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Interim President Jeff Ettinger inside Morrill Hall on Sept. 20, 2023. Ettinger gets deep with the Daily: “It’s bittersweet.”
Ettinger reflects on his presidency
Published April 22, 2024

Ineffective tactics invalidate protest

LOS ANGELES (U-WIRE) — “For your own safety, we need you to evacuate the building!” came the hurried warnings of two students, who, rushing to and fro within my 1 p.m. Comm 150 class, had nary an obvious agenda, from the looks of consternation and concern on their faces. My classmates and I looked at each other in utter confusion.
Bomb scare? Earthquake? Fire drill? Try none of the above. The orders to leave the premises for “our own safety” were issued by protesting students, who — unbeknownst to me, my fellow classmates and my professor — had organized a massive sit-in rally in support of affirmative action. Conveniently located at the exact site and scheduled for the exact time my class starts in Royce Hall, the massive influx of students nearly ran me over as I temporarily left my class and approached an organizer standing near the building’s exit.
“What’s going on here?” I shouted in a characteristically oblivious manner as protesters chanting “Affirmative!” followed by screams from the throngs of demonstrating students responding “Action!” drowned out my voice.
“There’s a march on affirmative action,” Captain Obvious shouted back at me.
“So there’s no class today?” I replied indignantly.
“I don’t think so,” she laughed and turned away.
I returned to my class wherein people were packing their backpacks and getting ready to leave. To describe their expressions as anything but disdainful would simply be inaccurate. Two more demonstrators rushed into the room: “We need you to leave since we’ve taken over the building.” Imagining disgruntled students in ski masks who, brandishing high-powered rifles, were storming the halls, my jaw could only drop.
Luckily, a fellow classmate was quite a bit more responsive as he answered, “Sorry, but we have a midterm today!” before pushing the two out of the room and shutting the door. OK, so we didn’t have a midterm, but that doesn’t mean what he did didn’t take guts.
But our stand could only last so long. Soon I was standing outside Royce Hall, looking around at the dozens of students still piling into the building, the organizers getting ready to lock the doors and the police, who were standing around not doing anything. That last sight struck me as odd, and I had half a mind to approach the officer nearest me and ask the burning question, “Is this legal?” Halting in my steps, I realized that of course it was legal — after all, the guy wasn’t doing anything!
So how come I wasn’t impressed? After all, class had effectively been canceled, which is always a good thing. And here were about 100 students uniting for a common cause in a campus atmosphere that has seemed very divisive of late. And, most importantly, I knew I was going to be on the news.
But I wasn’t happy, proud or moved. In fact, the best word to describe my state of mind was “annoyed.” Annoyed at the ideology of the protesting students, annoyed at the seeming lack of common sense they were employing in choosing their methods, and especially annoyed at the awful tone and rhythm of the chant they were shouting.
What echoed throughout the area, in an acoustic vein that was about as easy listening as a screaming brat seated two tables away from you at a romantic restaurant, went like this: “Everywhere we go-o, everywhere we go-o/ people want to know-o, people want to know-o/ who we are-are, who we are-are.”
As I walked alongside the protesters, I saw a familiar face addressing the crowd via microphone: Liz Geyer. Ms. Geyer is someone I admire and respect, and yet she and I are on opposite sides of the affirmative action bandwagon. As I stood there, she expressed the trials and tribulations of those who would have the chancellor not comply with Proposition 209, students she alleged were being turned away by an administrative attitude that she expressed as “not having done a fucking thing” about multiculturalism on campus.
This almost moved me to walk right next to her and grab the microphone. After all, she probably remembered me and, not knowing my stance on affirmative action, might have allowed me to say a few words. I would have violated her trust doing so, but I was really itching to tell these people what I thought of their methods and their beliefs. But alas, I didn’t have the balls to do it, primarily because I didn’t want to be arrested for inciting a riot.
But what if I had? What if I had stepped up and really spoken out against these protesters? What would I have said? I would have told them to get a new chant, for starters. There’s nothing like reviling any potential sympathizers than nauseating them with a truly wrenching and loud annoyance like the one described above.
Their slogan could use some work too; sure “people want to know who you are everywhere you go” or whatever. But such an obvious phrase does not reek of creativity or subtlety.
But more substantively, I would have told these people — whom I believe to be genuinely concerned about the decline in minority enrollment — that they’re simply going about it the wrong way. While it was ultimately a delight not having my class in Royce Hall, the choice should be mine, not of advocate students who are obviously trumped up by their power trips and get off by ordering students to evacuate. I don’t take kindly to being forcefully ejected from my everyday routine, and I doubt others do either.
In a situation as hopeless as the protesters’ — in which they have exhausted every avenue open to them and, as such, feel they must resort to desperate measures — there is strength in numbers. And alienation doesn’t win you any friends.
And they should watch their metaphors. I heard a speaker compare their fight for affirmative action with Harriet Tubman. Making the connection does nothing but belittle what the creator of the Underground Railroad did for this country.
Just because college students have become historically synonymous with raging, angry protesters does not mean there is always something out there worthy of protest. Perhaps students are desperate for something to protest and thus grab at the nearest loose end or short straw.
What if I was to suddenly launch a campaign to make it legal for anyone, not just the blind, to carry canes with red tips at night? Would I look foolish comparing my plight with the Holocaust, a horrific event that many of my ancestors suffered through? I think so.
Also, the constant chalking of “Stop the racism” all over campus was a bit hard to swallow. OK, maybe you don’t like Proposition 209, but by definition, removing race as a qualifier on university admission applications is the exact opposite of racism, since it removes race from the equation.
I guess the underlying message is that the protesters should have stuck to what they were really fighting for — what Proposition 209 really encompasses — and not have burdened their cause with historical and societal buzzwords (like “Harriet Tubman” and “racism”) that many intelligent and thoughtful passersby would so easily be able to see through.
Not having grabbed the microphone from Ms. Geyer, I instead returned home with my tail between my legs. When I told my roommate about the protesters at Royce Hall who had managed the shutdown of a major building on campus, he responded with a very succinct, “Cool!”
Maybe that’s the bottom line.

Eric Jacks’ column originally appeared in Thursday’s University of California-Los Angeles Daily Bruin.

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