BERKELEY, Calif. — Students staged raucous rallies to protest education funding cuts on college campuses nationwide Thursday, but some demonstrations got out of hand as protesters threw punches and ice chunks in Wisconsin and shut down a major freeway in California during rush-hour traffic.
In Oakland, protesters clambered onto Interstate 880 near downtown Oakland just before 5 p.m., forcing the closure of the freeway in both directions for more than an hour and causing traffic to back up for miles.
Police arrested more than 150 people who blocked the freeway after breaking off from a peaceful rally at Oakland City Hall, said Officer Sam Morgan, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.
One protester suffered serious injuries after jumping from the elevated freeway while officers were making arrests, authorities said.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee police arrested at least 15 people protesting tuition hikes after protesters tried to enter an administrative building to deliver petitions to the school chancellor. When police turned them away, some protesters threw punches and ice chunks, university spokesman Tom Luljak said.
No serious injuries were reported in the melee that followed.
"We have no problem with a protest," university spokesman Tom Luljak said. "We do have a serious problem when individuals decide to become violent."
Kas Schwerdtfeger, a national organizer for Milwaukee Students for a Democratic Society, said demonstrators were peaceful but persistent in approaching the hall.
"What we did was try to assert ourselves peacefully and nonviolently," he said.
The university was among dozens of nationwide campuses hit with marches, strikes, teach-ins and walkouts in what was billed as the March 4th National Day of Action for Public Education.
Organizers said hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, parents and school employees were expected to participate in the nationwide demonstrations.
The steep economic downturn has forced states to slash funding to K-12 schools, community colleges and universities to cope with plummeting tax revenue.
Experts said schools and colleges could face more severe financial problems over the next few years as they drain federal stimulus money that temporarily prevented widespread layoffs and classroom cuts.
In Northern California, rowdy protesters blocked major gates at two universities and smashed the windows of a car.
Protesters at the University of California, Santa Cruz surrounded the car while its uninjured driver was inside. Earlier, demonstrators blocked campus gates.
University provost David Kliger said there were reports of protesters carrying clubs and knives, but Santa Cruz police Capt. Steve Clark could not confirm those reports. No arrests had been made.
An advisory posted on the school Web site urged people to avoid the campus because of safety concerns.
At the University of California, Berkeley, a small group of protesters formed a human chain blocking a main gate to the campus. Later in the day, hundreds gathered for a peaceful rally in the middle of a busy intersection near Sproul Plaza.
"We're one of the largest economies in the world, and we can't fund the basics," said Mike Scullin, 29, a graduate student in education who plans to become a high school teacher. "We're throwing away a generation of students by defunding education."
At UC Davis, about 75 police officers were called to the scene after nearly 300 students tried to block a freeway onramp near campus, said university spokeswoman Claudia Morain.
A tense standoff between students and police ended police after fired pepper spray into the crowd and one female student was arrested, Morain said. There were no reported injuries.
At the University of Illinois, about 200 professors, instructors and graduate faculty marched through campus carrying signs that read "Furlough Legislators" – a reference to recent furloughs and 4 percent pay cuts imposed on thousands of university employees.
The state is $487 million behind on payments to the University of Illinois. State government has a budget deficit of $13 billion.
In Olympia, Wash., a group of about 75 protesters arrived at the Capitol bearing a faux coffin emblazoned with the slogan "R.I.P. Education."
They were later ejected from the state Senate gallery after interrupting a debate with a protest song that followed the tune of "Amazing Grace."
"I once could eat, but now I find, I can't afford the food," they sang.
Several Democratic senators applauded the performance, as security guards escorted the protesters from the building.
At the University of Texas at Austin, about 100 students and staff rallied on campus to protest a 5.4 percent hike in tuition and fees approved by regents a day earlier. Protesters complained the quality of education was taking a backseat to the university's bottom line.
In Alabama, Broderick Thomas, a 23-year-old Auburn senior, attended an annual higher education rally in Montgomery and said he feels "it's the moral duty of the state to give back what they promised."
However, the chairman of the state Senate education budget committee, Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, curbed the enthusiasm, saying it would be hard to find additional funds for higher education this year.
"I wish we could give all the money higher education needs," Sanders said, as some in the crowd groaned. "We're having to cut up to $460 million out of the budget the governor recommended."
Hundreds of students, teachers, parents and school employees from across California gathered in Sacramento for a midday rally at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to restore funding to public schools.
Linda Wall, a state Department of Mental Health employee, said she had two children attending Sacramento State University. Hikes in student fees and mandatory furloughs for state workers have strained her budget.
"Their tuition has taken a big chunk of my paycheck and my paycheck is shrinking, so it's a double whammy," Wall said.
Associated Press Writers Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco, Robin Hindery in Sacramento, Calif., David Mercer in Urbana, Ill., April Castro in Austin, Texas, Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., Curt Woodward in Olympia, Wash., and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.