U.C. Berkeley building takeover ends peacefully
on November 21, 2009
An all-day sit-in at U.C. Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall ended peacefully this evening, as protesters who had occupied the second floor of the central campus building were escorted out by police officers and faculty observers.
The students left the building in small groups to join cheering crowds of supporters outside. The occupiers were charged with misdemeanor trespassing and will be tried in county court on December 23.
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 in a meeting between faculty, ASUC representatives, and the administration.
“They will be released to the group, they will not go to the county lockup,” Levine said while protesters waited for the occupiers to come out of Wheeler. “There are no preconditions for the release. The crowd does not have to disperse.”
UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau issued a statement late Friday evening in which he condemned the occupation. “Taking over our classroom buildings is not a productive way in which to advance our shared interests in gaining support for public higher education,” his statement read.
The building takeover Friday was the culmination of three days of campus demonstrations against new undergraduate fees approved yesterday by the University of California’s Board of Regents. (Check out our detailed look at the numbers.) Over the course of the day, the crowd of students and supporters outside Wheeler grew as word of the protest quickly spread via text messages, email, and cell phone call.
“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.”
Several hundred students assembled on the west side of the occupied building in the morning, many locking arms as they shouted at people to honor their picket line. 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. Drums and chanting provided a constant backdrop, quieting only for announcements from the protesters locked inside or for organizers giving instruction about how to deal with police, where more bodies were needed, and the current status of the people inside.
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. The rain did inspire a new chant: “Rain, rain go away, we’re taking back our school today.”
Fire alarms, allegedly pulled by protesters, disrupted classes in Tolman, Barrows and Dwinelle Halls in the mid-morning. 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 up with 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.”
Bola was not alone among UC Berkeley students in his disagreement with the protesters methods. One senior biology student who broke through a picket line on the west side of Wheeler said protesters were taking something very complicated and reducing it to simplistic demands. “All of this is empty posturing,” said the student, who declined to give his name.
Protesters dispersed to the four corners of the building around 2pm and seemed to be more clear about their purpose: to keep the police from extracting the occupiers against their will. 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.
Though for the most part the protests remained peaceful, there were moments of rough behavior between the police and the protesters. When a line of about eight Alameda County Sheriffs broke through a human chain to get into Wheeler Hall at one point, they shoved aside protesters who attempted to block their way. No one was seriously hurt.
Later, Oakland North reporter Lillian Mongeau saw a UC Berkeley junior, who had been part of the human chain outside the building, get 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, and though he sported a large, black and blue mark on his stomach, he did not appear to be grievously injured.
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.”
Upon their release occupiers were hesitant to speak to the press about the specifics of the occupation, having been advised by their lawyer to decline comment for now on those matters. They did gather outside Wheeler Hall and took turns on a bullhorn addressing the crowd—thanking them, urging them to further action in the future, and leading them in rousing chants of, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people and the power of the people don’t stop!”
“Sometimes when you’re in the middle of history and you can’t appreciate is until it’s been 30 or 40 years down the road,” said Anthony Prince, a civil rights attorney. “Let me say, as someone with a few gray hairs, there is a sense of history here tonight.”
The following reporters also contributed information to this report: Jake Schoneker, Mario Furloni and Thomas Gorman.