Two Deaths

After ten years here Santa Cruz remains strange, a place of convulsive natural beauty. It also still feels like a remote part of LA, some different dimension of reality, where Topanga Canyon is crossed with an older, whiter version of Long Beach. The coast here faces south, as it does in the LBC, making for relative warmth along the Monterey Bay with the clouds coming over the land from the west, a sunrise over the water in the east. I drove the same few routes around town for years going to and from teaching gigs and thus I collected most of my local anecdotes by perusing newspaper headlines. Today, I get most of this sort of local headline information from social media. One headline from a recent Santa Cruz Sentinel read, “Driver Crashes into Rio Theatre, Stabs Self to Death.” After careening at some speed into the lobby in midtown, the 34-year-old man used the glass shards of the entrance to the venerable Santa Cruz concert setting to slash himself to death. Across the street, concertgoers at the bar and music venue The Crepe Place were on the sidewalk between bands or sets. Some onlookers rushed over in a desperate attempt to administer aid, using clothes as compresses to stop the bleeding. What sort of strange and impossible form of suicide was this? As the Sentinel noted, on at least one previous occasion, a driver crashed into the front of the Rio. The earlier incident resulted in no injuries to bystanders and the driver lived. What desperate times are these in austerity America? According to the family, the driver’s frantic suicide was a product of both depression and drug addiction.

I also recently read of the death of our much-loved UC Santa Cruz librarian, Josh Alper, struck by a car while riding his bike on Highway One. The driver was in the latest "green" vehicle, the Tesla S-Model sedan. Somehow, in the middle of the morning the Tesla driver wound up headed the wrong way on the opposite side of the highway--he would hit Josh head-on, killing him immediately. Josh, a local musician and cycling enthusiast, had been out for a midmorning ride with some cycling club friends. Several witnesses reported the driver exiting his vehicle still on his phone. (He has subsequently been arraigned on misdemeanor charges.) Here was a tragic version of yuppification, that old story in Santa Cruz, Echo Park, or San Francisco. This incident seemed an emblem of the transforming city landscape, with property values increasing again, putting new financial pressure on renters, long-time residents, and students.  In this case, the insouciance of this new privileged class proved deadly. And in rapidly gentrifying Santa Cruz, the Tesla is the visible symbol of new “over the hill” money, much like the dot-com commuter buses that have become the target of anti-gentrification protests in San Francisco and Oakland. The broader Bay Area has been one epicenter of the so-called recovery and  “Housing Bubble 2.0."

Hard Times

"More money, more problems.” Santa Cruz’s anti-homeless politics have intensified again these last few years, with the homeless and crime as the principle scapegoat for social problems, as as those subject to the grinding social devastation of neoliberalism are confused for perpetrators of various city ills. Street life, such as it exists downtown (or in the woods), is under pressure. Homeless folks are being turned away from coffee shops, forced out of visible areas, and harassed by the police. (They are also counter-organizing and holding meetings at Subrosa, as I learned via a flyer on the table at India Joze, a Santa Cruz restaurant and fusion cuisine dinosaur.) The Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) would like to see up-market retail and restaurant expansion turning a corner, with just a touch more corporatization,  all secured by a large contingent of First Alarm security already roaming downtown. Rounding things out would be cuts to the few services provided for the destitute. But the homeless aren’t all gone from downtown, as they are from the Wednesday farmer’s market. (The famous drum circle was broken up.) A petit bourgeois tourism character cuts across many jobs and trades available around town, so image matters to local business leaders. But many people live here to surf. Or for the drugs. Or the sun. Burners, psycho-billy bands, rastas and trustas. Where were we again?


Hard times. There’s been hard, warm, winter sunlight bearing down of late on these blown-out big surf, drought-plagued afternoons. Bright peaks have been visible from the west side off Mission. (California, Prop. 13, homeland of democracy’s circumvention.) Where did this reactionary sentiment come from, or, is it ever very far away? This round has been part of the national political wave in the post-bailout economic stabilization, with the weak left’s ineptitude and malaise a given. So a few years ago a group ominously called Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC) emerged as a reaction to a downtown riot, which was itself an extension of UC Santa Cruz campus struggles. TBSC has mixed anti-homeless and anti-gang rhetoric together with intimidating and fearfully angry local marches. A co-founder of TBSC, Pamela Comstock, now sits on the City Council. Crime is the principle “problem” in their advancing narrative. And in 2013, when Santa Cruz Police officers Loran “Butch” Baker and Elizabeth Butler were shot, killed, and disarmed by Jeremy Goulet--a helicopter pilot veteran, ex-con, and sex offender--it would seem to some in the softball local media that TBSC had been right all along. If the merchants have their way, the whole of downtown Santa Cruz will be privatized, with no street scene to speak of. Powerful BIDs—first created in 1994, as journalists Darwin Bond Graham and Adrian Drummond-Cole note, “when California passed a Property and Business Improvement District Law (PBID)”—are using their taxation powers to reshape downtowns across California (and the country) with private security forces. They ensure commerce is king in this era of business's disproportionate influence on the few democratic forms of city governance.

