available to people. It’s not free; it has to be accessible. The Trump administration is composed of billionaires that do not have an interest in that. And we have seen over the years UCLA behaving more like a business than a research and education institute.”   

Now, BASH was founded a couple years ago after a sexual harassment case involving a member of the faculty had emerged which was one of the topics that was brought up more frequently during the rally as well. It highlighted the UC system’s recent Title IX investigation into the case, which was settled in 2014 that involved Gabriel Piterberg (a tenured professor and director of UCLA’s Center of Middle-Eastern Studies) who was the center of that sexual harassment investigation. Title IX is a statute in the US Department of Education’s civil rights law that protects against sexual discrimination in education programs and activities. It applies to any institution that receives federal financial assistance from the US Department of Education’s funds. With respect to the Piterberg case, there were numerous student allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior bordering on sexual assault. A settlement was reached which required a $3,000 fine, a quarter-long suspension without pay, and sexual harassment training in exchange of ending the investigation without pressing charges with the Academic Senate. Both students and faculty found the decision far too lenient and felt it sent a troubling message that UC professors may engage in sexual harassment with impunity.  One BASH activist said, “ …It means that if you’re a tenured professor at UCLA and you commit sexual harassment, your rights are protected more than those of the students. And we can’t stand for that.” When asked her reasons for attending this rally, aside from rejecting the Trump administration’s transition to power, she replied, “We want Professor Piterberg’s resignation. Second, we want reform to the Title IX procedure; so that, it’s transparent and held by a third party not by the UC system itself or its people. Thirdly, we want these changes to be UC-wide so that other universities are protected the same way,” In order to find the link between the presidential inauguration and the UCLA Title IX investigation, Ms. Ardeni chimed in. “When you have a ‘grabber’ like Trump in office, it gives the possibility for the presence of someone like Piterberg on campus. The university is covering the story. We want the university to publically state that they want Piterberg to resign. What they are doing is what politics in the high level do. They set what Trump set. The Republicans accepted what Trump said. They didn’t agree with the way he was addressing the people but they still accepted him. We do not want UCLA to behave the same way.”  Jonathan Koch, the unit chair of UAW 2865, the UC Student Workers Union, believed that the incoming Trump administration wouldn’t protect the many rights afforded to UC students and feared that the student body would be left alone to fight for their inherent student protections. “We’re out here to ensure that there is pressure from below on the UC regents to make sure they adopt a robust sanctuary policy. To make sure they adopt a robust democratic policy against sexual harassment and sexual violence, and to make sure they protect public education. We know with the incoming administration, there won’t be any pressure from above. So, we have to generate sufficient pressure from above too for the benefit of workers and students and the entire community here in California.”

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When talking to students and organizers about the incoming administration and what it meant for them, a resounding theme of uncertainty and abandonment from the highest levels of leadership was felt across the board inciting a reaction of rejection against the status quo. In a way, the sentimentality from most protesters  is that they have been cast aside and the only one who really demonstrated a chance at building an inclusive society where they would have had a continued voice at the federal level, Bernie Sanders, was sabotaged. Birch said,

 “I think everyone felt so dejected when they saw the primaries rigged against him, the most popular politician in the US, and they saw the right wing, Trump’s cabinet, kind of capitalize on that vacuum of rejecting the status quo and the establishment. So, I think everyone here today is just upset to see a bully like Trump take office on a platform of hatred, bigotry, racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia. Our current system is not democratic, and that we know a better system is possible that meets [everyone’s] needs as well as provide a platform open to discussion and to debate where everyone is included in that discussion. What we see is the current system works in favor of an elite few, the billionaire class. That is why we are rejecting the Democratic Party to lead us in that fight to defeat Trump. That’s why we’re calling on our own movement to build a party for the 99% that refuses corporate cash that is politically independent from the two parties and that it fights for issues like fighting for $15 an hour federal minimum wages, police accountability, reproductive rights, and mass deportations and mass incarcerations. Everyone is frustrated with the status quo. They see that the policies aren’t representing them, and they see that this system, our current system, punishes the most vulnerable people while the billionaire class benefits the most , the class that created all these inequalities. So, I think they have two different ways of articulating that frustration and the right wing take is into this kind of ‘divide and conquer’ tactics of pitting people against each other of racism, of distracting people from the greater, systemic problem that’s going on. But I think that the fundamental issue is that people want a rejection of the status quo and want something that is democratic and inclusive.”         

Aubrey, a transgender woman who attended the rally, said,

“For me the Trump administration represents a movement. A reactionary movement to [what some here call] “identity politics”. They even call it PC culture or things like that and to greater understanding between different people. I think that’s tied in with more people that have access to higher education. There’s a greater awareness from people different than us and how to bridge differences and understand and respect differences. So, I see the Trump administration as representative of this backlash against that…the liberalization of the general public. It’s a white supremacist, fascist… At the same time it’s also incorporative of white moderates as well that aren’t sure what to think. So, [the administration] uses politics of fear and leverage against any kind of ideas that want to bridge connection and build understanding between diverse peoples of different circumstances and communities. [The inauguration} affected me greatly. As a transgender woman in the US, I’m greatly fortunate to live in California which I feel very protected by the state legislature and by the people around me and by the university in many respects. But I also feel like the inauguration itself is very disturbing…We tried to build this representative democracy, and it feels that there are these loopholes that allowed this…white supremacist…that is kind of overt or its not, but I think it’s overt personally…But it really hurts on a personal level. As if they’re saying to me and my friends and my chosen families and my communities that ‘you are powerless. You are not valid, and you will not be participating in the future that we have envisioned…That we have been able to enact. That’s devastating. At the same time, the purpose of rallies like this, and organizing like this–coming together as communities to actively politick against the administration. To tell them that ‘No.’ We are here, and we are going to be represented. We’re going to be involved in this future. The future they envisioned is not a future that we will allow to happen.”

