Nearly 70 members of USC Forward, a coalition of community organizers, local residents, students and alumni, marched from Jefferson Boulevard to Bovard Auditorium Thursday. Several organizers presented University Chief of Staff Dennis Cornell with a sleeping bag — as a representation of the displaced South Los Angeles residents — scribbled with student concerns and demands.
Cornell accepted the sleeping bag following a nearly six-minute confrontation with the organizers, who marched Tuesday to deliver a list of demands to incoming President-elect Carol Folt. Cornell said the University responded to the coalition’s demands regarding graduate student unionization efforts, but the University would not address concerns from the surrounding community.
“You’re actually not in this community,” Cornell said to the organizers. “You’re actually in another community on the other side of town.”
On Tuesday, USC Forward pledged to march again if the University did not respond to their demands within 48 hours following that day’s march. USC sent an official letter on Thursday morning; however, the University only penned the letter in response to the one graduate student whose name was signed at the end of the document. Due to the University’s lack of timely response, USC Forward marched Thursday.
Demonstrators began protesting Saturday with the creation of “Tent City,” a group of 10 tents situated along Jefferson, where the organizers have been camping out in 24/7.
Protesters held signs Thursday that read “School of Injustice,” “USC For All (Not Ju$t for Few),” and “USC School of Displacement,” as they marched the entirety of “Tent City” down Trousdale Parkway.
In the letter delivered to the University Tuesday, the organization called for admission accessibility, housing affordability, community benefits, campus safety and labor rights.
Throughout the week-long demonstration, USC Forward encouraged students to jot down their concerns and demands for the University on the sleeping bag. On the sleeping bag, students wrote that USC should recognize student and worker unionization efforts and take accountability for the gentrification and displacement that persist in surrounding communities.
When the sleeping bag was presented to Cornell Thursday, he said the issue of unionizing is not new to the administration and that the University will answer those concerns.
“This is not a new circumstance for us,” Cornell said. “Our response … is not to the leaders of the union, its to our graduate students. Our deference is to our graduate students, and that’s what we responded to.”
In a response to USC Forward’s letter, Vice Provost Marty Levine wrote that the McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative, the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services, the USC Strategic Plan — which houses research on local homelessness — among other initiatives, all show the University’s commitment to USC Forward’s demands.
Regarding the construction of USC Village and concerns regarding local gentrification, Levine said USC Village has provided many benefits for the community, such as economic prosperity and providing nearly $20 million for affordable housing.
“The benefits also included building a state-of-the-art fire station for the neighborhood,” Levine wrote. “Development of the community benefit plans included local residents and stakeholders.”
Cue Jn’Marie, a pastor from Church Without Walls in Skid Row, has lived in neighborhoods in Los Angeles such as Crenshaw and Watts. Jn’Marie said he and other local residents want to support students and displaced community members.
“We will not be satisfied until we get a meeting, a sit-down meeting with the president,” Jn-Marie said. “You’re telling me I don’t live here … I live in this state. I live in this city. I’ve lived in this community.”
In a statement following the protest Tuesday, USC said the president’s office received USC Forward’s list of demands and that it had been working on these issues long before the demonstrations began.
“The University’s singular focus continues to be the students, patients and community we serve,” the statement read. “As noted on the change.usc.edu web site, many of the ideas and suggestions made in the letter are already well underway.”
During the protest, local residents, students and members of the Service Employees International Union and Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment held a banner that read “USC Accountability Now.”
“Today, I came to support mostly,” said Kameron Hurt, a junior majoring in international relations. “We had some great speakers, I helped hold some signs and gave my voice as an undergraduate student to this cause because it is good for undergraduate students to get involved, and it’s even better when they work with the community.”
Nathaniel Hyman, a sophomore majoring in public policy, said although he is in favor of USC Forward, he is concerned with the vagueness of their demands.
“They are not quantitative metrics with those demands,” Hyman said. “But, I support the sentiment behind all of these, and I’m glad they’re forcing the University to make a conversation on them, and I think once we have this conversation we can go into trying to make sure the school is more representative of the population surrounding the University.”
Department of Public Safety Chief John Thomas said DPS had conversations with the demonstrators throughout the week and knew they would be holding a protest on campus Thursday. Thomas asked the protesters to finish their demonstration to allow students to get to class without disruption and said they were cooperative.
Protestors left their tents in Hahn Plaza for DPS to donate.
“We were willing to facilitate them exercising the First Amendment,” Thomas said. “They did exactly what they told us they were going to do, and things worked out.
Coral Itzcalli, a spokesperson for USC Forward, said the demonstration was confirmation that various groups are united in protesting the University administration. Though the “Tent City” demonstration has ended, the organization will continue to communicate with the administration.
“USC’s response to what’s going on in their own campus is laughable … This idea that they care about students is obviously false,” Itzcalli said. “USC is doing what USC does, which is using its money and its power not to help their students but figure out how to rig the system so it can continue to get away with it, whether it’s turning a blind eye to the sexual harassment or assault on campus.”