I’ve never covered a war story before. I’ve never been one of those reporters in the trenches of some far-off country, dodging bullets while conducting interviews and getting footage that some would kill for (no pun intended).
And I’m not saying going down to CSU Dominguez Hills on Nov. 17 was equivalent to that, but it felt pretty similar. I went to report on a strike of the California Faculty Association (CFA), deep in a war over salary disputes and, as the association says, students’ rights.
My photographer Victoria Billings and I started the trip down to Los Angeles at 7 a.m., traveling on a CFA sponsored bus with six union members from Cal Poly. Throughout the day, these men and women became the unit we were embedded with. We traveled with them to the outskirts of campus, documenting their movement and walking several city blocks with them to get the full story of what they were doing while supporting the strike.
The anxiety on the bus ride down was palpable. Several times, the conversation among the professors turned to CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, who they say has not honored promised salary increases promised under an old contract. As Billings and I unobtrusively eavesdropped on this (as journalists are trained so well to do), I could see the anger in their faces, and hear the emotion in their voices.
When we arrived at the campus, we stepped into what I honestly could describe as a battlefield. Before we could even step off the bus, a union supervisor approached the local chapter president we had travelled down with, mechanical engineering professor Glen Thorncroft. The two briefly looked at some papers, and my unit had their orders: we were to head to Gate D.
As the Cal Poly strikers headed to the gate, which was nowhere near the main activity of the strike, Billings and I decided to take in the full scene of the protest. We went to the media tent, which was full of anchors I’d only ever seen on television. While there, I managed to score an interview with CFA president Lillian Taiz. As we spoke, a man who appeared to be a veteran reporter from one of the major news stations in Los Angeles came over to us and looked eager to ask her questions, so I had to cut my time with her short. Still though, I could feel her frustration with the enemy of so many people at this particular battlefield, Chancellor Reed.
“It’s like any crisis,” she said. “You need to really focus on what’s important, and invest there every nickel you have. And he’s refusing to do it.”
As Billings and I walked away from Taiz, hundreds of people swarmed around us. We saw a man banging a drum in time with protestors chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Charlie Reed has got to go!” Then there were people across the street waving a giant caricature of Reed back and forth and stuffing his fits with money. Soon after that, a jazz band started playing, seemingly unrelated to the rest of the protest.
Satisfied that we’d seen much of the protestor’s headquarters at the campus’ main entrance, we headed back to our primary contact in the Cal Poly unit of picketers, local chapter treasurer Jere Ramsey. We found her waiting for a transport van that would take her to Gate D, where the rest of the Cal Poly professors were already picketing.
As we waited, she told me about the overall battle plan for the CFA at the strike. One of their primary goals that day was to block traffic entrances into the university. Though it is illegal to stand in the crosswalks, she said, the protestors were instructed to walk slowly back and forth in the crosswalk, slowing down as much traffic as possible.
When the van got there, the driver told us that bringing us to Gate D was a preventative measure more than a critical one. The gate, which was directly adjacent to the Home Depot Center, was currently closed to traffic, but CFA wanted Cal Poly there in case the university tried to reroute traffic through it. During the entire time we were at the gate, less than 20 cars entered. That was a mission: accomplished for the CFA.
We stayed at the gate for about an hour, then walked a little under a mile back to the main protest site where we would catch the bus back to San Luis Obispo.
While waiting for the bus, I heard rumor there was a representative from the Chancellor’s office walking around, though I could not find her to interview her. That is, without a doubt, my biggest regret of the day. Because with this war-reporting mentality I had, where I was embedded with my unit of Cal Poly professors, documenting their every move and getting their opinion on the days’ events, it was sometimes easy to forget the “enemy” was the very system of institutions which I attend.
When I talked to CSU representative Erik Fallis a week before the strike, his points seemed rational and well thought out. And that made it even harder to see who that “enemy” really is. It was by no means easy to tell who was right, and who was wrong.
But maybe that’s because in war, it hardly ever is.