Wheeler Hall standoff ends, students out to cheers
on November 20, 2009
The final version of this article was published in a separate post and can be found here. — L. Mongeau, Dec. 1, 2009
Updated 9:30 PM
Oakland North reporters at and inside Wheeler Hall are also reporting this story on Twitter: @northoaklandnow.
An all-day sit-in at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall was ending peacefully this evening, as protesters who had occupied the second floor of the central campus building began emerging in small groups to join cheering crowds of supporters outside.
The fourteen-hour demonstration, which began before dawn this morning as a protest against the UC Regents’ decision yesterday to raise undergraduate student fees by more than 30 percent next year, had escalated over the afternoon, as Alameda County Sheriff deputies arrived on campus in riot gear and set up metal barricades outside the building. At approximately 5 p.m., law enforcement officers broke through a human chain of protesters and entered Wheeler, where protesters had been communicating from high widows with the enthusiastic crowds gathered below. A UC spokesman confirmed that the 40 protesters inside the building were being charged with misdemeanors and would be released.
Gregory Levine, an art history professor, who was among the 10 faculty members involved in negotiations with 40 protesters in Wheeler Hall, said the terms of release had been determined.
“They will be released to the group, they will not go to the county lockup,” Levine said. “There are no preconditions for the release. The crowd does not have to disperse.”
Three people were arrested earlier today in the protest, and observers reported seeing students struck by police with batons at one confrontational point, as tensions rose around Wheeler. An Oakland North reporter saw a UC Berkeley junior, who had been part of the human chain outside the building, being shot in the stomach with what appeared to be a rubber bullet that was fired by a police officer as the student approached a metal barricade the officers were trying to set in place. The student was attended to quickly by friends did not appear to be injured.
Earlier in the afternoon, the protesters occupying the building had rejected offers of “partial amnesty” that would have allowed them to be released with citations, rather than arrests. Professor George Lakoff, who had participated in negotiations, had said the protesters can “come out, no handcuffs, no arrests, just a misdemeanor equivalent to jaywalking” if they would voluntarily leave the building.
For several hours, the protesters had responded with chants of “Hell, no, we won’t go!” and promised not to leave until their demands were met.
Throughout the day, they had articulated several demands, including the rehiring of janitors who were dismissed during budget cuts, and amnesty for the three arrested as well as all the protesters inside the building. UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau reported that the persons arrested this morning were two students and one non-student.
The building takeover, an extension of the last three days’ campus demonstrations against new undergraduate fees approved yesterday by the University of California’s Board of Regents, began when the protesting students entered Wheeler at 6:00 this morning. Over the course of the day, the crowd of students and supporters outside Wheeler grew as word of the protest quickly spread. Several hundred students assembled on the west side of the large central campus classroom and auditorium building, many locking arms as they shouted at people to honor their picket line. Drums and chanting provided a constant backdrop this morning to the student and faculty protests, quieting briefly on occasion for announcements from the protesters locked inside.
Protesters outside Wheeler dispersed to the four corners of the building, and no one was able to pass through their picket lines. Police erected metal gates in front of Wheeler to prevent more protesters from entering the building. Some protesters outside threw food — bananas, bagels, sandwiches — up to the protesters on the second floor.
Students with bandanas over their faces periodically leaned out of Wheeler’s second floor with bullhorns, shouting updates on what they described as the police effort to take out the door to the room in which they are locked. Chants included “Rain, rain go away, we’re taking back our school today.”
During the first half of the day it began to rain, fiercely at times, but because protesters had apparently been texting friends to bring umbrellas and plastic sheets, most people outside were covered.
“I got a text from one of my friends who said they had shut down Wheeler Hall. At this point, people are saying it’s overdone but I don’t think it’s overdone at all,” Zienab Abdelgany, a 19-year-sophomore, said earlier this morning. Referring to yesterday’s meeting of the Board of Regents in L.A. she said, “It was an outright rejection of humanity to see a sea of students in front of your building and then to completely disregard them as they tell you we won’t put up with this.”
By mid-afternoon the protest was escalating, as Alameda County sheriffs arrived on scene in riot gear. Student and faculty negotiators were later sent inside as well.
In addition to the Wheeler Hall takeover, protesters at one point planned to blockade the Free Speech Cafe. Fire alarms disrupted classes in Tolman, Barrows and Dwinelle Halls on the Berkeley campus. Djajiijo Bola, a 23-year-old human physiology major from the Bay Area, said his biochemistry class in Dwinelle with Professor David Zusman ended when the fire alarm went off. He questioned the efficacy of the protests.
“I’m not sure what the alternatives are to [President Mark] Yudof’s plan,” Bola said. “It’s almost like complaining without coming to a solution to the complaining. If there’s no alternative to the status quo presented, it just seems like complaining. It reminds me of what I used to do as a child.”
The UC Berkeley protests, like those on many other UC campuses this week, are a response to fee increases of 32 percent next year for undergraduates. The university’s regents approved the increases at a meeting in Los Angeles yesterday, citing deep cuts in state funding for the ten-campus system this year. The higher fees, which are to be phased in over the spring and fall 2010 semesters, will raise undergraduate yearly tuition to $10,302 by next fall.
The increases, which regents and campus officials have argued are their only option in the face of diminished funding, come even as budget cuts cause some course and class section offerings to be eliminated even thought they may be graduation requirements for students in certain majors. This has left some students faced with the prospect of an additional semester or year of enrollment just as tuition rises sharply.
“This is an outrage,” Allan Creighton, a public health lecturer who was outside this morning’s Wheeler demonstration, said of the fee increases. “Easily one third of my students will not be able to come back next year.”
Oakland North reporter Puck Lo, who like other staff writers for the site is a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, participated in the protest inside Wheeler Hall.
Oakland North’s Becky Palmstrom, Jake Schonecker and Lauren Callahan have contributed reporting to this story.
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