One by one, the “Highway Six” stood in front of Santa Cruz Superior Judge Denine J. Guy and pleaded “no contest,” neither admitting nor disputing the two misdemeanors of creating a public nuisance and resisting arrest.
The UC Santa Cruz students’ May 7 hearing was regarding their five-hour shutdown of Highway 17 on March 3 when the group of six chained themselves together with pipes to trash cans filled with cement. The highway shutdown was part of “96 Hours of Action,” a series of actions protesting UC tuition hikes and police brutality.
“Today’s decision to plead ‘no contest’ was not an easy one to make,” said Lori Nixon, one of the six students, during a press conference. “Although I do not believe this nonviolent protest warrants the extreme sanctions being proposed by the university and the DA, the District attorney’s insistence on taking my liberty away for 18 months encouraged me not to exercise my constitutional right to defend myself through trial.”
None of the students will proceed to trial as a result of the students’ no contest plea. Instead, they are to appear in court on June 29 for a sentencing hearing and on June 30 for a restitution hearing. Although Judge Guy said the students are “not likely” to receive the maximum consequences for the misdemeanors, they could technically face up to six months in county jail for public nuisance and one year for resisting arrest. She said she plans to sentence them to 30 days each.
While the students have received stark criticism for their actions from community members and students, Nixon said the attention placed upon the “Highway Six” needs to be shifted to include the greater context.
“It is crucial the media attention and community focus shift from this one action of civil disobedience and onto the more important matters at hand,” Nixon said. “Public education is failing all across the state, police have killed almost 400 people in 2015 alone, our tax dollars are very blatantly being spent to incarcerate instead of educate.”
Second-year “Highway Six” protester Ethan Pezzolo echoed Nixon’s weariness of the conversation around civil disobedience as he stepped forward to read his statement to the press. Pezzolo said despite his portrayal by the community, he “is not a criminal.”
“Our actions on March 3 were to raise the public’s awareness around the real criminals, the ones in power,” Pezzolo said. “The university and the state chose our fate when they decided to put profit over people.”
Following UC President Janet Napolitano’s November decision to increase UC tuition five percent each year for the next five years, students across the UC system pushed to have the decision repealed — occupying buildings, marching throughout their campus rallying for support, filing into the Board of regents meeting, and, in the case of Highway Six, shutting down the highway.
The decision to raise tuition follows a three-year tuition freeze, and raises the tuition to $12,192, almost triple of what it was 15 years ago. During the press conference Sophia DiMatteo nervously shifted around as she said she worries about the debt she is assuming to get through school.
“This debt burden is something we shouldn’t have to worry about at a public institution which was designed to be free for California residents,” DiMatteo said. “With tuition going up 27 percent in the next five years, by the time my little sister goes to college, school will cost her just under $40,000.”
The defense attorneys continue to seek people to testify on the students’ behalf during the June sentencing hearing, and Santa Cruz Superior Judge Guy has set a deadline of June 24 to submit a list of anyone who will testify on June 29.
“From Ferguson, to Palestine, to New York, to Baltimore, to Santa Cruz, the students and marginalized people all over the world have had enough,” Pezzolo said. “We will not stand for a system that was designed to dehumanize and enslave us behind bars and behind lifelong debt.”