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Occupation, Investigation Mark First Week of UC Protests

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 08:38:00 AM
Native Americans staged a small protest of their own as UC students occupied Wheeler Hall Nov. 20.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Native Americans staged a small protest of their own as UC students occupied Wheeler Hall Nov. 20.

UC Berkeley students were preparing to stage a candlelight vigil at Wheeler Hall Tuesday night as the Daily Planet went to press, and may take over the building once again next week to protest the 32 percent tuition hike. But this time, they say, it will be an “open occupation.” 

UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that although students had talked about an open occupation at a Monday meeting, “no one really knew what they meant by that.” 

A group of UC Berkeley students marched to UC President Mark Yudof’s office in Oakland Monday and staged a sit-in, demanding to meet with him. 

The students went to Yudof’s office after learning at Alameda County Superior Court that burglary charges against three Wheeler Hall occupiers had been reduced to misdemeanors. 

Mogulof confirmed there were students in Yudof’s office “who were engaged in peaceful conversation with officials there.” 

He said Yudof was not present at the office. 

An employee at the UC Office of the President, who answered the phone around 5 p.m. Monday, but refused to give his name, said the office had received internal reports that some students had come into the lobby and staged a protest there.  

He said that Peter King, who is in charge of media relations for the office, had gone down to the lobby to talk to them and that employees were being asked to use alternative exits because of the protesters.  

King could not be reached immediately for comment. 

UC Chancellor Robert Bir-geneau issued a statement Monday saying that an independent review panel consisting of students, faculty members and staff would investigate the allegations of police brutality at Friday’s protest. Several students have charged that police used excessive force during the protests outside Wheeler Hall, sometimes beating individuals with batons and firing rubber bullets.  

One girl had her finger broken by a baton and another student complained that the police simultaneously struck him with a baton and fired a rubber bullet at him.  

“We truly regret the incidents that brought physical and emotional injury to members of our community,” Birgeneau said. “UCPD has already begun conducting conducting an operational review that entails collection of all the available information including reports, videos and pictures taken by UCPD, students, the public, and media, to ensure that actions were reasonable given the situation presented and the information known at the time. This includes a review of uses of force.”  

Mogulof, who was off work due to a furlough Nov. 20 and thus did not witness the police action first-hand, said he had seen some very disturbing video images from the protest. 

He said that three separate agencies—UCPD, Berkeley Police and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office—had responded to the scene. 

“I can’t speak for other agencies, but generally police are not authorized to use excessive force without doing a comprehensive assessment of what the risks are,” he said. “Obviously UCPD does carry weapons, and as police officers they are trained to use them, keeping in mind the safety and security of students.” 

When asked whether the Wheeler Hall occupation had helped in getting the message across to the UC Board of Regents, who approved the 32 percent tuition increase at a meeting on the UCLA campus Nov. 19, Mogulof replied, “Of course the administration is paying attention.” 

“There is a sense that this kind of action doesn’t advance the cause, but there is the desire to find common ground,” Mogulof said. “One thing that unites everyone is that they want to save the university. There’s a feeling we have got the message, but what does that actually do to address the underlying crisis?” 

Questions have been raised in the editorial pages of local and national media about whether the strikes and occupations across the 10-campus university system against the fee hike should be directed at Sacramento, which allots state funding for public education, instead of the regents. 

“You can’t overlook the fact that some of the students feel that the actions taken by the regents were not the correct decisions,” Mogulof said. “I spoke with some students who are just frustrated with the whole thing ... There were about one or two thousand students protesting around Wheeler Hall while there was another 32,000–33,000 that were not. They just wanted to go to class but couldn’t because of the protests. Nobody has a problem with protest as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.” 

UC Berkeley professor of planning Matt Kondolf, who joined the protests for a bit during the day, said that “although the chancellor is correct that the protest really belongs in Sacramento against the absurd cuts to the state’s higher education system, it was good that there was some peaceful expression of opposition to the obscene increase in fees.” 


The occupation 

A cold rain did not deter hundreds of UC Berkeley students Friday, Nov. 20, as they surrounded the campus’ Wheeler Hall in support of 40 protesters who occupied the building to demonstrate against the fee hike.  

