Golden State

The death foretold in the early months of the economic crisis was that of high finance. It has turned out instead to be California’s. Like the larger recession, the crack-up of the country’s wealthiest, most populous state has been long in the making. After many years of disguising its financial frailty with housing booms, California seems poised to collapse. At the time of this writing, the legislature is three months late in passing a budget. The state’s education system, once the envy of nations, drowns its students in tuition bills; the pension fund, long used as an excuse to deny wage increases in favor of benefits to come, reneges on old promises; voters sick of legislative inaction threaten their representatives, long settled into gerrymandered districts, with the boot and worse. The few remaining newspapers can’t afford to tell anyone what’s going on: they’re too poor.

Yet flitting through this long slow disaster was the sense that the crack-up offered an opportunity; that what was left of the state could be reclaimed. The governor was a disgrace, and so were the gubernatorial candidates; no one had much faith in elected officials to do anything. Power, at least a little of it, might be left lying in the streets. Who would pick it up? The usual wealthy interests, no doubt — those who could afford to capitalize on others’ financial distress; those who could spend enough to push through fiendishly crafted ballot initiatives. But the fragments of California’s once-famed left were resolved to try as well.

What you noticed first were the chairs. Behind the chained-shut glass doors of the San Francisco State business school, students had piled and zip-tied enough spindly metal chairs to block the hallways. Through the windows you could see them rising up the building’s wide stairways. There were hundreds, maybe a thousand — as many chairs as protesting students. It was an overwhelming sight, symbolic of a student body sick of taking things sitting down.

At noontime crowds encircled the entire business building, chanting “Walk out, SF State! / Shut it down like ’68!,” but the late afternoon grew quiet and fogbound. A few faint protest songs could still be heard as anemic remnants of the crowd milled around, wary of the arriving police cars. One student had taped a plank of wood to his shoe and clumped along in a ludicrous march all his own. The scene regained some life when representatives from the local hotel workers union arrived with an experienced picket-line leader, who screamed classic chants through his megaphone in a way the younger students never could.

San Francisco State is part of the California State University system, the second of three tiers in the state’s once-fabled system of higher education. Below it are the community colleges; above, the University of California. The UCs have also faced staggering fee increases and budget cuts, but the Cal State system, because of its relative lack of prestige, was hit doubly hard by austerity measures. The total budget of the twenty-three Cal State schools has been cut by $625 million (21 percent); SF State’s budget was cut by 23 percent, while tuition was increased 30 percent, to $5,014 per year. All campuses declined to accept applicants for spring 2010, in hopes of reducing enrollment by forty thousand students. Classes disappeared; the ones that remained bulged at overcapacity, with many students, as they tried desperately to finish their degrees and exit the ever more costly system, forced to sit on the floor. The Mario Savio who denounced a university administration as the “operation of the machine” might have been chagrined to see how anxiously his successors clung to the gears and wheels as these were sold off.

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