Students search for unity at student union

Questionable representation, reverse racism, and heckling distract from meeting agenda.

The Student Unity Project and Student Organizing Committee, two campus groups largely responsible for the April protests that postponed Santa Monica College’s Contract Ed program, continue to meet in attempt to grow their movement.

A statewide meeting organized by the Student Unity Project on May 19 was intended to link the concerns of local student activists to California education struggles by creating a “Student Union,” but faltered on a number of issues, including attempts to limit a news photographer, heckling, and complaints of racist remarks.

Approximately 70 people, including students, faculty and union organizers, attended the meeting with the intent of doing a “better job at representing students.” Organizers feel that their group could take the place and fill in the gaps where they say the Associated Students fails.

Hampered by Procedure

At one point, facilitators attempted to limit a news photographer at the meeting by initiating a vote on whether or not they would allow the press to report on a meeting in a public space.

Voters could choose to either completely restrict, partially restrict, or completely allow photography at the meeting. The vote determined that limited photography would be allowed.

Mikhail Pronilover—who also goes by Michael on his Facebook page—is a facilitator and one of the most vocal members of the SOC who cited safety concerns for student activists in attendance as the reason for the vote to limit photography and videography. “We need to vote on this. If even ten people are uncomfortable, we have to respect that,” said Pronilover.

Members in attendance mentioned concerns about police surveillance as a reason for not being photographed. Pronilover has emerged as an unofficial leader of the SOC. He frequently chairs meetings, leads discussions, and gives speeches on behalf of the group.

Incoming Student Trustee Michelle Olivarez was originally a member of the SOC, before quitting after becoming disenchanted by their organizing tactics.

“Pronilover says that they’re trying to push the poor people out of the system, which is BS,” she said. “The college is so diverse, the city is so liberal. Do you really think they’re going to push away diversity?”

“He would suggest that the trustees are here for themselves, and not for the students’ best interests, and that the school is trying to make revenue on us,” she said.

Olivarez says that she does not support the demonization of the Contract Ed program. “It means cutting opportunity,” she said. “It’s selfish because it means if everybody can’t get access then nobody should get access. We want to provide opportunity, not take it away.”

Pronilover and the SOC have denied repeated requests by The Corsair for comment.

Discontent & “White Privilege”

At one fiery point in the meeting, members in attendance began heckling Caucasian speakers, dismissing them and yelling, “White privilege!”

“No one spoke up during that comment,” said a Caucasian audience member who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “It was all about rock- throwing. It was absolutely ridiculous, and all I could think of saying was ‘I’m sitting right here!’”

The heckling seemed to be in conflict with the agenda’s guidelines to, “Address political division in the group in a constructive manner that is conducive toward establishing meaningful solidarity,” and “Respect each person’s humanity and their individual experiences.”

The heckling continued as Ankur Patel, an activist who identifies with the group, addressed the conference, shouting in an attempt to impassion the crowd. However, his statements were less than embraced.

“Getting pepper-sprayed is a tactic! Destruction of property is a tactic!” said Patel. On a widely circulated video of the pepper-spraying that occurred at the April 3 Board of Trustees meeting, Patel can be heard on video yelling, “They pepper-sprayed us! We won!”

Petitioning the AS for funding

How the meeting was organized, however, is surrounded by questions of legitimacy. According to several AS directors, the Student Unity Project, which is an official club on campus that is thereby able to petition for funding and publicity for events, requested publicity and funding for food for their event at a May 14 AS Board meeting.

According to the minutes from that May 14 AS Board meeting, the funding, which would be for provided for lunch, would amount to $640.90. While they were not able to secure funding, they were able to get an endorsement for publicity from the AS, and for the space in which to hold their meeting.

According to Jasmine Jafari, Inter Club Council vice- chair at SMC, the Student Unity Project presented their proposal, and the AS directors approved of the student union meeting with the understanding that the Student Unity Project would support the AS at the event. “What we found out was that AS directors were not welcome at the event,” said Jafari, citing that AS Directors who attended felt betrayed by the negative rhetoric surrounding student governments.

To add to the irritation that AS directors felt at the event, none of the literature provided at the student union conference mentioned anything about the Student Unity Project, raising ethical concerns that the Student Organizing Committee attempted to use the Student Unity Project to possibly gain funding and publicity.

Students discussed proposals for their models of student unions and allowed students and faculty to vote and provide feedback. Two of the four proposals included instituting a $5 membership fee for all students wishing to join the union.

Growing Animosity

Sensing the disunity in the conference, SOC member Samaria Gomez stressed the importance of respecting free speech. “The men in the audience need to realize how hard it is for the women, especially women of color, to be able to speak freely and feel safe,” said Gomez.

The proposals for the student union were raw and unfinished. There were a total of four proposals for the model of the union, one of which was outlined in what was called a “manifesto.”

The speakers and facilitators constantly reminded attendees that the union would be separate and different from AS, despite bearing some resemblances.

Although nothing is finalized, all power positions are set to be rotated every two months. This varies greatly from the current AS model, whereby those elected hold power for a year.

“This is a group for everyone, not a small group of people,” said Gomez.

AS Vice-President Jasmine Delgado attended the conference but disagrees with Gomez. “None of the proposals included student government, which I think disenfranchises a lot of people,” said Delgado.

“I agree with the fact that student government is having trouble communicating with the students on this campus,” said Delgado, who is unhappy with the student union for using their services and then criticizing the AS.

“They don’t want to work with us because they say that we’re the administration’s puppets, that we’re a structural problem,” said Delgado. “They got the permit [for the meeting] through student government using the Student Unity Project.”

Delgado would like to see the effort into the formation of the student union refocused into improving the AS. “I have never been approached by a student holding me accountable—let’s reverse that,” said Delgado.

Carl Gettelman, a former SMC employee and resident of Santa Monica for 20 years, attended the student union meeting. Gettelman was a student activist in the 1960’s, and decided to attend the conference after receiving an invitation from AS President Harrison Wills.

“It was reminiscent of the ‘60s movement; a lot of hashing-out and grand-standing,” said Gettelman. “I have to say, overall, I’m impressed with this generation and their knowledge of the issues,” he said, but added that he did not think the student union would succeed with identity politics based on race.