Flash: 5:30 p.m.: Standoff Continues at Wheeler Hall

By Riya Bhattacharjee and Raymond Barglow
Friday November 20, 2009 - 05:36:00 PM
Riya Bhattacharjee
Alameda County's Sheriff's Department keep watch over Wheeler Hall.
Alameda County's Sheriff's Department keep watch over Wheeler Hall.
One of the occupiers read out the group's demands to the regents during Friday's standoff
Riya Bhattacharjee
One of the occupiers read out the group's demands to the regents during Friday's standoff

A cold rain did not deter thousands of UC Berkeley students this afternoon as they surrounded the campus’ Wheeler Hall in support of 35 protesters who have occupied the building since this morning in demonstration against the University of California’s 32 percent tuition fee hike.  

As of 4:30 p.m., the students were still negotiating with campus officials, having outlined at least five demands:  

• Repeal of the 32 percent fee hike. 

• Amnesty for all the students occupying Wheeler Hall.  

• Amnesty for three students arrested during the occupation.  

• Negotiation of leases for Bear’s Lair food court vendors who have been asked to pay double their current rent. 

• Reinstatement of all 38 laid-off UC Berkeley custodians.  

UC Berkeley police entered the building earlier this morning and took control of the first floor as the protesters moved to the second floor. Three students who did not make it to the second floor were arrested by UC police.  

UC and Berkeley police later put up barricades around the building and cordoned off much of the area with yellow tape. Students and police clashed near Sather Gate as the crowd surged toward the barricades and police used batons to fight them off.  

Some students urged the crowd to remain peaceful, and faculty members at one point emerged from Wheeler Hall to inform that the crowd that the dean of students was in touch with UC Berkeley police and had guaranteed there would be no violence.  

The Alameda County Sheriff's Department arrived in riot gear in the early afternoon and surrounded the hall.  

Student leaders outside the building urged the crowd not to rush the students inside the hall, but to give them time to negotiate.  

According to student leaders, the occupation was planned after a Thursday night 6 p.m. general assembly, at subcommittee meetings at various locations.  

The protesters gathered at Wheeler Hall at 5 a.m. Friday and entered the building at 6 a.m.  

At 9:30 this morning, students surrounded Wheeler Hall and linked arms, hoping to prevent protesters from being taken from the building and arrested.  

Chancellor Birgeneau declared Wheeler Hall closed until further notice and the main path through the campus was blocked where it passes the building.  

Earlier this morning, police tried to move students further from Wheeler Hall. Lauren Cartwright told the Daily Planet that when she refused to move back, police grabbed her. Other students held on to her and police relented, released her, and backed off a few feet.  

Pegah Zardoos, an undergraduate who is on the board of Cal Berkeley Democrats, said she was “shocked and appalled by the police actions ...” 

Business undergraduates Astrid Fernandes and Ameetah Mishna came to Wheeler Hall but could not get to their class. They then joined the protest and walked in the picket line.  

“This occupation is a way, the only way, to get attention to what is going on,” Fernandes said.  

Emily Ng, a graduate student in anthropology, joined the protest with two of her friends. “This is a public institution, after all,” Ng said. “We are taught to forget that we can affect the institutions in which we partake.”  

A spokesperson for the occupants who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the occupiers were given an offer that they could either be “charged with misdemeanors and may leave the building without being arrested, then meet with the chancellor and other UC administrators to negotiate their demands” or they could be arrested and charged with a felony. 

As of 5:30 p.m., the occupiers had rejected the offer. Several faculty members were trying to arrange direct negotiations between the occupiers and UC administration. 

Protest leaders asked supporters to remain outside Wheeler Hall, saying that without witnesses they feared police would begin arresting the occupiers.  

Students set off fire alarms at a number of buildings on campus throughout the day, with at least 14 fire alarms going off at Dwinelle Hall, which is right across from Wheeler. 

Dean of Student Affairs Jonathan Poullard was negotiating with a student protestor about the occupants’ release around 4 p.m. 

Poullard told the student that although the occupiers would be cited and released, he wasn’t sure what the final charges would be against them. 

“There’s a due process for student conduct,” Poullard said. “There can be suspension, there is the possibility of expulsion ... we don’t know that yet.” 

Poullard appeared to be talking to UCPD and Berkeley police officers to bring the situation under control. 

“What about negotiation?” asked a student leader. 

“You can’t negotiate with 500 people,” Poullard answered. 

Anne Wagner, a professor of art history at UC Berkeley, said that she came to the protest to make sure no drastic steps were taken against the students. 

“Students at UCLA were tasered and pepper-sprayed yesterday,” she said. “That’s why I am here. That’s why a bunch of faculty members are here, to make sure things don’t go against the students.”