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As a member of the late Repair California campaign, I was recently invited to participate in a panel discussion on the state of government reform efforts, put on by the University of California Students Association. The panel was part of their annual summit, held in Sacramento, and was designed partly as a strategy session for the upcoming “March Forth” protests. The event plans to be huge: Universities from around the world are reportedly taking part, as students everywhere highlight the social, economic, and cultural value of higher education.

I gladly accepted the invitation, and delivered this message: This is your moment. Don’t blow it. For the record, “blowing it” looks like what happened in Berkeley last Thursday: a riot.

In what the local media referred to as a “warm-up” protest, several dozen young people were filmed destroying downtown Berkeley. The Daily Cal featured amateur video of young people tipping trash cans, lighting them aflame, insulting police officers, smashing windows, and chanting something about the littered streets being “their streets”. With their faces sheathed behind bandannas, it wasn’t entirely clear if the crowd was protesting Sacramento or holding-up the railroad.

It took a little bit of diving into the reports to find that most of the people involved weren’t students, just typical street kids taking a break from their usual activities of asking me for money and not bathing.

That the rioters weren’t students should matter. It doesn’t. Student leaders were mute in their disapproval of the pointlessness, assuming they disapproved at all. The result was the disconcertingly powerful way in which conservatives wed their narrative to the news reports pouring in from a conflict-seeking media: somebody else’s ungrateful spoiled-brat kids are running amok in a beautiful city and wasting your hard-earned money.

Make no mistake, this is a bad development for the students and the universities. Students have been shouldering a disproportionate share of California’s great budgetary burden, and thus have legitimate, no, very legitimate, grievances. In response, many students have worked hard to build an opposition movement. With the national attention span measurable only in iotas, students cannot afford to surrender a single headline to packs of street kids who care little, and understand even less, about California’s perilous financial system and the network of world-class colleges and universities that depend on it.

One gets the troubling sensation that students were loath to forcefully condemn the riots out of deference to the Bay Area’s tradition of civil activism. This is the sort of thing Berkeley does. If so, this is an unspeakably pitiful development. A mob that masks the sound of breaking glass and smoldering refuse with here-and-there chants plagiarized from the civil rights movement is still a mob. And while such incantations may be enough to placate professors, students, and liberal pundits, I’d be surprised if the shopkeeper or the taxpayer are as impressed. Shame on those who turn their cheeks while the reputation of a worthy and important movement is dragged through the mud by hooligans, left-wing or not.

Instead of anger, chaos, and anarchy, instead of hanging effigies of the Governor, the students should make it their singular mission to rekindle the hope and confidence that was once called the California dream, and to make themselves that dream’s indispensable component. Students, almost by definition, stand for youth, energy, and idealism: ingredients for inspiration that are perennially ripe. So here’s an idea. Drape yourselves in California flags and, by the tens of thousands, and walk peacefully up streets singing the Beach Boys. Doing so will impress not just your cosmopolitan university neighbors, but your redneck uncle too.

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