The real loser in the fallout of the private sector's financial crisis these past six years has been the public sector, especially education. It’s tough times at Cabrillo College, which is also now a franchised “fee” collector, with tuition across the state at $46 per unit. (This tuition fee hike comes in the wake of the “victory” of Proposition 30's passage, a measure that uses temporary tax hikes to fund education.) The size of the student population has shrunk by 1/6 according to one conservative estimate. Drastic cuts to course offerings and the elimination of programs have resulted in 3,000-4,000 fewer Cabrillo students than before the great financial crisis; statewide, the community college system has lost some 500,000 students. Similar problems in the Cal State and UC systems are well known. But only in the community college system has a campus come under the blade for total closure: City College of San Francisco. CCSF is among the largest campuses in the system, and the students and faculty are putting up a fight.

Campus Intifada

“Dare to struggle, dare to win.” Nearly a half-decade has passed since UC Santa Cruz saw the eruption of the most radical student movement in a generation. The fall 2009 wave of building occupations, demonstrations, and rallies, gave rise to the now nearly annual practice of shutting the UCSC campus down, in either student or union-led protests. The first such campus shutdown took place on March 4th, 2010, as part of a statewide day of protest against austerity and cuts to education. The mechanics are surprisingly simple. With two traffic entrances to the largest UC campus in terms of acreage, students and workers have needed two strong pickets organized and led by an active minority of radical students (plus passive support of the student body) to execute full-day campus shutdowns in 2010, 2012 (March 1st), and 2013. In the most recent incident, on November 20th, the campus was closed by an AFSCME strike on one of the few days of rain we'd had in months.


2 photos from the West Entrance, UCSC, 11/20/2014.


The actuality of an imminent strike threat now gives some teeth to the labor negotiations on campus, where UAW local 2865, the union of graduate student Teaching Assistants, was able to win all of their demands in recent bargaining. There’s a threat of a two-day strike (4/2 and 4/3) beginning on the third day of spring quarter. The UAW's major grievances from recent negotiations are the cause for this strike: having faced police intimidation, graduate students are hoping to force a corporatizing UC to negotiate over class size limits and extending the length of employment eligibility for graduate students past its eighteen quarter limit, two issues the university has refused to bargain over. Both the police intimidation and the refusal to negotiate over fundamental work conditions clearly violate the law.

The contemporary elements of the student movement have focused their criticisms, demonstrations, and direct actions on the appointment of Janet Napolitano, the former Obama administration Homeland Security secretary and deportation czar, as president of the UC system. The No to Napolitano Campaign, with its uncompromising demand for the UC president’s resignation, has been accompanied by renewed occupations at UC Berkeley and UCSC, where the Hahn Student Services building was held down by demonstrators at the end of winter quarter. Many of today’s student activists have been politicized around organizing for immigrant rights, a critical race and ethnic studies program at UCSC, as well as anti-privatization issues. Veterans of both the earlier, explicitly anti-capitalist student movement from 2009 and the campus version of the Occupy movement in 2011 persist in this mix. Napolitano is a sort of ominous signal to this broadly reconfigured movement, with her history of passive support for the human rights scandal in Arizona’s Maricopa County immigrant detention system and her involvement in the record-setting deportations of the Obama administration, totaling of 1,424,704, through September, 2012.

With the rain back, the strike this week could be another series of wet days. And even in the welcome storm surge, the beach beneath the street in this big wave town will be fleetingly visible.

Originally Published: April 1st, 2014

Poet David Lau grew up in Long Beach, California. He has described his family as a “Chicano-Chinese and Anglo household.” He earned degrees from UCLA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The poems in his first book, Virgil and the Mountain Cat (2009), were described by the Believer’s Dominic Luxford as...