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Now a Tradition, Tent State University Occupies Lawn For 11th Consecutive Year

Annual Week-long Protest Focuses on State Funding For Higher Education, Equal Tuition For Immigrants
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A new generation of activists continued the tradition of occupying Voorhees Mall for an entire week earlier this month. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The eleventh annual protest and campout on the main lawn at Rutgers campus, known as Tent State University, came to an end two weeks ago today, following a week of educational, political, and cultural activities.

The Tent State occupation protests predate Occupy Wall Street, having started in April 2003. The protests began in response to funding cuts to Rutgers and other higher education institutions.

The protests have not been without controversies.  Last year's event was abruptly terminated when University staff prematurely turned on the sprinklers after warning campers to clear Voorhees Mall.  Campers were already trying to get their materials off-site when the sprinklers turned on, soaking them and their possessions.

Opposition to huge spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fueled involvement from the Rutgers community and added another facet to the protests, culminating in a huge march that brought hundreds of protestors onto Route 18 in 2008.

Three students, nicknamed the "Rutgers Three" were charged with obstructing traffic by local police in that march.  Their cases took years to adjudicate.

Tent State University, now a Rutgers tradition, has also spread to campuses across the county and even other nations.

The movement prides itself on inviting the larger community not just to join in during the festivities, but to participate in planning and programming.

As a Community Empowerment Project (PEP) pamphlet from 2003 said, "Bring tents, bring music, bring clothes, and set up camp. The more, the better. Swap in an out, if you must, but take the grounds and hold them."

"All other coalition organizations should support this endeavor by organizing picket lines, bringing food, coordinating media, and building support across the state encouraging sympathizers to contact their legislators."

Originally scheduled to take place at the state capitol in Trenton, but coalition members felt that they would attract more professors and students if they held their tent protest on the main campus of Rutgers.

Tent State University was born that year and advertised as a 48-hour protest.  But it was such a success that the timeframe was lengthened, first to three days, and then to nearly a week. 

That year, Governor Jim McGreevey's budget cuts were the primary target of the protest.  His administration slashed funding to Rutgers by 7% in 2002, leading to a 9.8% or 9.9% tuition hike.

There had been a similar tent-city protest on Voorhees Mall in 1992.  The sponsoring organization at that time, Campaign for an Affordable Rutgers Education (CARE), protested rising tuition costs, the same issue Tent State would focus on a decade later.

CARE's efforts, along with those of the Rutgers University Legislative Affairs Council (RULAC), contributed to the passage of the Tuition Stabilization and Incentive Plan.  This plan, signed in to law by Gov. James Florio, capped tuition increases at the inflation rate for two years in the mid-1990s.

Some 500 people signed a pink scroll, addressed to the Board of Governors and then-President Francis Lawrence.  In-state tuition and fees had skyrocketed from less than $1,000 in 1980 to over $3,000 by 1992.

Ten years later, that number had more than doubled to $7,308.

After the first Tent State protest, in-state tuition was raised $619 in 2003 to $7,927.  Today, it is $13,073.

Tent State, striving to provide free education during its events, holds workshops on a wide range of issues.  It is generally left-leaning politically, although conservative groups have also participated in past years.  Each night, there is musical entertainment, and there is also an art tent, where people can make works of art using shared supplies.

The first Tent State University set the tone for those that would follow.  It began at 12:15 pm on Monday, April 28, 2003, with a Meet and Greet, followed by an opening ceremony and a tour around the campsite.

A march followed, and then classes on "ecopsychology", participatory democracy, and civil rights. Similar to later protests associated with the Occupy movement, a democratically-run General Assembly was held once that evening.

A movie about education followed, and then came three music acts and a poetry-reading. Classes on civil disobedience, the NJ Workers Democracy Network, and "ISO" occurred the following day.

There was a march to a tuition hearing at the Rutgers Student Center at 12:30 p.m. the following day, and a March of Pigs at 6 pm.  A poetry-reading, movie, and three music acts followed.

On day three, the protesters marched to Brower Commons and rallied.  The campout was a hit and organizers decided to extend it.

Over the coming years, visual art and performances became a bigger part of the festivities, including an "art tent" where attendees and passers-by are encouraged to create their own works of art.

On a nightly basis, musical acts and performance artists entertain campers, usually behind Scott Hall or in one of the building's large classrooms.  Tent State's famous fire-spinners appeared at least as early as Tent State II, back in 2004, but were absent this year.

Early TSU campouts had a "bike library" or a booth supporting bicycling, and featured coordinated efforts to generate calls to state legislators regarding funding for Rutgers.

Fast forward to 2013... On April 17, Tent State hosted a Quidditch workshop, as well as a session on immigration, where people were encouraged to write down their family's immigration stories on index cards.

The cards were erected on toothpicks alongside the College Avenue-Voorhees Mall walkway.

Winning equal tuition costs for undocumented immigrants at Rutgers was a major focus of the years events.  Currently, undocumented students are forced to pay almost double the in-state rate, even if thgraduated from New Jersey high schools.

Other workshops covered issues ranging from meditation to contraception, while one enterprising barber named Yureka gave haircuts.  Other sessions covered the labor movement, socialism, fracking, the environment, renters' rights, the Sourland Mountain area, feeding the poor, Islam, and the images people have of their own bodies.

A "Chapel Tent" was also erected by someone representing Protestant ministries.

NewBrunswickToday.com hosted a workshop of our own on the final day of the protest, focusing on internet journalism and the role of citizens in reporting news. The author of this article, along with editor Charlie Kratovil, led the hour-long session. 

Tent State 2013 was also used to announce the launch of a new online textbook exchange for Rutgers students, called RUSelling.org, in hopes of saving students money.