Spirit of Resistance at UC Berkeley: Students Protest Tuition Hike, Cuts, Layoffs
We received the following correspondence from Berkeley:
Rage broke out on Nov. 20 at UC Berkeley against the UC Regents’ decision to approve a 32% fee hike for undergrad students and other huge budget cuts and layoffs. Students boldly took over Wheeler Hall at 6 a.m. Wheeler Hall is one of Cal’s largest buildings and it is centrally located near Sproul Plaza, so when the takeover happened, thousands quickly knew about it. Hundreds flocked in support, growing to thousands throughout the day.
This defiant occupation electrified UC. All classes were cancelled at Wheeler, affecting almost 4,000 students. This drastic fee hike will add $2,500 to undergrad fees by next fall, making student fees over $10,000/year for the first time. Adding room, board and books costing about $16,000/year, these hikes will force many students out of the university.
The students demanded a repeal of the 32% hike, the reinstatement of 38 fired custodians, the firing of UC President Mark Yudof and that there be no legal punishment when the occupation ended.
A spirit of resistance and upheaval was in the air. Wheeler is a huge building with seven different entrances. The doors to Wheeler were bolted shut, with the occupying students on the first floor. But when the authorities forced their way through the doors, the students fled upstairs to a 2nd floor classroom where they addressed the crowds outside.
Students inside spoke out the window with a bullhorn and accused the police of “coming in swinging” and using pepper spray. Hundreds of students outside pressed up against metal barricades erected by the police to keep people away from the building. Skirmishes and clashes with the police broke out during the day as the police viciously beat people with their batons, often charging at people who stood in front of the barricades.
Many students accused the police of using unnecessary force. UC police and Berkeley police wore riot gear, carried batons and rubber bullet rifles. One woman said the police broke her hand as she was holding onto a barricade and the police struck her with a baton. A young woman was hit in the face between her eyebrows by a baton. The TV news interviewed a student who had a large red welt on his stomach where he had been shot by a rubber bullet after being punched by a baton. One student described seeing a woman get hit on the head causing a big gash, and another got trampled by police pushing the metal barricades onto students.
During the day, thousands of people came out in the often cold and heavy rain to join the protest and to support the occupation. People were angry at the police beatings and their intimidating show of force. For many students this was their first demonstration. Some said it looked like a police state. There was shock at seeing the police deliberately hurt students who were protesting peacefully. Fire alarms were pulled at four different buildings, emptying classrooms. This was a day of no business as usual.
The students occupying Wheeler spoke to the crowds outside from a 2nd floor window throughout the day. A banner hung from the window saying, “32 Percent Hike, 900 layoffs,” with the word “Class” crossed out in red. People threw food and water to those inside.
At a rally outside the building, students denounced the fee hikes. Native Americans who were commemorating the 40th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz came and spoke, drawing the links between the UC occupation and the resistance of Native Americans. A Revolution Club youth addressed the crowd.
The 12-hour occupation ended when the Alameda County Sheriff’s SWAT team took the locked doors off their hinges and started arresting the 41 occupiers for misdemeanor trespassing. The students were cited and released, and were greeted by wild cheers and chants from the crowd of 2,000 outside. Three others were arrested for felony burglary, allegedly for moving furniture inside the hall to use for the barricade. The protesters have to appear in court to face their charges on Monday, Nov. 23. After the occupation ended, the SWAT team stood guard in front of Wheeler Hall in a show of force meant to intimidate people.
UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff have been protesting the fee hikes and budget cuts for months. The Friday occupation was planned to escalate protests if the Regents approved the fee hikes. It was part of a three-day strike that included rallies, marches, and a garbage dump-in at California Hall, the administration’s main building. Some students left UC Berkeley on Thursday, November 19 to join the protests at UCLA at the Regents Meeting where 14 students were arrested and two tasered.
The university claims these hikes are necessary because of a $535 million budget gap due to reduced state funding.
UC students at other campuses also protested: 30-50 students at UCLA took over Campbell Hall on Thursday and more than 50 were arrested at UC Davis. UC Santa Cruz students occupied Kerr Hall, the home of the administration.
In the midst of the struggle, there were many animated discussions and debates with students as readers of Revolution distributed a flyer from the editorial in issue #170, ”The Revolution We Need…and the Leadership We Have.”
There was a strong sense among many students that the struggle around education is connected to much deeper issues. Several students saw the similarities between the violence of the baton-wielding cops at Cal and the photos in the special issue of Revolution of police beating up a Black man and the victims of American warplanes in Iraq. “Yeah, for a long time I really didn’t think democracy was real in this country but I never really considered it a dictatorship based on rule by force. But when you really think about it, it is a dictatorship.”
One woman said, “It’s so weird how you see thousands of students, workers, and faculty demonstrating against the cuts and fee increases while a tiny handful of guys protected by hundreds of cops have the power to make the decisions that count.” Another agreed that the fee increases were directly connected to much bigger issues — people losing their homes and jobs from the economic meltdown and even the war, “Obama is talking about sending in thousands of troops to kill more people in Afghanistan. He’s not talking about cuts. It’s fucked.”
The anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz was announced by Native Americans which also highlighted some of these connections for students. One student said that it was so refreshing to hear someone call the U.S. “monstrous.” While there was an openness in the charged atmosphere and a sense among many that it would take some kind of revolution to really change things, a number of people said that it was hard to imagine that it was possible. Several said that communism had been tried and failed, though a number of students pointed out that they definitely thought it would be a good idea if people could live cooperatively in a society that took care of people’s needs. One student took a small bundle of flyers and a paper to show some of his friends and said he wanted to discuss it further. “I’m so glad you’re raising this. I never thought people were talking seriously about this in this country. We do need a revolution.”
Questions came up about whether revolution is possible since this system has existed for many years and it seems too difficult to change it. Others had questions about the socialist experience and whether some group would come to power and then rule in the same way as the system that was overthrown. Others were for revolution, but had never heard of the newspaper or our leader, Bob Avakian.
One student said, “Yes, I do agree that the media lies about almost everything, but then why did communism fail where it was tried?” He said he had heard an announcement in his class about the symposium on the Cultural Revolution, but he didn’t make it and said that he had never before heard that socialist revolution was truly liberating. He was intrigued that Bob Avakian, a former student at Cal himself, had gone deeply into the achievements, but also the shortcomings of socialism and how much this had to do with both making and continuing the revolution to communism. He gave his name, got the paper, and said that he would come to the bookstore and get into it further.