As the United States dropped 88,500 tons of bombs on Iraq and Kuwait on Jan. 17, 1991, thousands of students around the nation erupted in protest. Within hours, UC Santa Cruz students and community members took to the streets. An estimated 3,500 protesters marched from Quarry Plaza to Ocean Street, with hundreds diverging to disrupt traffic on Highway 17.
“There were thousands of people walking down the street, there was an understanding that stopping traffic had some purpose,” said UCSC alumnus and Santa Cruz resident John Malkin. “I’m sure that some people in the moment were upset … [but] people saw it as overall an important thing to do.”
The 1991 bombing of Iraq, known as Operation Desert Storm, was the U.S. response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990.
Iraq invaded Kuwait to control its oil fields and cancel its accumulated debt. Iraq’s invasion was the first full-scale international crisis since the Cold War, and the allied response lasted until Feb. 28, 1991.
“The highway blockage was a dramatic way to let the community know that the use of U.S. military power in the Middle East was wreaking havoc on the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other people,” said Gary Patton, adjunct professor of legal studies who served on the Santa Cruz District Board of Supervisors from 1975-1995.
Following initial bombings, UCSC allied with four other UC campuses and students from Oberlin College, USC and Humboldt State University in street marches and national protests continuing throughout the week. A protest in Washington D.C. attracted 75,000 people and another in San Francisco attracted thousands to stop a war that many felt wasn’t in the interest of the U.S.
“The protest was intended to say that our government should not be able to carry out this kind of action without everyone in the United States having to confront some sort of similar disruption in their own lives,” Patton said.
On the day of the bombing, thousands of UCSC students gathered in Quarry Plaza before marching down to Bay and Mission with the intent to block traffic. As the protesters marched, chants of “Stop the war now!” and “No business as usual!” filled the streets. Santa Cruz police officers situated themselves along the protesters’ route but didn’t intervene until the protesters went onto the highway.
“We are not seeking victory over nations,” said a student at the 1991 rally to City on a Hill Press (CHP). “We are seeking victory over ignorance, racism and human degradation.”
For the duration of the protest, cars were stopped throughout the city. The group caused even more disruption when they blocked Highway 17 for about an hour. CHP reported that “police repeatedly pleaded with the crowd to stay off the freeway because of the darkness and possibility that ambulances might have to use the road.” At least 12 people were arrested for civil disobedience.
“Some people were very emotional because the stakes were so high, [and] people’s lives [were] at stake,” said UCSC alumnus David Goldberg, who participated in the 1991 demonstration.
The highway blockage was effective in provoking opposition to the Gulf War, but was met with anger from many locals. Several motorists drove by yelling obscenities, and a car drove into a crowd of protesters injuring two, according to a 1991 CHP article.
With memories of the Cold War and Vietnam War fresh in American minds, participating in another war seemed absurd. Obstructing traffic was a common tactic used by protesters during the Vietnam War.
“The [Vietnam] protests were about disturbing business as usual and making the country seem not governed,” said UCSC alumnus and literature professor Chris Connery, who was present for both the Vietnam and Gulf War demonstrations. “The idea was to change things, and [protests] work.”
UCSC feminist studies professor Bettina Aptheker spoke at the rally in Quarry Plaza and joined in the march as a faculty member in 1991. She said the protest was significant because it highlighted the importance of a coalition among students as an effort to oppose war.
“[The coalition] was an effort by everyone to try to register an opposition to war, especially with Iraq at the time,” Aptheker said. “It was great to have [a] coalition between Palestinian, Arab and Jewish students. That is not something you see too often.”
UCSC and California Take Action
Highway blocking is a national platform for activists to shed light on political and socioeconomic issues. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street protesters blocked the Brooklyn Bridge and amassed global attention about the unequal wealth distribution in the U.S., inspiring a chain of similar demonstrations across the world.
Earlier this year, Black Lives Matter protesters in Oakland blocked the Bay Bridge to oppose the killings of black men by police officers.
“The Black Lives Matter campaign made a difference because it was happening in many cities,” Connery said. “If young people around California rose up across the state, and demanded free education in the UC and CSU, a lot of non-students would support that too.”
On March 3, 2015, six students blocked Highway 17 as part of the “96 Hours of Action” protest that week, which denounced tuition increases, privatization of education and police brutality. Around 9 a.m., the students chained their wrists through metal tubes in trash cans filled with 700 pounds of cement, blocking southbound traffic on Highway 17 near Highway 1. It took about five hours, from the time they blocked the freeway to the time they were disentangled and arrested.
UCSC Police Department, City of Santa Cruz Police and the Sheriff’s Department responded, some clad in full riot gear of bulletproof vests, visored helmets and batons.
The six students were arrested and charged with one felony of conspiracy to execute a crime, three misdemeanors of creating a public nuisance, failure to obey lawful order and failure to obey an executive order from a police officer. They were convicted of resisting arrest and creating a public nuisance and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
“There is this impression that everyone was pissed off about the ‘Highway [Six]’ blocking we had here last year,” Connery said, referring to negative response circulating on the internet following the protest. Students and locals were split on the intention and impact of the action.
A motorist stuck in traffic berated the protesters with threats and profanities for blocking his path. Posts on the Official UCSC student Facebook page threatened the students, calling the form of protest a disruption and a major safety hazard. But many students voiced their support, saying the protest continues UCSC’s long history of peaceful highway blocking and civil disobedience to challenge important issues.
The students’ indefinite suspension was immediate, and an online petition calling for their expulsion garnered 4,348 signatures within a few weeks. The demonstration brought national attention to tuition hikes.
The Impact of Highway Blocking
“Our country has a long history of civil disobedience,” said feminist studies professor Bettina Aptheker. “The Civil Rights Movement used the tactic of highway blocking during their demonstrations. In other words, they did various things in which they knew it would lead to arrest.”
The First Amendment guarantees people’s rights to assembly, but there are constraints to that right to ensure public safety, making highway blocking illegal.
“People should keep protesting,” Connery said. “It’s often effective and it keeps the powers that be on their toes. It’s always good to do that. Don’t let the powerful get complacent.”
With current contentious political situations in the U.S., the obstruction of traffic persists as a form of challenging injustice.
“The point is this — we make the laws that govern our society. We are jointly responsible for what our nation does,” said Gary Patton, adjunct professor of legal studies. “When the nation is doing something wrong, a major change is required. It is appropriate to break the law because that signals that we need to rearrange what we are doing in fundamental ways.”