They Won't Back Down
Tuesday, as police were shutting down the New York City headquarters of the protesters who sparked the now-global “Occupy” movement, on the other side of the country, thousands of students at the University of California at Berkeley came out with a vengeance after some were beaten during a confrontation with campus police last week, in which 39 were arrested as officers tried to block a campsite from forming.
Video of campus police hitting protesting students with batons and gripping them by the hair went viral last week, prompting as many as 3,000 students, faculty and staff (numbers vary depending whom you ask) to turn out for Tuesday’s daylong “strike,” which included a walk-out, various teach-ins, a rally and a march downtown. The protests at Berkeley did not result in the police clashes of last week. The students emphasized their commitment to civil disobedience, and with the exception of officers shooting and arresting a person spotted with a gun far from the protest, things went pretty smoothly.
Things started off with the regularly scheduled “Day of Action,” a series of teach-ins on topics ranging from the "defunding of higher education" to diversity in colleges to the Occupy movement itself. Students urged professors to hold classes outside at Sproul Plaza, and many obliged, with professors reportedly escorting classes of up to 700.
About 30 minutes into an afternoon rally and march through the city, shots were fired in a third-floor computer lab of the university’s business school, while the protesters made their way downtown. The building was evacuated, and after a brief scare, the university confirmed that police had shot a person spotted with a weapon, and said students were not in danger. Once the details were out, the focus of the Twitter streams largely shifted back to the protest underway. University officials later said the shooting appeared to be unrelated to the protest.
But students also had a rally later in the day at which they specifically protested what they called police brutality. Joined by supporters from local high schools and those who marched to Berkeley from Occupy Oakland – another group that clashed with police and whose members were evicted and/or arrested this week from their city-hall area headquarters – the group continued to grow as the day wore on, marching downtown before returning to campus to hold a general meeting. While they planned to recreate an encampment on university grounds, the chancellor warned them in a press conference that a long-term camp-out would not be allowed.
While last week’s film of police allegedly breaking students’ ribs when they wouldn’t unlink their arms to make way for the officers to clear out the area undoubtedly propelled the Cal occupation into the national spotlight, some worried that the message of the events would get lost in the furor over last week’s incident.
“I think that the police brutality has definitely taken a toll,” said Andrew Albright, a junior at Berkeley who is also a senator for the student government. But, while Tuesday’s activities did address that to an extent, he said, they were really about shifting the attention back to the task at hand: stopping the privatization of public higher education.
“At the end of the day, the big issue is that over the past 10 years, our student fees have been raised by over 300 percent, and the state has continually divested in higher education,” Albright said. “The campus has kind of taken on this role of the number-one campus out in front of those Occupy movements. I think that we are in a unique position here.”
Last week’s incident sparked a handful of petitions condemning the police’s actions. Some are calling for the resignation of top-level administrators who apparently authorized police presence, including Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau. He upset many protesters when, after protesters said linking arms to block police but not attacking officers was nonviolent civil disobedience, he said linking arms was “not nonviolence." (Birgeneau was actually in Asia when Wednesday’s events transpired, and said he didn’t see the video until he returned. Saying in a statement that he doesn't condone excessive violence but not explicitly calling what transpired brutality, the chancellor has also promised an internal review of the officers’ conduct and said the university will grant amnesty to any students who were arrested for being disobedient. A handful of protesters have announced they will sue the university and multiple officers anyway.)
Thousands of students from the various system campuses had planned to attend meetings today and tomorrow of the University of California Board of Regents, but the board on Monday announced it would postpone the meeting because of security concerns. While the board said it had heard that “rogue elements intent on violence and confrontation with UC public safety officers” were apparently planning to infiltrate and endanger the Occupy protesters, many on the Berkeley campus viewed the cancelation as a cop-out meant to silence the students. (Among Tuesday’s chants: “UC regents, rich and rude – we don’t like your attitude!”) Buses that were scheduled to take students from several UC campuses to the meeting will now go to the State Capitol in Sacramento instead. Students also said they plan to congregate in San Francisco, at the corporate offices of the UC trustees, and at a Cal State University Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach, where the board will consider proposed fee increases for the upcoming academic year.
One petition written by three faculty members and signed by more than 2,000 expressed no confidence in either the regents or the “willingness of the chancellor, and other leaders of the UC Berkeley administration, to respond appropriately to student protests, to secure student welfare, and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.” It stopped short, however, of calling for any administrators’ resignations.
Wendy Brown, co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, a group that mobilizes faculty to act on anti-privatization issues, said it was unusual for the BFA to formally support the student strike that took place Tuesday. But for this, it made an exception.
“In this case, not only did we feel that the anti-privatization effort was reaching a real sort of watershed moment, but we were also responding to the police violence last week on campus. And it’s hard to keep those two separate,” said Brown, a professor of political science who joined students at Sproul Plaza on Tuesday. “The irony is that the police violence was terrible, and the irony is the police violence has galvanized the movement. The question now is, will the movement be able to keep its focus on keeping the University of California a public institution ... and not get derailed by encounters with the cops?”
Even Stanford University students declared their support for their peers at Berkeley – the week before the “Big Game” between the two football teams. (Still, one Berkeley protester reportedly carried a sign that read, “Beat Stanford, not students!”)