For the first time in decades, thousands of protesters thronged UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza Thursday, united in a common cause and demanding political action.
At least 5,000 students, faculty and workers gathered in Sproul Plaza at noon to protest fee increases, layoffs and furloughs at California’s leading public university.
They came to challenge UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, UC President Mark Yudof, the Board of Regents, state legislators, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the public to unite in a battle to save public education in California.
Students, faculty, blue-collar workers and their allies came to the heart of campus, many carrying signs and wearing red armbands. Speakers included faculty, students and members of the Union of Professional and Technical Employees, including a laid-off custodian, each of them calling for reform.
Similar protests were held Thursday at campuses throughout the UC system.
Protesters filled all of Sproul Plaza, shoulder to shoulder with little daylight between, and carried an array of signs and banners, reading “Stop Yudof’s Cuts to Education and Research,” “Stop the Cuts,” “Chop From the Top,” and at one point uniting to chant “Layoff Yudof! Layoff Yudof!” One Free Speech Movement veteran held a sign saluting her modern-day counterparts.
Campus police were present but not in large numbers.
Asked if he was surprised by the peacefulness of the gathering, UC Berkeley Police Chief Mitchell Celaya smiled and said, “It’s not like the old days.”
Only one helicopter was present during the rally and it was carrying a news crew, not tear gas.
Michael Delacour, one of the founders of People’s Park, said the rally was the largest he’d seen in recent decades, larger than any of those held when faculty and students organized in the 1980s to force the university to divest from South Africa in protest of that nation’s apartheid policies.
Thursday’s events came on the heels of a Wednesday night teach-in at Wheeler Hall which overflowed the 600-seat auditorium and spilled hundreds more onto the pavement outside.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich headlined the teach-in, but some of the most powerful language came from lesser-known faculty.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said he supported the abolition of Propostion 13, considered by many as one of the primary factors in the state’s budget mess.
Birgeneau acknowledged that students had the right to feel upset and express their opinion about the tuition hike, and urged them to visit Sacramento to lobby legislators to support public education.
When the rally at Sproul ended, the protesters marched from the heart of campus to the city center, shutting down traffic along a two-block stretch of Shattuck while carrying signs and chanting “Whose university? Our university!” The throng then headed up Bancroft Avenue to Telegraph for a brief sit-in before the crowd dissipated.
Then, hours later, hundreds gathered at at Wheeler Hall to begin the arduous task of working out the concrete means for reaching their ambitious goal.
By the time the meeting ended, activists had issued a call for a statewide education conference in Berkeley on Oct. 24 to organize a campaign for public support of education at all levels, and voted to hold a second assembly Wednesday, Sept. 30 to decide on local actions to follow in the wake of Thursday’s protest.
Inside the auditorium, a number of activists called for the immediate occupation of the building, following word from Santa Cruz that students had occupied one UC campus building there—an announcement that brought sustained cheers.
When action was delayed, some began to lock the outside door, until there was a tearful plea on behalf of international students and any undocumented workers who might face arrest and deportation if they took part in an occupation challenged by campus police.
Police withdrew, and students and their allies marched back to Lower Sproul Plaza to hold a final group of caucuses to work out details of measures to be taken in the days ahead.