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Affirmative action ban protested

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet staff
Friday March 09, 2001



Thousands of students, teachers and activists from around the Bay Area packed UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza Thursday for a sometimes tense “Day of Action” to call for the reinstatement of affirmative action in the UC system. 

“Mass meetings” in the morning and afternoon and a midday rally attracted placard-totting high school and middle school students from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and as far away as Fresno.  

Heated exchanges between students on different sides of the affirmative action issue sometimes escalated to fist fights, said UC Berkeley Police Capt. Bill Cooper. City police closed down Telegraph Avenue between Brancroft and Channing ways for several hours after a group of youth looted a Athlete’s Foot store during the demonstrations. 

By-in-large, the demonstrations were peaceful, with students, union representatives and civil rights activists taking turns at the microphone to demand greater integration and equality in education.  

“It’s clear that there is just a huge movement building,” said Yvette Felarca, a founding member of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action & Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), which organized the Day of Action. 

Felarca said there has been a decrease of more than 50 percent in the number of blacks and Latinos admitted to UC Berkeley since the affirmative action ban was instituted in 1995. 

According to the University’s Web site, African Americans and Latinos comprised 4.5 percent and 10 percent respectively of undergraduates in the Fall of 2000, compared to 5.9 percent and 14 percent in the Fall of 1995. 

Some UC Berkeley students said Thursday that racial diversity on campus is almost non-existent. 

“The only black people I see on campus are on my track team,” said sophomore Kristopher Cuaresma-Primm, a Hawaiian Islander. “Without that I wouldn’t see much diversity in the school.” 

The contrast to the Bay Areas secondary schools, where blacks and Latinos are often in the majority, is “scandalous,” Felarca said.  

A substitute teacher in Oakland middle schools and high schools, Felarca said the lack of minorities at UC Berkeley is a direct result of admission policies based on standardized tests that are biased against minorities. 

“We have students whose strengths and skills aren’t being recognized in the admissions process,” Felarca said. 

Oakland High School Senior Delondo Bellamy, an African-American and one of the speakers during a mass meeting for high school students at the beginning of Thursday’s Day of Action, agreed. Oakland public school students simply aren’t prepared to do as well on the SATs as students at other schools, he said. 

“A 4.0 at an Oakland school (would be) a 2.0 at a Piedmont school,” Bellamy said.  

“A lot of people have money to spend on SAT training,” Bellamy added. “We don’t have that.” 

Sixteen-year-old Kristian Walker, a student at Oakland’s Merritt College, said she left Oakland High School because she wasn’t being prepared for college. In a remark that received a roar of recognition from the crowd of minority students, Walker recalled the response she got when she asked an Oakland teacher for help: “Sorry, Kristian. I have so many students. I can’t keep up with everybody’s papers.” 

Summing up the teachers attitude, Walker said, “I guess it doesn’t matter. We’re not going to college anyway.” 

Without affirmative action this attitude may well be justified, many demonstrators said. 

“(UC Berkeley) is prejudiced against all minorities and all women,” said Berkeley High School freshman Brandis Monroe, an African-American. “They don’t have an opportunity to come here and get an education.” 

“If affirmative action stops then I’ll have a hard time getting into college,” Oakland eighth-grader Alexis O’Neal said flatly. 

Walker said she is resting her college hopes on Arizona State University – a school that still practices affirmative action. 

But a significant group of demonstrators Thursday, while acknowledging the problem of unequal schools, said affirmative action is the wrong solution. 

“I’ve been discriminated against because I’m white,” said UC Berkeley Junior Danielle Smith in an argument with an affirmative action supporter in the Sproul Plaza. 

“The color of your skin does not determine how intelligent you are or how much of a hard worker you are,” Smith said. “It would be great to see more minorities here but it would be better to see them come here based on merit rather than based on the color of their skin or what they do or don’t have hanging between their legs.” 

Many demonstrators for affirmative action said they would be the last ones to ask that admissions be based on anything but merit. It’s how you determine that merit that is at issue, they said. 

“We don’t want to make it easier academically (for minority students),” said Corinne Thompson, parent of a Berkeley High freshman. “You don’t just hand it on a plate to them if they’re not ready for it. But help them. That’s all we’re asking.” 

BAMN members said Thursday they hope the demonstrations will persuade UC regents to include a vote on a measure to reverse the ban on affirmative action at their March 14 meeting in Los Angeles. 

But UC regent William Bagley, who first proposed reversing the ban in January, said after the protest Thursday that it’s logistically impossible to call a vote that soon. Bagley, who was not at the protest, said the issue will likely come up for a vote in May or July. He is confident that a substantial majority of the board will vote in favor of the measure. 

Bagley acknowledged that a regent vote to reverse the ban will have no practical effect on admission policy since the 1995 voter approved proposition 209 outlaws racial preferences throughout the state government. Still, Bagley said, the vote would go a long way to repair the UC system’s reputation. 

Pointing to the large number of secondary school demonstrators Thursday, Bagley said, “The very fact that the message has gotten down to the high school level proves my point that the university is being tainted by having a reputation as being against diversity.” 

Of 18 qualified African-Americans accepted to UCLA law school last year only three chose to attend, Bagley said.  

They may have thought, he speculated, “I’m not sure you want me around so I’m going somewhere else.” 

UC Regent Ward Connerly, a major opponent of affirmative action, did not return a call from the Daily Planet for comment. 

BAMN’s Felarca expressed confidence that a regent vote to reverse the ban would sound the death knell for Proposition 209. 

“It would put us in a strong position to overturn Proposition 209 because the regents are the ones who started the whole attack on affirmative action,” Felarca said. The regent vote to ban affirmative action in the UC system preceded that passage of Proposition 209. 

After Thursday’s demonstration, many students vowed to keep up the fight for affirmative action. 

“I learned that it’s up to us, the future leaders, to speak out and not let anyone shut us up,” said Janelle Charles, a junior at San Francisco’s Thurgood Marshall Academic High School who cut class after a planned district-wide field trip to attend the rally was canceled.