Triton magazine asked alumni about the defining moments that changed everything for UC San Diego students, and what it means to them today. Luis Alvarez ’94 shared the following campus memory with Triton magazine:
In the early 1990s, there was a groundswell for something called a “cross-cultural center.” Two organizations in particular, MEChA and the African American Student Union (before it became the Black Student Union), were actively engaged in that effort. I remember late night meetings, some at my house, with some asking the group, “OK, we’re going to protest tomorrow for the Cross-Cultural Center—who’s willing to get arrested?”
In April 1992, there were the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, a response to the acquittal of the four officers who beat King. That mobilized the students pretty remarkably. About 500 students more or less spontaneously met at the Hump in front of the old gymnasium and then started to march across campus. And I remember being in the crowd and not everybody knew where we were going. It was just marching and protesting. People were pissed off and wanted to be heard in one way or another. Then we marched down the hill at Villa La Jolla, past the hospital, and then hung a left. There were 15 or 20 very brave (or something else) folks that sprinted onto the onramp, and the rest of us followed. We blocked the I-5 South freeway for several hours.
I tell my students today that even in the moment, it was a really remarkable, extraordinary instruction on how social movements work and didn’t work. Some people were there for one reason and some were there for another. There was a small group of students who were negotiating with the school administration. When the police showed up, some students locked arms and said, “We’re not leaving until the verdict’s overturned,” while others were saying, “We’re not leaving until we meet with the chancellor,” or this, or that, and lots of things in between.
We did end up leaving and there were meetings with the upper administration in the days that followed. What I remember happening was that political mobilization around Rodney King became intertwined with, and energized and intensified, the Cross-Cultural Center efforts. And whether or not that was directly related to what happened out on the freeway or not, I think it was a key factor in the eventual success and victories around the Cross-Cultural Center.
—Luis Alvarez ’94 is associate professor of history and director of the Institute for Arts and Humanities at UC San Diego.