Posted April 3, 2011
Georgia Students for Public Higher Education (GSPHE) was a bit late in starting to mobilize against cuts to the state’s HOPE scholarship, which helped nearly one million students attend college since its creation in 1993. The state House had already passed SB326 when we arrived on the scene. Activists were completely surprised by the sudden emergence of this bill, and how fast it was flying through the Georgia Assembly. Most elected Democrats voted in favor of the cuts. Only 22 out of 63 voted against it. Nathan Deal, the Republican governor of Georgia, came to GSU to announce the new HOPE bill with no notice to the public or the students on February 22, 2011. The House passed the bill on March 1 and the Senate passed it on March 8. There was every intention of passing this bill quietly and without much resistance from students during the spring break period for Georgia State, which has its main campus blocks from the state capitol building.
The Fight to Save HOPE
HOPE covered in-state tuition for Georgia residents with a 3.0 GPA in high school, putting hundreds of thousands of students through college. The scholarship barely made it to eighteen years when the new governor of Georgia crushed and reconstituted it into a new, completely regressive education subsidy. Under Deal’s plan, HOPE was divided into two entities, one kept the name and one was titled the Zell Miller scholarship. The Zell Miller scholarship will fully fund students, but only those who achieve a very high grade point average (3.7) in high school and score very well on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Statistics show that people of color and poorer students have lower test scores and grades than wealthier white students. This modified scholarship will exclude the majority of the current recipients and provide a free education to the wealthiest students. The other scholarship has been decoupled from the tuition rates–that are increasing in exorbitant rates–from the HOPE funds, thereby every year covering a smaller percentage of the tuition than the year before.
This restructuring of the HOPE scholarship was done in the name of “saving HOPE,” but it saved the scholarship for only a small pool of privileged students. Originally this scholarship had an income cap and was designed to help those that needed financial assistance, but at some point the income cap was removed. If there was a real intention of saving HOPE, there were many different alternatives, such as re-instituting an income cap, but these ideas weren’t even entertained by the Georgia legislature (bourgeois parties). This is an especially egregious case of neoliberal restructuring because the funds are not coming from taxes, but from working-class lottery players. Therefore, in Georgia today, the poor are literally paying the way for wealthy students to attend college.
GSPHE organized a rally on March 2, in the midst of Spring Break and over 300 students came out (clearly, most of us are don’t have enough money to go on vacation). In the height of excitement and on an insider’s tip, about 60 people went inside the Capitol to demand a meeting with Gov. Deal. They were waiting for us with three police guarding the door to his spacious waiting room. GSPHE organizers weren’t willing to just leave and come back another day, and we marched to the main staircase and temporarily took it over to capture visibility for a few hours. The events in Madison were fresh in our minds. Our many acts of defiance–all related to wearing signs or holding banners–were met with patience from the Capitol police; some of them confided in us that they had children that were going to be affected by education cuts.
During the few hours of either booing or clapping for the various State Representatives that made their way down the stairs, Nathan Deal was fleeing the Capitol. His Chief-of-Staff was dispatched to mediate the situation–after they realized we were not leaving without a meeting—and met with four of us where he said many things without saying much at all.
Immediately after the meeting, we went to a hearing on the Democrats’ alternative HOPE proposal. GSPHE dominated the room and the State Senators thanked the Student Government Association (SGA) for mobilizing students. During our testimonies we explained that GSPHE organized the students, not the SGA. Right after the friendly senate hearing, the governor’s staff was going to make a presentation in the same space. Before we could even figure out what was going on, there were dozens of police deployed to “keep the peace.” One of our members was surrounded, intimidated and sequestered before finally being thrown out; we all followed him out. One Young Democrat, who had met us that day, said how hypocritical it was for them to throw us out for clapping when they not only clap but boo and insult each other on the Senate floor every day. We regrouped on the front lawn of the Capitol, where a passerby asked jokingly if this were the HOPE committee. At this point it was eight hours or more after the start of the rally and half the people present were completely new to our political actions.