UC Berkeley police entered the building in the 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 and later charged with misdemeanors. 

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.  

“Shame on you! shame on you!” the crowd chanted. “Books not batons! Books not batons!” 

Some students urged the crowd to remain peaceful, and faculty members at one point emerged from Wheeler Hall to inform 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.  

Throughout the day police made futile attempts to move students further away from Wheeler Hall. 

UC Berkeley student 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.”  

According to UC Berkeley sophmore student Kritika Thukral, the occupation was planned following a Thursday night 6 p.m. general assembly, at subcommittee meetings at various undisclosed locations.  

A spokesperson for the occupiers who spoke on condition of anonymity said they 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.  

The occupiers rejected the offer.  

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

Students set off multiple 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 protester about the occupants’ release during the afternoon.  

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.” 

Wagner said that although she wasn’t sure of the group’s tactics to fight the budget cuts, she was present to show support. 

UC Berkeley professor of Sociology Andrew Barlow, who was part of the faculty negotiating team, told the Planet around 8 p.m. Friday that the occupiers inside Wheeler Hall would be cited and released one by one. 

Barlow said that police officers had used a key to enter the occupied space. He said that an 11-member faculty team had met with the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs right after the police entered the second floor.  

“We were negotiating to end this day peacefully,” Barlow said. “The students are being cited for a misdemeanor of trespassing. They are not being taken to jail. They can come out and be with their friends.” 

At the end of the day the occupiers’ demands—ranging from a repeal of the 32 percent fee hike to reinstatement of all 38 laid-off UC Berkeley custodians to negotiation of leases for Bear’s Lair food court vendors who have been asked to pay double their current rent—were not met by campus administration, but that did not deter their spirit. 

“I’ll still say this was a huge success,” Barlow said. “It’s a beginning of a new student movement.” 

He said that the day-long negotiation had made it harder for the students to come out of the building earlier.  

All 40 occupiers were released from Wheeler Hall a little after 9 p.m. to cheers and applause from the crowd which surrounded the building.  

As the first three students left, escorted by police, the crowd clapped and shouted out their names.  

Fred, the father of one of the student occupiers who didn’t want to give his last name because he feared retribution for his daughter, praised the protesters.  

“My daughter is still in the building and I am very proud of her,” he said. “I am very proud of all of you.” 

Fred told the Daily Planet that his daughter had called him in the middle of the night and told him that “they were occupying the building.”  

“I said ‘good luck and be as safe as possible,’” he said. “And I told her I will be here.” 

He said he had been waiting outside Wheeler all day long, worrying “how the police will treat her.”  

“She gave me updates until her cell phone ran out of batteries,” he said. “She sounded anxious but very energized.”  

As more students came out, their friends hugged and kissed them, patting them on the back.  

“It’s so good to be back with all of you,” one girl said. “We were cited for trespassing and released ... That’s all.”  

The group requested media cameramen to respect their privacy, and invited everyone to a later meeting in front of Dwinelle Hall.  

UC Berkeley Political Science senior Adam Astan, who was in the crowd outside the hall, recounted how Alameda County police had hit him with a baton. He said he had also been shot with a rubber bullet, pulling up his t-shirt to show his injuries.  

“I was crying out ‘peace, peace’ and they suddenly hit me,” Astan said.  

He said he had seen one of the police batons fly out and hit a girl on the face. Another girl who showed up at the meeting later underwent reconstructive surgery after having her finger smashed by a stray baton.  

As the occupiers huddled under a tree outside Wheeler around 9 p.m, they thanked the crowd.  

“What we did in there doesn’t compare to what you did out here,” said one of the occupiers, who wouldn’t give her name to the press, as the crowd roared. “What you did out here blew what we did away. Whatever you did today, don’t stop doing it. It got people out of this building.”  

Some of the young women said they had been very scared all along since they didn’t know what to expect.  

“We know about the sacrifices you made, we know you put your bodies on the line,” one of them said. “We need to keep going.”  


Raymond Barglow contributed to this story.