Lori Nixon has faced jail time, fees and a suspension since blocking Highway 17 in a controversial student protest
The plans to stage a protest on Highway 17 on March 4 were hatched in November 2014. That’s when UCSC students began an occupation of the Humanities and Social Sciences building in protest of proposed fee hikes. It’s also when students began to realize that the town of Santa Cruz didn’t know much about protests happening on campus, activist Lori Nixon says.
Year in and year out, she explains, many of the school’s demonstrations got ignored by the community—a topic that came up when a General Assembly of activists met and planned 96 hours of action. “One of the ideas was to bring it down off the hill, which is where our action came in,” says Nixon, who’s now living in Berkeley.
Months later on that March morning, a moving truck unloaded large bins on Highway 17 for a barricade. Nixon and five others—who would become known as “The Highway 6”—later chained themselves to these bins, just north of the Highway 1 bridge, where they would remain for hours. By the next day, more than 4,000 people had signed an online petition calling for the students’ expulsion.
Before blocking traffic, Nixon, who I first met five years ago, was almost finished with a degree in sociology. Nixon has since been suspended from school, served jail time and been ordered to pay her share of a $28,000 fine. The university imposed additional punishments, including 150 hours of community service.
I remember when news broke on Facebook that you were among the protestors and you had been taken into custody. Some of your friends weren’t very supportive.
LORI NIXON: That reaction was very common with people who didn’t know me very well. My very, very close friends and people on the same political wavelength understood the message. They understood how important freeway protests are and have been in the past. Even if they didn’t 100 percent agree with what happened, they were supportive of me and the other protestors. But during that time, I lost a lot of people I would have considered friends, a lot of classmates, co-workers, people that I just kind of knew … I immediately cut them out of my life. I basically was like, ‘I rarely see you in real life. If you’re going to actively talk badly about me without asking me or talking to me, I don’t need you in my life.’ People who were close to me and were going to be my friends no matter what have been really supportive.
As a group, the protesters were required to pay $28,000. And you got sentenced to 30 days in county jail. Did you serve that full sentence?
Five of the six of us opted for work-release programs, where they pay the jail to go clean bathrooms. Their assignment was at Natural Bridges. The jail really tried to pressure me into doing a work-release program, but I felt it was in my best interest not to do that program and not to pay the state more money to punish me. So I’m the only one who opted to take the jail sentence. You automatically get credit for the time you already spent in jail. So, I got two day’s credit, which brought it down to 28 days. And then you automatically get good time, so I was planning on being in there for 14 days. I got released after 11 days. So, I spent 11 days in the Santa Cruz County Jail.
We’re in the process of appealing our restitution costs, because about $20,000 of that is coming from the UC Police Department, where they ahead of time brought in officers and equipment from five other UC schools across the state. They’re trying to charge us for money they were going to be spending anyway. $20,000 of that is for overtime pay, for car rentals, other things like that we feel we should not have to pay—considering that our action may have caused the most outrage and had impact on the public, but it was the smallest action people-wise.
I never realized how the restitution was divided up.
There’s a whole judicial side with the university that people have not seen also. We will be filing a civil suit in the first couple months of the year against the UC Regents for violating our constitutional rights during the judicial process.
You’re allowed to re-enroll next month. Will you do that soon?
Three of the protestors are already back in school. They’ve been there this whole quarter. Two more are going back in January. And I’m choosing not to re-enroll until our civil case is rectified, which could be a year to three years.
I can’t help thinking that some community members will see this article and feel angry. They will never see your point of view and will always hate the choice you made. Does that bother you?
It bothers me a little bit. But more than anything, it’s just motivation to keep going. People being unwilling to see someone else’s opinion or to think critically about the system we live in—that’s just motivation to keep fighting.
Do you ever regret the action that day?
The only thing I regret is that we wanted to make little fliers that our supporters could hand out to people in the cars if they were passing us, because a lot of people passed us that day. It was not fully blocked ever, until the cops came and blocked it all off. That’s the only thing I regret—not having better signage so that people were more aware of what we were doing, but I don’t regret the action itself.
Protesters blocked Highway 1 farther south in the spring, and some of them were CSU Monterey Bay students. Have you been in contact with them?
Absolutely. They have been so supportive of us. We’ve been very supportive of them. They came to a bunch of our court dates, and we held fundraisers in Santa Cruz, and a few of them came to those as well. They just got their sentences, which was 40 days in jail, which seems longer than ours, but we’re also getting slammed with almost $30,000 in restitution, which I don’t think they are having to face. I’m not sure if they’re going to be opting for work release, or if any of them will serve the jail time.
What do you think of UCSC?
I love UC Santa Cruz. It was my dream school for over a decade. I was in community college for about seven or eight years, and my goal was always to come to Santa Cruz. I worked really hard to be able to transfer, and it breaks my heart that they’ve cracked down on student activism the way that they have, and it breaks my heart that they keep raising tuition. It breaks my heart that it isn’t everything I thought it would be. But the time that I spent there and the classes that I took, the faculty, the people that I met were just amazing. I want everyone to qualify to go there and not spend the rest of their lives in debt. It kind of feels like a breakup, where I’m like, “UCSC, I love you,” and they’re like, “Don’t even call me. Don’t even show up.”
You’ve mentioned wanting to change “the system.” If a revolution started tomorrow, what should be the first thing to happen?
The dissolution of the UC Regents. The collegiate system would be run by students, faculty, workers and community members.