Struggling University Students Take on ‘Dr. Pepper Spray’ in Milwaukee

Roger Bybee

University students’ national day of action on March 4 — focused on soaring tuition which is closing off higher education to poor and working-class students — displayed the largest upsurge in student activism seen in decades.

While the most prominent protests were held in California, actions stretched across the country, including the Midwest. The head of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s political science department said he hadn’t seen such on-campus emotion since the campus was closed following the 1970 shootings of students at Kent State University, the New York Times reported.

Typifying the clash between an increasingly corporatized vision of the university and the aspirations of working-class students was a raucous confrontation on Thursday at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which resulted in the pepper-spraying of student protesters and the arrest of 15 people, including a student journalist and Student Association President Jay Burseth. (The seemingly unjustified bust was caught on YouTube.)

Burseth and other students requested a meeting with Chancellor Carlos Santiago, a cheerleader for an increasingly corporatized campus, but Santiago refused.


When students sought entrance to the administration building, campus police began pepper-spraying protesters directly in the face, according to Burseth, saying that footage from a campus TV station backs up his account. Students began pelting campus police with snowballs only after the painful pepper-spraying infuriated the crowd.

Shortly thereafter, the Milwaukee Police Department — notorious for their rough handling of protesters, arrived, and began arresting students, including one African-American male quietly talking on a cell phone and moving away from the police presence, as shown on a video aired nationally on Huffington Post.

That student Brian Rufus [the African American shown on video ] was told by the arresting officer he was ’ the perfect person’ to arrest,” says Burseth, with evident disgust. He was just on his cell phone walking away and they handcuffed him. This was one of the most unsettling arrests,” as it seemed to indicated a recial motivation.

The total of 15 arrests exceeded any previous protest at UWM in recent memory, including the 1970 strike that featured rallies of 5,000 students and shut down the campus.


Animating Thursday’s UWM rally was a persistent rise in tuition that has made it harder for poor and working-class students to afford earning a degree. It’s slowly poisoning us,” says Burseth.

Students throughout the UW system have faced a quadrupling of tuition during the last 20 years, with tuition now topping over $7,000 a year. While students at UW-Madison, the elite flagship of the UW system, have also challenged the tuition increases, the bite of rising educational costs is more painfully felt at UWM.

The typical student at UWM comes from families averaging about $40,000 a year compared with $70,000 for Madison,” says Burseth, a slight, bearded 24-year-old history and political science who was active in Students for a Democratic Society before being elected as president of the student government last spring.


There are very few students here who can afford to go to school without working a lot of hours to pay for it,” Burseth says. Students face a constant tension between working enough hours to pay for school and taking sufficient credits to eventually graduate. Their studies suffer as a result,” says Burseth. They are facing constant stress and financial pressure. If they lose a job in the current economy, they can’t afford to stay in school.”

Burseth, like a fair number of students at UWM, himself comes from a difficult financial background. After his parents’ divorce when he was about eight, he recalls, his mother, two brothers and he relied upon food stamps and government cheese. I learned early on that government could do good things to help people get through hard times,” he says.


Burseth and other protesters — which include the Education Reform Coalition, SDS, and other groups — argue that Wisconsin needs to return to the Wisconsin Idea” championed by Progressive Era populist Fighting Bob” LaFollette, under which the opportunities of all its peoples are more equal.”

What we need to do is bring Wisconsin back to Wisconsin Idea,” insists Burseth. All citizens should have access to higher education if they meet the academic standards.”

But despite its lingering progressive reputation, Wisconsin and the UW system have been moving in a radically different direction, as Burseth notes. Wisconsin has increased its spending on prisons six-fold over the same period it was quadrupling tuition for it students. We don’t want to fund education, but will provide money for the repercussions of no education.”

In fact, Wisconsin maintains the highest rate of incarceration of African-American males of any state in the union.

The state’s contribution of tax dollars to the university system has been steadily drained away as prisons have gained higher priority and corporate taxes have remained low. A study of 2002 data by Institute for Wisconsin’s Future research director Jack Norman showed that 62% of Wisconsin corporations with revenues in excess of $100 million annually paid zero in state corporate income taxes.

For example, Mercury Marine paid no corporate income taxes to Wisconsin from 2000 to 2007, but nonetheless extorted huge concessions from the state and local governments and its workers as the price for staying in Fond du Lac, Wis.

To restore university revenue, one idea would be to impose a very small state income tax increase. If you increase the income tax at just 0.45%, we could raise enough taxes, and we could also make it progressive so the rich pay more,” suggests Burseth.

As the flow of tax dollars to the university system has been significantly diminished, the result has been astronomical hikes in tuition that take higher education further and further out of reach. 


But UW administrators, including UW-M Chancellor Santiago, are pursuing a neoliberal, corporatized vision of the university system that displays little regard for tuition levels or student worker rights. The top UW administrators are fixated on enhancing the university system’s role as a motor of private economic development. In particular, Santiago has been promoting the notion of building a bio-medical research park in suburban and overwhelmingly white Waukesha and becoming the Silicon Valley” of water technology.

UWM Prof. Marc Levine, a prominent specialist in urban development, recently studied 55 major U.S. regions that house hundreds of universities. The results:

My analysis found no meaningful correlations between any gauges of entrepreneurial university activity (research expenditures, patents or licensing) and core measures of city and regional economic well-being (employment growth or gross metropolitan product growth).

Levine, who has painstakingly documented Milwaukee’s deeply-rooted economic problems like losing 65% of its industrial jobs 1977 to 2002 and suffering from a shortage of some 88,900 jobs before the current recession, believes that Santiago and Milwaukee’s civic elite are following an sbsurdly misguided strategy for economic recovery:

Even world-class research universities are neither necessary nor sufficient in promoting local economic development. Indeed, on what basis is it logical to believe that an entrepreneurial UWM can propel the economic revitalization in Milwaukee, when such distinguished research universities as Yale (New Haven), Johns Hopkins (Baltimore) or the University of Rochester - with research funding and licensing revenues UWM can only dream of - have failed to engineer economic turnarounds in their distressed home cities?

While Santiago and company pursue their vision of the corporate university, Jay Burseth and allies at campuses across the state are intent on fighting for a very different conception that is accessible to students of all backgrounds and dedicated to serving the broad public interest, not narrow corporate pet projects.


With the Associated Council of student governments, we need to be turning around the minds of the [Democratic-controlled] Legislature,” says Burseth. No students are lobbying the Legislature. It’s the corporations who’ve been doing all the lobbying, so it’s been hard for students to go in and find a sympathetic ear.”

But Democrats are generally less swayed by polite lobbying — especially about raising corporate taxes — than they are by the fear that disruptive protests will facture their electoral coalition, argue Frandes Fox Piven and Richard Clowerd in their classic history, Poor People’s Movements. 

Such grassroots protests have generally been more effective at producing concessions from elites than lobbying detached from the source of insurgents’ power in their mobilized constituency, Piven and Cloward write.

Thus, the students fighting for fiar tuition and equal access will have to carefully evaluate their strategy in the coming months. Do they seek the ear of legislators afraid to touch coporate taxes, or do they risk more confrontations with Dr. Pepper-Spray?

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
In These Times August 2022 Cover
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue