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UC Protest Movement Continues to Unfold

By Richard Brenneman and Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:06:00 AM
Five thousand protesters filled Sproul Plaza Sept. 24 to demand reform of the state's education system.
Richard Brenneman
Five thousand protesters filled Sproul Plaza Sept. 24 to demand reform of the state's education system.

UC Berkeley students headed back to Sproul Plaza Wednesday evening to discuss possible actions to protest the university’s budget cuts and related topics. 

After a hugely successful student and faculty walkout Thursday, Sept. 24, which received national and international media coverage, about 200 students took part in a general assemby at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30. The meeting had barely begun by the time the Daily Planet went to press. 

Student organizers said the meeting was intended as a grassroots effort to brainstorm ideas about future rallies or activities surrounding the cuts. 

“It’s for students who want to get involved,” said Tu Tran, chair of UC Berkeley’s Associated Students of the University of California. “More like a strategy session.” 

ASUC External Affairs Vice President Dani Haber said that the meeting had been conceived and planned by various students who came together after the walkout. 

The Solidarity Alliance, CalSERVE and ASUC, along with a coalition of other student groups were expected to attend the event, she said. 

Haber said that students planned to continue discussions from the last general assembly discussion, held Sept. 23, at which they planned the walkout. 

“No committees were created—so we might do that,” she said. “There is also talk of forming a coordinating committee. We’d like to formalize plans for the next major target which is the UC Regents’ meeting in November.” 

Haber said there were also plans to substitute the “Go Bears” wave with “save the UC” at the USC-Cal football game this Saturday. 

“A lot of the really leftist groups have planned actions we don’t know about, so we are not really sure what will happen when,” she said. 

The agenda for the meeting included two main goals—to defend public education and reform the structure of the UC system—and six demands, including no student fee increases; no layoffs or furloughs; no paycuts to workers earning less than $40,000 a year; full disclosure of the budget; the halt of efforts to privatize California public education; and the election of UC regents by students, faculty and staff. 

Also on the agenda was discussion of an all-day Oct. 24 conference to be held at UC Berkeley to decide on a statewide action plan to define the future of public education. Workers, teachers and students from all UC schools, state universities, community colleges and K-12 schools are invited to take part.  


The walkout 

Angered by massive fee hikes for students, unpaid “furloughs” for faculty and staff and layoffs, thousands mobilized last week in the largest burst of activism seen on the UC Berkeley campus in many years, with the possible exception of the celebration that erupted on the night Barack Obama was elected to the presidency.  

More than 700 overflowed Wheeler Auditorium on Wednesday night for a faculty teach-in, followed the next day by a mass rally and march that drew more than 5,000 people to Sproul Plaza, followed by an organizing session that lasted well into the night. 

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.  

By day’s end Thursday, students had issued a call for a statewide Oct. 24 gathering at the Cal campus, focusing not just on the problems of Berkeley and the UC system but also on public education at all levels throughout the state. That meeting is still being planned. 

Peter Glazer, professor of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, emceed the Wednesday night teach-in. In his introduction, he called the UC Board of Regents and the Office of the President “unreliable partners” when “they say they have no choice but to raise fees, cut staff” and limit public access. 

“They tell us we have no choice, but they are wrong. Our trust has not yet been earned and we do have a choice,” he said.  

City and Regional Planning Professor Ananya Roy decried what she called the advent of “tolled education,” citing plans for differential fees, where students in programs with high economic potential will be charged more than students in other disciplines. 

“The UC Regents are raising fees on the backs of the middle class,” she said. “This is how hierarchies are remade in the public university.” 

The resulting system will be unjust, Roy declared, and “makes a mockery of public education.” 

After spending the summer in Egypt studying the impacts of neoliberal restructuring in that land, Roy said, “I returned home to find the restructured University of California.” 

“We have to convince the citizens of California to stand in solidarity with us,” she said. “I will be walking out to say ‘Not in my name.’” 

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton and now a professor at UCB’s Goldman School of Public Policy, sounded a theme cited by several other speakers, the devastating impacts of Proposition 13 (the Jarvis-Gann Initiative) on public education. 

That California constitutional amendment capped property taxes at 1 percent of assessed valuation, limited property tax increases to 2 percent a year, and, critically, required a two-thirds legislative vote on any new state taxes and a two-thirds voter mandate for any new local property taxes. 

Proposition 13 wouldn’t have met its own mandate, gaining only 65 percent of the votes in 1978. But since the law at the time required only 50 percent plus one to pass an initiative, the Jarvis-Gann Initiative became the law of the land. 

With the new law in place, property tax revenues fell by half, devastating local governments. 

“Twenty years ago in this state, 20 percent of the state budget went to higher education, and 3 percent went for prisons. Now 9 percent goes for prisons and 7 percent to higher education,” Reich said. 

He said not to blame “Bob Birgeneau or Mark Yudof” or the Board of Regents or the governor for the dysfunctional nature of California’s government, which Reich described as “the worst government I’ve ever seen.” 

“I blame the fact that so many of us for so long have turned our backs on the problems,” Reich said, including Proposition 13 and its two-thirds rule, gerrymandering of the state into consistently single-party districts, “and the initiative process.” 

“In 1978, the people of California sold their kids down the river for real estate,” said Microbiology Professor Kevin Padian. 

As a result of Proposition 13, he said, “A one-third minority in the Legislature is twice as powerful as its opponents. Their votes are twice as powerful.”  