Jose of BAMN, a national and civil rights organization that has been around since 1995 organizing high school walkouts across the country not only in defense of DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) but also in defense of undocumented Immigrants in general, said

“We want to start calling on people to take action because Trump said he wants to deport 3 million people. Walk outs, marches, protests, strikes. No business as usual until we defeat Donald Trump. He must go by any means necessary. Trump has made very clear that the only real program that he has is a program of mass deportation, of attacks on immigrants. It’s clear from the few people that he has appointed to his cabinet, that the majority of them are notorious anti-immigrant bigots. His whole cabinet is committed to the hunting down of immigrants. Jailing immigrants and deporting immigrants including undocumented students. Undocumented young people who have the program. He has made it very clear throughout his campaign that he wants to eliminate DACA.”

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an immigration policy started by the Obama administration in 2012 that allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the US as minors to defer deportation through a renewable 2-year relief plan in order to apply for a work permit. To qualify, applicants must have entered the US before the age of 16 and before June of 2007. They must currently be enrolled in school, have a high school degree, or was honorably discharged from the US military. They must be at least under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012 to apply and must not have a criminal conviction on their record. Most importantly, they must not be deemed a threat to national security. The program itself does not provide a pathway to citizenship, but it does provide a valid work permit that would allow immigrants to stay in the US and work. According to Jose, the immigration rights movement applied sufficient pressure on the Hill to afford at least 750,000 young undocumented immigrants a chance at a better life in the US.

“Coming to UCLA was unheard for a lot of undocumented students. Now that Trump has become president, that’s something he can get rid of with a stroke of a pen. And let almost 1 million young people in limbo once again with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads. The people who are in danger are not just the people who has the program, but also the family members who are undocumented…We have to follow the example of Martin Luther King Jr. He did not turn a movement into campaigning for the Democrats or the Republicans. The Civil Rights movement was an independent rights movement fighting for equality. Obama was elected on a promise that he was going to support immigrants, and instead he’s leaving office having deported more people than any president in the history of the US. If Hilary Clinton was elected, she was going to follow his policies as well with deportation. And I think the only thing that could’ve changed that is if there’s a movement fighting with the demands for full citizen rights, for no more deportations, for ending the detention centers which are modern concentration camps. And doing what we did today and doing that all over the country. This is a time for local and national leaders to join the movement. There were millions of people…more people who voted against Trump than people who voted for him. And people all over the world who knows the danger of Trump. Somebody who could drive America into a Third World War, a nuclear war that would be devastating for humanity. Not just for the US and China but for all over the world. He’s a serious threat to humanity and they need to join the movement that is calling for not just opposing Trump but to get rid of him.”

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Although many of the reactions from protesters on that day was spurred by a growing fear of what President Trump would do once in office and rejecting his legitimacy as the leader of the free world, the fact of the matter is that since his inauguration, he has signed a number of presidential executive orders that included starting the process of reviewing and repealing certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act, increasing border security and immigration enforcement, reopening the Dakota pipeline, building a wall on the US-Mexican border, establishing ethic commitments by executive branch appointees, and banning immigrants with visas re-entry into the US for a period of 90 days particularly those from countries with Muslim-religious affiliations. Presidential memorandums were also issued that initiated a hiring freeze on federal employees, a withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the construction of American pipelines and the Keystone XL pipeline, a plan to defeat the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, and the reorganization of the National Security Council and Homeland Security.  A list of the presidential orders can be found here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions.

It’s only been a week, and the ramifications of such orders are already being felt. President Trump warned state governors that if their states refused to assist locating and deporting undocumented immigrants, federal funds that normally would be allocated to them would be withheld until they complied, which raised constitutional concerns in both parties considering that it infringed on the 10th amendment that deals with States’ Rights and the jurisdiction of the federal government. On January 28, 2017, the ACLU was able to convince a NY federal judge to issue a stay on the execution of the ban against immigrant re-entry until the Court could review the constitutionality of the presidential order. Moreover, tensions between foreign states have escalated since Trump took office. With respect to the wall that has been ordered to be constructed on the US-Mexican border, the administration has said that Mexico would pay for its construction which infuriated Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto that resulted in the cancellation of a scheduled meeting he had with Trump on the administration’s first week. Now, a 20% tax on all Mexican imports are being discussed which analysts fear may affect American tax payers increasing the cost of goods. Angered by the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific partnership, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced over that weekend their commitment to stand side-by-side with President Nieto in solidarity against Trump’s recent foreign policy stance. Iran also showed displeasure from the executive order that banned Muslim immigrants and foreign refugees from entering the US who either held visas or had applied for political asylum. To say that these recent events represent an unprecedence would be an understatement. Both the country and the world do not know what to expect next from the Trump administration only that uncertainty may lead to confusion and misunderstanding. What is definite is that the 21st century is an era where globalization and climate change are very real, and no one country can hope to succeed alone. No one leader can hope to steer the ship without the support of his crew. Trust is needed which objectively speaking is currently lacking on all fronts.