On Wednesday, November 9th, Berkeley undergraduate Margaret Zhou was one of roughly 500 students to link arms around the Occupy Cal encampment as the police vowed to take the tents down. The student activists were beaten with batons, and shoved to the ground when they refused to break the link. After the police tore down the tents, the demonstrators, including students and community members from Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco, crowded onto the steps of Sproul Hall, still refusing to leave, where they were again beaten and told to disperse. Finally, after hours of holding their ground, the crowd was allowed to stay on the steps and hold a general assembly, during which they decided their next steps. A proposal to organize a state-wide strike of higher education that will take place on Tuesday, November 15th, won with a 95 percent consensus. It was also decided that general assembly meetings would take place daily on the Sproul steps at 6:00pm, with the hopes of building and sustaining an Occupy Cal movement. The next day, Chancellor Birgeneau sent a mass email to UC Berkeley faculty and students titled “Letter to Campus Community.” In her response to the letter below, Margaret explains the reasoning behind the Occupy Cal movement and the greater movement for public education in California.
Dear Chancellor Birgeneau,
As a Berkeley student and one of the protestors who peacefully demonstrated on Sproul Plaza on November 9, I am deeply offended by your "Message to Campus Community." Students and professors, not only on this campus but across the UC system, note how you shift the blame for Wednesday night’s violence away from your inability to fulfill your role as Chancellor and onto the students who were standing up for the social value of a right to public education, and for all their peers for whom they wish to secure this right.
You and the UC Regents have a responsibility to lobby the State of California on our behalf, to secure state funding for what should be a public university. You have many ways of doing this–from supporting progressive tax policies to opposing the policies that have created an overcrowded prison system that takes so much funding away from public education. There are so many factors that have led to the disaster in public education in California, and there are so many fronts for you to fight on, but we see you fighting on none of them. We see you agreeing to the cuts, and trying to find other private methods of raising money. This is not what we stand for, so there is no exaggeration in saying that you are not representing our interests. Because we did not elect you or the Regents, this so-called "public university" is actually a private and un-democratic one.
In your message, you discuss our wanting to make an encampment as if that was all we wanted out of the university, as if that was our end goal we wanted to achieve from the protests. You skillfully construct that narrative and claim that we have disobeyed your one and only request that we not use tents, making our efforts seem antagonistic and childish. In reality, we would not be putting up tents if the State gave us more funding, and if you and the Regents lobbied state government do so. You are putting the blame for last night’s violence on us, and shifting the attention away from your own failure to stand up for our rights, your failure to fulfill his responsibility as Chancellor, and the State’s failure to prioritize the social good of public education.
You also make some remarks about the protestors who were arrested that are deeply hypocritical. You write that you and the University honor the fact that these people were engaging in "non-violent struggle" (which in fact was violent, though not on their part, because many of those who were arrested were beaten by police first before being handcuffed). If you and the University truly honored these people, you would honor their requests that you and the Regents DO SOMETHING for them. These people are not asking to be arrested, they are asking the people in power to change the system of indebtedness and inequality that put public education at the bottom. And we are saying to you, to the Regents, and to the State, that if you don’t do that for us, we will do everything in our power to do it for ourselves. Looking at the state we are in now, you clearly have no reason to be in your current position of power anymore.
Your final, most insulting remark, is that you ask the Occupy Cal movement to consider the best interests of the larger campus community, those who didn’t participate in the protests. This makes it seem as if the protestors, again, were just engaging child’s play for their own amusement. We protestors are standing up for the larger campus community more you ever have. We put our bodies on the line; there were times we really feared for our lives (the cops were holding guns with rubber bullets and there were rumors of tear gas). We didn’t do it for fun, or just for ourselves. We did it so that students who are with us and those come after us will have the opportunity to public education without a future of indebtedness, for the fundamental right to education in our society. If we don’t fight for the public education system which is so quickly being dismantled in front of our eyes, it will be gone before we know it, and all forms of learning in this state will be once and for all privatized. This is our greatest fear, and this is what we fight against. We don’t fight against the cops, or the order not to build encampments. Even though that order has no legality behind it and violated our constitutional right to freedom of assembly, in the end that isn’t our greatest concern.
The students of the 1960s who fought for our right to free speech at a time when that right was being dismantled, and the students of the 1980s who erected shantytowns on Sproul to get the university to divest from South African apartheid are our inspiration–they fought for the general student bodies of successive generations. It is to them that we, not only Berkeley students but students across the world who are receiving public education, owe so many of the rights we have now. It is once again time for us to uphold those rights and make sure that all the struggles of the past were not won in vain. WE are the university.
UC Berkeley Third Year Student
Comparative Literature Major,
Global Poverty and Practice Minor