Demonstrations come and go on the UC Berkeley campus. They’re sometimes amusing, periodically profound, occasionally irritating. For half a century they’ve been a fixture of Sproul Plaza and have become so commonplace that most don’t attract extensive attention.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011, was different primarily in that the Berkeley College Republicans re-discovered, as student groups periodically do, a key to attracting mainstream media attention. Do something controversial in public.
This is the conundrum of campus—and, truth be told, community—life in a place like Berkeley. However strong your cause, however well you can articulate its arguments, it’s likely that most of the press won’t pay much attention unless there’s a simplistic message and enticing background visuals.
But if you make some emphatic declaration, and are fortunate enough to have someone yell at you in return, well, then the cameras swarm. In a way, today the Berkeley College Republicans had their own “Code Pink” statement.
When I arrived at work early this morning there were already three or four TV news vans parked near Sproul Hall, and a number of cameramen roaming in search of a filmable moment that would make 5 or 15 seconds worth of superficial sense on TV.
Mid-morning, when I took a break from work, I walked through Sproul Plaza. The College Republicans had established their first table, southwest of the Savio Steps, but decided to relocate it to the north end of the Plaza closer to Sather Gate. Table, signs, and a big blue plastic container, presumably containing the baked goods, were lugged across the plaza. The cameras and reporters spotted a target and circled.
There were about 15 individuals who appeared to be part of the College Republicans around the table at that point, nearly outnumbered by the media. A few UC Police observed from the lawn terraces adjacent to Sproul Hall.
The students set up their tables and started putting up signs. An arc of camera people eagerly taking pictures of each new sign as it appeared faced them. A few curious students stopped to watch, but it was still largely a demonstrators and media event. (Tip to a couple of the Berkeley College Republicans. If you are going to protest being unfairly typecast as WASPy white males, it might be best to leave the Ralph Lauren, monogrammed shirts, and blue blazer at home when demonstrating.)
Late in the morning, as I left the office for a lunch meeting, things were much more yeasty. There was now a solid donut of spectators and arguers around the pastry sale table, and plenty of other people nearby, some talking, some watching, some with signs of their own.
There were at least four counter-demonstrations going on. The first—and perhaps most expected—appeared to be a contingent from the Revolutionary Communist Party, an organization that shows up on campus handing out literature and glomming on to larger protests as the opportunity permits, but doesn’t seem to attract much real student attention.
An older demonstrator thrust into my hand a postcard with some of the sayings of Bob Avakian, the party Chairman. Oh, yes. Warmed over Maoism will solve all the World’s problems. Not even the Communist Chinese leadership believes that these days.
The other counter demonstrations appeared to involve actual Cal students, creatively reacting to the student Republicans, and were much more interesting.
First, there were students giving out free pastry in a sort of subversive bake non-sale. The contrast between their offerings and the College Republican pastry was marked. The Republican cupcakes looked like rejects from the Safeway birthday bakery section—imperfectly but heavily frosted, in bright, garish, colors.
The counter demonstrators were handing out pieces of more organic-looking muffins, cakes, and bread. There was one free tray of something that looked an awful lot like the illegitimate offspring of a bran muffin and a hockey puck. It wasn’t getting too many takers, despite the apparent sympathizers and the friendly distributors.
Second, several individuals held plastic hoops, labeled with signs. One read “Hurdle: Poverty! Jump through hoop before claiming discount baked goods.” A second read “Obstacle: Prejudice and Stereotypes” with the same subtext, and the third said “Obstacle: Underfunded Schools. Jump through hoop…”
Next, a couple of costumed men complete with an inflated dragon and capes hoisted signs advertising “magical baked goods”, “Increase Hogwarts Diversity”, and “Socio-Magical Justice Now”.
Although the silliest in appearance, this was perhaps the most trenchant counter-commentary. In the “Harry Potter” novels, revolt is raised by a group of magicians who want to install authoritarian order and bring back the Good Old Days—much as if today’s Tea Partiers were suddenly gifted with both superhuman powers and an evil leader intent on world domination. The bad magicians attempt to subjugating intelligent non-humans, expel those who aren’t “pure blood” from the best schools, and revere the rich. Starting to sound familiar?
The Harry Potter demonstrators had their own bake sale price list, one-upping the College Republicans satire, in Harry Potter terminology and currency. “Pure Bloods” could buy baked goods for 2 galleons, while the cost for lesser “Half-Bloods” was cheaper. “Squibs” (those unfortunate enough to be born into magical families, but without powers of their own) and “Muggles” (non-magical humans) had low prices, and at the bottom of the list were “Berkeley College Republicans” who got “5 sickles off” for their purchases.
My earlier distaste at the manufactured demonstration circus softened a bit during the few minutes I watched both the creative counter demonstrations and the overall panorama. There was a lot of reasonable talking going on. I didn’t hear too many raised voices, and college-age people were stopping to look and discuss. Even across the bake sale table itself there was actual conversation, not simply posturing and shouting.
Being away at work, and at a lunchtime meeting, I missed the mid-day demonstration (which you can read about on the websites noted below). When I came back by in the afternoon on a break, for a brief look, the largest crowds and the “breaking news!” helicopters had departed.
Someone or group had put up a signboard wall near the College Republican table, inviting individuals to add their thoughts as “Free Anonymous Speech”.
“Welcome to reality”, one person had scrawled. “I disagree with your opinion but I’m not going to call you a racist,” another wrote. “I hate loud protesters (this is much better)”. “Only The Love is Real” was carefully lettered next to a much larger scrawl, ‘Shut the F-ck Up!” “Taxation = Theft” was countered with “The greatest privilege is not having to THINK about your privilege.”
On the back of the boards someone had written, “Liberals take over buildings = heroes.” “BCR sells cookies = affront to freedom everywhere!!” “BCR = racists” and “Ignorance is Bliss” were nearby.
Individuals were now more confrontational than the morning. Instead of cross talk there was back talk, and harangues had started to replace exposition. Overall, though, the event was subsiding. By late afternoon, most of the crowd had faded away, and the College Republicans had packed up their tables.
Locally, extensive coverage of the day’s events can be found at the Daily Californian website:
The Berkeleyside website had additional photos and descriptions of the noontime events.
Official University coverage of the day is here: