Tuition march stops traffic


Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

By Emily Brindley / Staff Writer

At the Million Student March, protestors weren’t modest with money, chanting and raging against the high cost of student debt.

An estimated 300 Pitt students, faculty and community members marched down Forbes Avenue from the Cathedral of Learning to Halket Street, then back down Fifth Avenue to Soldiers and Sailors at 5 p.m. Nov 12. Pitt Students for Bernie Sanders 2016 organized the march, with support from campus groups, such as Pitt College Democrats and The Pitt Student Debt Campaign.

The protesters, many wearing Bernie Sanders shirts, pumped their fists over their heads and waved large cardboard signs in the air.  Together they chanted, “One, two, three, four! Student debt is class war! Five, six, seven, eight! Social justice cannot wait!” and, “Whose streets? Our streets!”

The standstill cars surrounding the protesters honked loudly, some drivers offering encouragement with thumbs-ups and high fives, while other drivers held up middle fingers and shouted expletives.

On their backs, the protesters taped red paper with the amount of debt they’ll face after graduation written in black marker. 65 students wore their debt values on their backs, totaling $2,803,869, according to Alex Austin, one of the event organizers. This averages to $43,136 of debt per student.

The Million Student March was held on more than 100 college campuses across the United States on Nov. 12, including Temple University, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Pitt. The students and community members who participated in the event rallied for a $15 minimum wage for campus workers, free college tuition at public universities and forgiveness of pre-existing student debt.

When the march reached the intersection of Halket and Fifth, Pittsburgh police detained and cited one protester with a non-traffic citation, according to Pittsburgh police. The commotion stopped the march in its tracks, as the other protesters chanted to have the detained protester released.

Alex Austin, the president of Pitt Students for Bernie Sanders 2016, is a 30-year-old senior studying natural sciences at Pitt and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He spoke with the police who then released the protester with a citation for disorderly conduct. Pittsburgh Police are investigating the incident and did not release the protester’s name.

The rest of the march proceeded without major incident, and most protesters simply called attention to their student debt.

Jackie Shane, a grad student studying biology at Duquesne, had the number $37,000 written on a piece of paper taped to her back. Shane said she accumulated that debt just from her undergraduate years at Slippery Rock University.

“I couldn’t go to Duquesne [for undergraduate] because I couldn’t pay for it. Or Pitt for that matter,” Shane said. “There’s so many people in the world who don’t get to explore how knowledgeable they could be [because of education costs].”

Derek Jones, a sophomore history and anthropology major, said he was born below the poverty line, and it will take him several years to pay off his hefty college loans. He had written $40,001 on a red paper on his back.

“For five to ten years [after graduation] I’ll have to have a job I do not like, a job focused on making money instead of making the world a better place,” Jones said.

Students protested the cost of tuition Thursday night in the streets of Oakland. Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer
Students protested the cost of tuition Thursday night in the streets of Oakland. Wenhao Wu | Staff Photographer

Pitt spokesperson Ken Service said in an email that Pitt understands the students’ concerns and the issues brought up at the march “are being addressed in the strategic plan for the University currently under development.”

“We support our students’ right to participate in the Million Student March, and we understand and share their concerns about the issues of access and affordability,” Service said.

The protesters in the march intended bring attention to the increasing tuition rate at universities but also motivatechange at the state level. In Pennsylvania, debate between Gov. Tom Wolf and republicans in the legislature have stalled the budget for five months past its deadline.

“In the immediate term, I hope it affects the state and that they try to get a budget passed, because this is one of the longest budget battles that we’ve ever had in this state,” Austin said.

On Tuesday, Nov. 10, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto issued an executive order to increase the minimum wage of city workers to $15 per hour by 2021. The minimum wage will increase in phases starting in 2017, although this has not yet been approved in an official budget.

When it comes to student debt, Austin said he is worried about the next generation he’s worried.

“Being a veteran, it doesn’t affect me much, I’m paid for. But I have a daughter, and I’ll probably have other kids, and they’re the real ones that are actually going to suffer,” Austin said. “We can affect change in five or ten years. So that’s what I’m fighting for — for the future.”