Student, staff, and community demonstrators kicked off a fall season of budget cut and fee increase protest at the UC Berkeley campus on Thursday, September 22, 2011, with a modest but spirited noontime rally, followed by a march through campus and occupation of classrooms.
At day’s end some of the group was gathered, watched by campus police, in part of Tolman Hall, the sprawling Education / Psychology building in the northwest corner of the campus along Hearst Avenue.
I watched part of the Sproul Plaza demonstration and march that fell during my lunch hour. An array of speakers focused on placing the campus protests in the context of national efforts to stop budget cuts, protect labor rights, and reverse growing economic inequality in the United States.
I arrived when Professor of Geography Dick Walker was speaking. “This is not a pay for play institution”, he told the crowd. “It is a public institution.”
“If high administrators and high faculty don’t think their salaries are good enough, let them go somewhere else”, he said, drawing some of the loudest applause of the mid-day. “We have to restore our public purpose.”
“This is a political question. It is not going to be solved by a technical fix. It ‘s not going to be solved by a political fix.”
“You are absolutely the moral compass of this institution”, he told the crowd, that appeared to be largely students. “It’s always been the students who have led the way. You have to do it again.”
“Defend the great idea of public education”, Walker concluded.
There were perhaps 300-400 people who were part of the rally or were standing on the fringes watching. Sign-carrying protestors formed a line across the Savio Steps in front of Sproul Hall. “Stop the war on students and workers”, “Chop from the top”, “It’s easier to buy a gun than to pay for my education”, “Say No to ‘Cost Effective’,” and “Dare to struggle, Don’t be afraid,” read some of the hand-lettered signs.
UC Police watched from the edges of Sproul Plaza, but stayed back from the steps. One woman in the crowd showed me a blue and gold card police officers had been handing out; it promulgated a series of protest rules, ranging from “Free expression is encouraged but must not, interfere with the University operation, teaching and other’s rights to expression and may not damage/impede University property”, to “People may not…climb on or rappel from University buildings or trees…” to “Do not grab, rattle, lean on, move or otherwise disturb physical barricades or barricade tape.”
“Physical resistance and assaultive behavior will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted”, the card warned.
“These protests are not the problem. They are the beginning of the solution”, said the next rally speaker, a Kaiser nurse, who tied the campus demonstrations in with local labor struggles; nurses were out on strike at East Bay hospitals the same day.
“The UC system was built on a fundamental principle of access to higher education regardless of income”, he said. “Like Kaiser, this institution seems to have lost its core values.”
“The message you have at UC Berkeley is you are not alone.” “You must be steadfast in your determination to organized.” “You are engaged in a struggle which is a nationwide attack on workers from the Right”, he concluded.
“Your cause is righteous.”
“What we’re facing right now in the UC campus is a systemic issue”, said undergraduate Gabriel Cortez. “I want to keep the excitement going, this excitement for community solidarity on the UC campus.”
He read a poem around the theme of protest. “Protest like you can’t call in sick…Protest like that Cal Dining T-shirt isn’t a fashion statement…protest like you’re willing to shatter your apathy and use the splinters for picket signs…”
“Protest like this is your birthday song…”
Another speaker called out to the passing students who eddied around the ragged back edge of the crowd. “All you people walking by, if you think that a lucrative career is going to save you from paying almost $30,000 a year for a public education…”
“This is a problem that we hold in common,” said a woman who was introducing speakers. “We’re under attack by a single entity, that is wealth for wealth’s sake.”
Molly Noble, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, told the crowd about the protests that grew in that state as a Republican governor and legislature cut budgets and labor rights. “This is a moment that teaches everyone”, she said. “This is your school, and this is our country. We have the power to decide.”
The final speaker, student Andrea Barrera, said, “I am here on my own behalf to say I’ve had enough of the fee increases, layoffs, departmental cuts…” “It is clear that the people who are in control (of the University) now have no idea what they are doing. We should take control.”
Some of the sign-carriers on the steps had signs indicating they were from San Francisco State University. As the last speakers were talking, a new group filed across the back of the steps. Numbering about fifteen, they had cloths or scarves tied around their faces.
They all carried vertical signs similar in shape to police officer riot shields, colorfully emblazoned with book titles, from “Limits to Capital” and James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”, to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”, and Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man”.
As the march through campus got underway, this group formed a tight line across the front of the crowd. This was a new tactic; usually campus protest marches are led with a cloth or paper banner carried by two people. This march front made a fairly effective simulacrum of an advancing police line; people ahead stepped aside, because the “shields” were held edge to edge, forming a near solid wall.
The march went north through Sather Gate and Dwinelle Plaza, pausing briefly in front of California Hall, with police officers in ones and threes flanking it. The marchers turned down between California Hall and Moffitt Undergraduate Library and I turned back.
I did not count the numbers of marchers, but the group was smaller than the crowd at Sproul Plaza, probably under 200 individuals.
Later in the afternoon some of the demonstrators occupied classrooms at Tolman Hall. Tolman is one of the two academic buildings closest to the residence of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.
The Daily Californian website has been providing a running account of events there on its live blog .
As of about 8:00 pm on Thursday night the blog reported one incident of police using pepper spray, and one protester arrested.
According to the Daily Cal:
“As Tolman Hall's closing time -- 9:00 p.m. -- drew closer, protesters decided to leave the building. Around the closing time, scuffles occurred between the UCPD officers and protesters outside and inside the building. A protester was arrested inside the building and carried away by his arms and legs.”
The protest is expected to resume at 10:00 this morning.