Padian also called for increased transparency in the governance of the University of California. “These people simply can’t account for what they did. And this is especially true of the Office of the President,” he said, evoking a round of applause. 

“This university is known for its faculty, not the status of its administrators,” said Catherine Cole, professor of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. “When was the last time UC Berkeley won a Nobel Prize for administration?” 

“You are witnessing the birth of an unprecedented movement,” Cole told the gathering. “You have the opportunity to be a part of the story.” 

Wendy Brown, a professor of political science, began with another common theme of criticism, privatization of the university, “a future that is partly already upon us” and that “if allowed to unfold, will result in a very serious alteration” of the university’s mandate for public education. 

She said the evidence lies in “the growing increase” in the emphasis of commercialization of research, and the unfolding transformation of a public institution into a mechanism for selling products to corporations and students.  

One result, she said, is “decreased support for all aspects of the university that are not entrepreneurial, including humanities, the arts, “soft social sciences,” and basic research instead of applied research. 

“Privatization means out with Einstein, out with Darwin, out with Aristotle and in with Bill Gates,” she said. 

The critics said they were also concerned with efforts to market classes online, a move they said would eliminate the vital student/teacher bond. 

Ricardo Gomez, a CalSERVE student organizer from Solidarity Alliance, the umbrella organization coordinating the protests, and a member of Berkeley Students Against the Cuts, said “the point of the walkout is to put a stop to business as usual and to send a message to the regents and the Legislature to keep UC public.” 

He also told the audience that so many had shown up for the teach-in that they more than filled the 700-seat Wheeler Auditorium, with the hundreds turned away holding their own teach-in outside. 

Thursday’s rally provided the media highlight of last week, with a throng of 5,000 jamming Sproul Plaza, many hoisting aloft colorful and sometimes obscene placards. 

Cameras were everywhere, and overhead a news helicopter streamed live video, not the teargas that helicopters once brought to Sproul Plaza protests. 

The day had begun with picket lines around campus, many of them from Berkeley’s Local 1 of the University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE), but also including members of other campus unions, faculty and students. 

TV crews interviewed participants and organizers, including Lyn Hejinian, the poet, English professor and activist in Solidarity Alliance, the multi-organization campaign for the Thursday walkout.  

“No Cuts. No Fees,” the pickets chanted. “Education Sets You Free.” 

By the time the noon rally began, Spoul Plaza was packed with bodies and signs. 

Ishmael Ramirez, one of 34 custodians laid off by campus officials last week, said “We are here to fight the wave of justifications used to cut off our jobs for no reason.” 

Thanking the students for their support for his co-workers, he offered his in turn for their fight against fee increases. 

“We are at a moment of near breakdown, and no one is saying the way out will be without pain,” said Professor of Modern Art T. J. Clark. 

Percy Hintzen, African American Studies professor, said he first came to Berkeley “as the beneficiary of campaigns just like this.” 

“This is not the preserve of white, powerful rich men,” he said. “When it was the preserve of these people, the university was free, and anyone who was rich and powerful with ‘C’ grades came here to play polo. 

“They used this university to become the richest people in the world, and when they became rich, they began figuring out ways to make this university their preserve again.” 

Claudette Begin of the Coalition of University Employees (CUE), an independent union representing clerical workers throughout the UC system, said her union has been in bargaining with the university for a year and a half. 

“They threaten our people all over the place and they are scared,” she said. 

“We’ve had 69 people laid off here and at the Office of the President, and they tell us this is only the start ... they’re going to outsource.” 

After the rally, protesters set off on a march through downtown Berkeley, intending to head down University Avenue. Instead, police funneled the throng back onto Bancroft Way. 



The day ended with an organizing session that began indoors at the Cesar E. Chavez Student Center, where participants had planned to break into groups to discuss specific issues. 

With only a half-hour available indoors, most of that time was spent arguing format and location, with a minority urging the rest to head for Memorial Glade, from whence they could be heard—they insisted—by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who they said was meeting with million-dollar donors at that very moment. 

But the majority voted to head to Lower Sproul, where they divided into groups in the open air to discuss where next to take their emerging movement. 

Given a deadline, participants formed a series of circles, sitting on the pavement around an expanse of paper, felt pen at hand, where they began drawing up their proposals of areas and plans for future action. 

When time expired, the groups gathered their papers and headed to Wheeler Hall, where, one-by-one, representatives of each group presented their ideas to the assembly. 

Then, with word that campus police were arriving outside the hall, the outer doors were closed by participants, with an organizer explaining, “I don’t necessarily like police intimidation.” 

The idea of a statewide conference “of everybody who’s affected” by the hikes and cuts emerged from the first group to take the stage. The date of October 24 was proposed by another group. 

In the end, the assembled particpants called for a statewide Oct. 24 conference in Berkeley on the plight of all public education throughout California, the date being a month after Thursday’s rally. At press time yesterday, this was still in the planning stage. 

Many other ideas were floated, including: 

• An unannounced sit-in at Bancroft Library. 

• A campus-wide petition to gather signatures for a call for more funding, to be sent to state legislators. 

• Creation of a website for the “Free Education Movement.” 

• Talking with and organizing parents. 

• Hunger strikes. 

• Phone campaigns. 

• Occupations of buildings. 

Moments after the issue of occupations had been raised by one of the groups, it was announced that students had occupied the Graduate Student Commons building at UC Santa Cruz. 

Applause and cheers followed, with a drum beat accompaniment. 

But when a speaker called for an immediate occupation of Wheeler Hall, the mood grew tense. “Let’s not be subversive here,” said one of the organizers.