on September 24, 2009
A helicopter whirs and circles overhead. The din of chants, shouts and screams echo all the way up Telegraph and, as I get nearer, I can see energy ripple through the gathering crowd like ripples in a bowl of water. Signs and banners wave and bob with the undulation of some 5000 people. Everything is in the Technicolor of the midday sun and accompanied by yelling, drums and occasional rounds of protest songs.
Overhead the sky is a perfect blinding blue and the protesters turn their faces to it; fresh-faced, vibrant and impassioned. Most of them have a red cloth tied at their throat or around an arm or a leg, marking their solidarity with each other. I hesitate for a moment at the university entrance. There are many reasons why I don’t have to be here. I am lucky enough to have a scholarship that will mop up the 32 percent tuition fee increase this year. I am an international student, who has never paid taxes to California and who cannot vote to overturn or change the way the state of California balances its budget. I am an aspiring journalist, whose very profession, some say, rests on objectivity. But I could not imagine not being at Sproul’s plaza today.
I arrived in the US five weeks ago and before that I was living in Burma. It’s hard to see what Burma and Berkeley could possibly have in common; except perhaps a similar blinding blue sky. The one is a Southeast Asian country that has lived under a military regime since 1962 and the other is, at least in reputation, a liberal university town in one of the wealthiest places, not just in the US, but in the world. A friend of mine in Rangoon used to speak quietly about the protests of his student-days. He led some of the marches in 1988, climbing onto cars or bins and cupping his hands round his mouth to carry his voice further. His speeches were mostly spontaneous – in a country where political activism is illegal they could rarely be any other way. The students of Burma were struggling to make ends meet – the government had demonetarized some of the currency, making people’s savings worthless and day-to-day life even harder than before. The universities were a microcosm of the rest of the state and the country. People began to demand change, to demand the right to protest, to vote and to speak freely.
My friend told me how he would stand alone or with a small group of fellow students, calling to passers-by to come join them in asking for democracy. Crowds would gather and grow and march, until the police started shooting. In one incident, the army confronted the students on the shores of a lake in the north of the city. They held many of the students under the water until they drowned and the water turned red with their blood. My friend was arrested for asking for democracy. He spent ten years in jail, as did thousands of others. In 2007, protesters blocked the traffic of one of the main streets in Rangoon, much as the activists did this afternoon on Shattuck Avenue, when they all sat down on the tarmac to chant. In Rangoon, the monks led people in prayer and song as the protesters sat on the road, staring into the faces of the army, who shouted warnings from loudspeakers, before they began shooting into the crowd.
One cannot conflate histories, or cultures or moments; but the fact that I can stand in solidarity with other UC students and staff to illustrate my displeasure at budget cuts is emotional. The experience cannot be disengaged from my friends in Rangoon, where a protest like the one seen this afternoon would be prosecuted by jail or death.
Back on campus, I watch the seething mass of colors and noise that engulfs the individual protester and moulds them into the larger writhing body of the cause. People jam together: sweaty, sun-burnt, tired, but still shouting, as the rally makes its way past the department buildings. As we pass over the confines of campus and spill into the traffic of down-town Berkeley, shrieks erupt and horns blast in sympathy.
Protests, like journalists, do not always come up with answers, but hopefully they invite questions. In this case: How can California manage its budget so as to ensure public education continues to receive adequate funding?
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