Will Berkeley's Occupy Cal Save the World?

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday November 16, 2011 - 09:40:00 AM

Carol Denney, a frequent contributor to these pages, is fond of saying that the reason the Free Speech Movement took place at the University of California at Berkeley was NOT because free speech flourished on this campus. Quite the contrary: it’s been the tradition at Cal, going way back in pre-history before I was an undergraduate, for arrogant administrators to try to keep the lid on student speech. It could be described as a form of hubris (a ten-dollar word I learned in Cal’s English department): “we’re the top …students are damn lucky to be here…so they should shut up and drive.”

At the University of Michigan, another school I had the opportunity to observe in the 1960s after I graduated from Cal, the bosses took the opposite tack. By and large, they ignored student protests, so there were never any major riots on the part of either students or police. Eventually the more radical students got bored, founded first SDS and then the Weathermen, and went off to tear up Chicago instead, which was much more satisfying—and now like Bill Ayres they’re almost all professors somewhere or other.

But at Cal, as we called it back in the day before the name of the town was appropriated by the university’s PR department, decision-makers have always provided satisfying opposition to student action which has historically stimulated more student action. And the current crop of well-paid administrators is keeping up the tradition. Lots and lots of them, including Chancellor Birgeneau ($428,712.84) who okayed the police action last Wednesday where heads were bashed and stomachs jabbed with batons, are firmly part of the richest 1%, and they have no qualms about asserting their power over impecunious and mouthy students because of it. 

The new availability of on-line video might possibly change that. The whole world has watched last week’s police misconduct at UC on YouTube, linked by many publications including this one. Even the Faculty Senate, sometimes slow off the dime, has taken up the inquiry into the use of excessive force, according to Professor Brad DeLong’s blog

The next few days will reveal whether today’s administrators have learned anything from the past or will be condemned to repeat it. I wouldn’t take any bets that they will do the smart thing. 

Meanwhile, the Occupy encampments in Oakland and New York City have been busted. Loyalists are regrouping, with and without tents and with or without the benefit of judicial support for their right to be in their chosen locations. This might be a good time to examine the value of the various forms of protest which have been employed. 

Few, even its detractors, would argue that Occupy Wall Street was anything but brilliant. In a flash (well, a delayed flash in the ponderous national quasi-liberal media like NYT and NPR) everyone was made aware of the real causes of the problems besetting America’s underwater citizens: rampant speculation followed by shameless profiteering in the financial sector. The reason it worked so well, to appropriate a real estate industry cliché: Location, Location, Location. 

Many copycat Occupys, including those in Oakland and downtown Berkeley, muddied the message a bit. The protestors showed that they were good liberals at heart, people who believe in the power of government to solve problems, by settling down in locations that symbolized government power rather than corporate hegemony. 

Oakland’s city government should be the very last place for protesters to look for help with the ongoing financial tsunami, since it’s threatened with going under along with its citizens. In Oakland, the captains of industry, the malefactors of great wealth, have just about left the building. Occupy Piedmont would be a more appropriate symbolic site for Oaklanders. 

Unlike some, I actually believe that Mayor Jean Quan is telling the truth when she expresses sympathy for the small-time merchants who have been harmed by the Occupy encampment—she’s not just squeezing out crocodile tears to aid her political position. As she’s fond of saying, her parents ran a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant, so she knows about hard work for little pay, and the risks to family survival which small businesses near Oakland City Hall have faced from the Occupy settlement. The nascent movement will not benefit from harming people like this. 

Downtown Berkeley is a joke—the 1%-ers around here live discreetly in the hills and seldom venture downtown. Around here, the giant octopus that threatens to devour the town and its residents, especially in West Berkeley and Strawberry Canyon, is the University of California—firmly part of the 1% if you look at administrative salaries and most regents’ more-than-enormous net worth. Our city electeds and the managers who run them are certainly guilty of tap-dancing to UC’s tune at every opportunity, so the little settlement in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park is not all that inappropriate, but participants now seem to be gravitating toward the on-campus action. 

The Cal campus is ideal for occupation. As noted above, the people in charge can be counted on to make embarrassing mistakes which will bring major publicity. As of this writing all is Gemütlichkeit on Sproul steps, but sooner or later someone will slip up. 

Yesterday’s noon rally was a love fest for young and old. The minute I arrived my buddies in Grandmothers Against the War hung one of their big signs around my neck, and for the rest of the event enthusiastic young people insisted that we pose for their cell phone photos. And even better photo ops abounded—you will see some of the products here. 

Everyone did what they do best as a show of support. There was a terrific gospel/jazz group, seemingly students and their professor, who led the participants in song. 

Later, an impromptu assemblage of a beat-up trumpet, a power megaphone used as a kazoo (didn’t know you could do that) and some improvised percussion instruments accompanied splashy dancing by what appeared to be an art class. When the trumpeter belted out “hava nagila” and the dancers segued into a sort of hora, George Lakoff, who was standing next to me, quipped “Occupy Hillel?” For a moment, I thought he might be right, because some of the artists were working under a structure woven from branches that looked like a sukka, but then I realized that it’s November already and Sukkot (the traditional Jewish harvest festival where such structures are featured) has come and gone. 

The good vibes can’t go on forever. It’s serious business they’re about, these students, for all their charm and enthusiasm. One particularly good set of posters I saw featured individual regents and administrators with documentation of their copious links to corporate riches. 

Central to all the injustices created by the unfair distribution of wealth in this country is the privatization of public goods, and the University of California is the poster child for that abuse. More and more of its funding comes from sources who expect to profit from participation, whose goal is not education of the young but enrichment of the old. See, for example, U.C. Berkeley’s deal with BP, the company formerly known as British Petroleum, amply reported on by the Planet. 

Today’s students will inherit the earth, whether they want to or not. At Cal, they’re in a uniquely good position to make sure that it’s the right kind of world. Seeing the outpouring of support for Occupy Cal could convince me that they just might make a go of it. 

P.S. You can catch the Planet's report of the action on yesterday's Rachel Maddow Show.