We met again that week for the Senate hearing committee, where we were met with police officers swarming the overcrowded hallways. There were testimonies from three GSPHE members though the list was full with our students. It was clear they cherry picked the speakers since we were the only ones who weren’t using our speaking time complimenting them for being so great. Anyone who opposed their HOPE bill was attacked by the Senators with questions that were meant to intimidate us on our knowledge of the lottery and state budget. Before the committee began, two administrators of HOPE were standing outside “informing” the students of how the lottery works. Later that day the bill passed the Senate committee and made its way to the floor.
The week after, March 7, we held a five-hour vigil on the steps of the Capitol where students and community members stopped by all night. GSPHE has been strongly encouraging students at every event to take the bullhorn from us and speak on their issues. This has created an incredibly open and democratic space where the students get to voice their concerns and opinions to a receptive audience. There is an obvious contrast between the participatory, democratic and positive space of these meetings outside of the Capitol and the repressive top-down meetings within the Capitol. It helps people see that there are better ways of organizing our communities. The hostile and condescending nature of the politicians also highlights the discrepancies between the façade of a free society and the reality of an unjust one.
Protests inside and outside the capitol
The day after the vigil, students from University of Georgia came down to Atlanta and disrupted the Board of Regents hearing in defense of undocumented students (who are continuously being hindered in various ways from attending the university system), while GSU students marched from the campus to the Capitol to meet with UGA students to attend the Senate session on HOPE. Various banners were dropped by different groups of students, who were thrown out by the police. One group of students was attacked, including having one of their members slammed to the floor and arrested. We can only assume they were making an example out of him and attacked the one who looked the strongest to avoid any negative media reaction from images of them beating a defenseless youth. Fifteen people were charged with criminal trespassing.
The bill passed the Senate committee and made its way to the floor where EVERY Democrat voted against it which was a huge change from the House where most of them either voted for it or abstained. It seems GSPHE’s constant presence and pressure helped them grow a backbone. The Democrats and their “community groups” are willing to go farther by engaging in more actions that won’t just adjust to the reality of this new legislation but by continuing to take other actions outside of the Capitol.
On March 15 we held a funeral for HOPE to coincide with Nathan Deal’s signing of the bill. We received a lot of media coverage even though our numbers were small. The media has been very sympathetic to the plight of students, although they downplay to role of GSPHE in mobilizing people against cutbacks to HOPE and instead portray students as coming out to some magically organized rally. As typical for the mainstream media, they rarely mention the fact that people are organized, but instead create a narrative of spontaneous protestors that obscures how ordinary folks can get involved; or alternatively, they give credit to the SGA or the Democratic Party–which is a controlled and sanctioned involvement.
Although Democrats greatly benefited from our weeks of battle, we also strengthened our organization. GSPHE has many new faces present at our meetings and many have emerged as leaders. A few community and labor groups have reached out to us, and we are currently working on developing alliances with them. We sharpened our organizing skills, and we are becoming better prepared for future struggles–rehearsals for bigger fights ahead.
Georgia Students for Public Higher Education
Georgia State students formed GSPHE two years ago, partially through the inspiration of Tennessee Save Our Schools, which had mobilized against tuition hikes in the Tennessee Board of Regents system during Spring 2009. At the time, GSU hiked the fees by $200 and the students started organizing around tuition and fee increases. While there was little traction at first, soon the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s headlines read in February of 2010, “Could we see a 77 percent tuition hike at public colleges?” The students were furious to the point that even the SGA were willing to do something drastic–like charter buses to bring people to the Capitol to hold a rally.
This broad coalition won a partial victory — the tuition didn’t go up 77% — and then the SGA quickly backed off any aggressive measures. Meanwhile, GSPHE was holding conferences and building relationships across the city and state. Without the work being done to build the group for the past year, the recent battle against HOPE would have been reduced to a sad spectacle of three SGA presidents in suits presenting alternative proposals to the HOPE cuts and politely “begging to differ” with the State Senators and State Representatives while they are completely ignored and disrespected.
Though many excellent men have been crucial to the success of GSPHE, it is for the most part a women-led organization. There is a core of women who have sustained this group and contributed to its growing numbers. There is an excellent balance between well-trained and politically developed members as well as proactive and dynamic members who were galvanized by the attack on the public education. We hosted an organizing workshop for many hours on a Saturday morning where most of the core members showed up willing to learn and grow. One organizing model that some members learned from the labor movement focuses on asking a lot of questions and mostly listening to people’s experiences instead of talking at them. We found this model to be excellent in organizing students.
From our knowledge of labor organizing, we created a winning format for a forum we hosted where we got the most participation I have ever seen from an audience (the handout for the forum is at the bottom of the page).
The most effective and the most overlooked organizing skill is one-on-one relationship building, and we have been really great at forming strong bonds with each other through doing work together–chalking, flyering and speaking on a panel together for hours often translates into instant bonds of solidarity. Most of our actions and “work” for GSPHE has been carried out in a collective manner. Even when we are writing emails, press releases or op-editorials for the newspaper, we sit together with our laptops open while we are getting input from each other. Most of the people involved came because someone took the time to listen and care about their concerns and we are united not only by a common political cause but also strong personal connections. There is also a wide layer of people who don’t come to meetings or post on our listserv, but have contributed to our group because some of us have developed relationships with them and sought to integrate their talents with our needs. A great strength is figuring out how to plug people in who may not fit into the standard meeting-email structure of organizing, and we are working on developing that capability.
We are all aware of the weaknesses of our group even though the improvements are sometimes slow to actualize. Like every group I have ever worked with, there is a tendency for more experienced organizers to dominate and set the agenda while the less experienced organizers remain passive. Our challenge is to train and equip a new layer of activists to carry on this work and build structures where everyone has the opportunity to participate and shape the direction of our group. Many groups I have worked with inadvertently promote a narrow-sighted and results-oriented activism that is unsustainable in the long run. This current economic system is incredibly efficient in reproducing the conditions of its existence, and the capitalists start honing their replacements from an early age; we should learn from them (on this point) and make sure we are always working on reproducing our knowledge, skills and leadership capacity in a meaningful way if we are going to build a layer of dedicated activists required for long term radical social change.
The open and critical nature of the group may at times engender an unprofessional and chaotic image, but on the other hand, it keeps it undogmatic and fresh. We are a work in progress and we hope to learn from other groups facing the same challenges.
The Great Resistance?
A Canadian marxist named David McNally (and probably many others) have stated that our challenge in this Great Recession is to build a Great Resistance. In the state of Georgia, there are many new assaults on the working class and the legislators operate with impunity. There is very little opposition from people. Although there are great challenges in organizing in the South, I have never organized anywhere else, and I may be mistaken in attributing certain barriers as uniquely Southern. In my experience, there is no recent tangible memory of collective struggle–Civil Rights has been so thoroughly co-opted. I organize public employees during the day and organize students at night. There are similarities and great differences, but one strong commonality is demoralization.
One of the greatest obstacles in organizing is not only getting someone to even speak with you or attend a meeting or an event, but what happens afterwards. Groups don’t know how to retain members without small victories or actions where people feel like they did something. Having groups agitate and educate people and that is the extent of their involvement further contributes to demoralization. Because of this there is a push from a few of us who are more politically organized to keep GSPHE independent and to focus on organizing our own base and mobilizing them frequently through actions that have recently turned confrontational though they were incredibly mild–asking to speak to the governor or the president of Georgia State University turns into non-violent resistance.
For any significant change, GSPHE has to grow tremendously and maintain a strong yet fluid structure with a healthy number of engaged members. This is a state-wide group but for now it is mostly students that are from Georgia State University and University of Georgia. It is very difficult to tell what the future will bring, but compared to my past experiences, this group is more prepared to have a meaningful existence. The ubiquitous fight back everywhere makes me wonder how much of our recent success is due to our organizing and how much of it is popular resistance inspiring and fueling everyone. GSPHE’s fate is bound up with all the other groups big and small that are part of this new reality. We can never be sure if we are the seeds of the next Great Resistance, but that doesn’t deter us one bit.
All photos by C. Elle