United States: Photo essay -- Students occupy Berkeley university building to protest fee hikes

Story and photos by David Bacon

Berkeley, California -- November 20, 2009 -- Students occupied Wheeler Hall on the University of California campus in Berkeley, protesting against a decision by university regents to raise tuition fees by 32%, bringing them to US$10,302 per year for undergraduates.

At the beginning of the occupation the students made several demands, including the reinstatement of 38 laid-off custodial workers, and amnesty for protesting students.

The hall was surrounded by hundreds of supporting students, faculty members, campus workers and community members. The day before the occupation, two university unions -- the University Professional and Technical Employees and the Coalition of University Employees -- together with students and members of campus faculty mounted a campus-wide strike.

After a day of occupation, students voluntarily left the building, and were cited for misdemeanor trespass. On other University of California campuses, including at Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and Davis, students also occupied buildings and in some cases were arrested. Puck Lo, a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and one of those occupying Wheeler Hall, told the LA Times that the protests were taking place during a period in which students also had to study for coming final exams. "This strike is really inconvenient", she said. "But this seems the honourable thing to do for future students."

[For more articles and images by David Bacon, see http://dbacon.igc.org. See also Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants  (Beacon Press, 2008). Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008, http://www.beacon.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=2002, and the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006), http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/cup_detail.taf?ti_id=4575. See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004), http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/9989.html.]

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Staff and students strike at UC campuses

Ian Steinman, Melissa Cornelius and James Illingworth from University of California Santa Cruz report on a three-day strike in the UC system that begins today -- and a library occupation at Santa Cruz that forced administrators to back down.

November 18, 2009 -- Socialist Worker -- A three-day strike and protest by students, staff and faculty will begin today at campuses in the University of California system against a proposed 32 per cent fee hike for students and continuing attacks on campus unions.

Members of the University Professional and Technical Employees union at UC schools are timing their second strike of the semester -- this time, a two-day walkout -- to stand with the broader movement against cuts and fee hikes, and to demand a fair contract for members.

Meanwhile, students, staff and faculty across the state will be taking action in solidarity with a mass protest planned against the UC Regents meeting at UCLA--the demonstrators hope to prevent the meeting from imposing the outrageous increases.

These actions were planned at the 800-strong October 24 conference at UC Berkeley, where activists from UC campuses, the California State University system, community colleges and pre-K through 12th grade public education voted for a statewide strike and day of action on March 4 to defend public education.

Although this week's strike is centered in the UC system, activists from San Francisco State and the City College of San Francisco, as well as other campuses, have planned solidarity events. The California Faculty Association is also planning an action at CSU-Long Beach to oppose cuts.

On the eve of these protests, around 250 students took over the Science and Engineering Library at UC Santa Cruz on the evening of November 13. The 24-hour "study-in" to protest restricted library hours was the largest building occupation yet in the growing movement to defend public education.

Due to the ongoing budget crisis, the library on campus was scheduled to close at 5 pm on Friday and remain closed all day Saturday, denying students the opportunity to study in the run-up to final exams. In protest, activists organised an inspiring example of mass action and democratic decision making, and successfully kept the library open until Saturday evening.

The library sit-in emerged from a period of feverish student activism against the budget cuts. On September 24, the first day of classes at UC Santa Cruz, hundreds of students and workers took part in a statewide strike and walkout against the furloughs and pay cuts imposed on faculty and staff.

That same day, a group of about 20 students occupied the Graduate Student Commons on campus and remained barricaded inside for a week. A couple weeks later, another group of activists organised a second building occupation, although this action lasted just a few hours. Hundreds of students, faculty and staff have taken part in general assembly meetings in recent weeks to discuss the way forward for the movement.

The library occupation at Santa Cruz was inspired by an action at UC Berkeley in October, in which more than 100 students took over a campus library to protest reduced opening hours.

The Berkeley action took place at a time when the two building occupations at Santa Cruz had raised some important questions for activists: Should our actions have specific demands? Are "militant" tactics such as occupations and sit-ins the only way to build the movement? How can we reach beyond the committed core of activists and bring new people into action? Should we organise in secret, or be as open as possible?

The study-in seems to have answered many of these questions. Students had been planning and publicising the event for several weeks, and had managed to create a buzz on campus. By November 13, almost 900 people had responded to the event's Facebook page, and thousands more had seen flyers posted on campus. Plus, by choosing the Science and Engineering Library, the organisers attempted to reach out to a section of the campus population -- science students -- who had previously not been very active in the movement. Finally, organisers gave the event a clear and achievable goal -- keeping the library open so that students could use it to study.

Throughout the action, students were democratic and inclusive. By contrast, campus authorities tried everything in their power to prevent the event from happening--including lies, broken promises, threats and intimidation.

On the day of the study-in, dozens of students began to gather at the library entrance some two hours before its scheduled closing time. To their surprise, university authorities demanded that everyone entering the building after 3 pm would have to hand over their ID. This raised concerns about potential administrative repression, given that some student activists are already facing disciplinary procedures related to previous actions on campus. The group as a whole decided to reject this condition for entering the library.

After more than an hour of tense discussions between activists and administrators, an agreement emerged. People entering the library would show their IDs and sign a list of names to be maintained in the joint custody of a librarian and a student activist. The list would be handed over to students and destroyed once they left the library.

As closing time approached, dozens of students crowded into the library entrance, waiting for the administration to sign a statement formalizing the agreement. At the last minute, campus authorities went back on their word and stated that a copy of the list would remain with the head librarian, thus threatening student activists with future reprisals.

When the growing crowd of students heard about the administration's behaviour, the response was unanimous. The whole body of 150 students marched into the library, chanting "Whose university? Our university!" and "Whose books? Our books!". More students poured in behind them, bringing the total number in the library to more than 200. The campus authorities looked on helplessly.

A second confrontation began a couple hours later. The administration locked the library doors, preventing students who had left to get food from re-entering the building. Students on the inside immediately called an emergency assembly, and more than 100 signaled their willingness to engage in direct action to open the doors. A heated exchange followed in which the administration refused to open the doors unless all students left at midnight -- even though it had already acknowledged the action would continue until 5 pm the next day.

Faced with a demonstration of student resolve, however, the administration gave in and accepted a proposal in which the students as a whole would decide whether or not to stay overnight. Amid cheers, chants and an infectious feeling of triumph, the doors were unlocked and another wave of 50 students poured in. Soon, 300 students were occupying the library, and the administration was forced to concede defeat. The study-in continued through to the next day, as originally planned.

Crucially, many of those who participated were working-class students who genuinely wanted to use the library to study for coursework and final exams. These people represent new forces being drawn into the movement for the first time.

The action was successful not only in achieving its stated objectives, but more importantly in mobilising and radicalising a broad new layer of students. It brought together the more radical wing of the movement and a large group of students who were new to activism, and represented a meaningful escalation of the political consciousness of the student body.

By meeting students where they were willing to go, both in action and politics, and then involving them in confrontations with the administration from which they emerged morally and practically victorious, the occupation pointed the way forward for future actions at UC Santa Cruz.

What you can do

Many of the week's activities are listed on the UC Solidarity web site. Students, staff, faculty and instructors in the UC system can sign a petition showing their support for the strike. For more on the October 24 organising conference at UC Berkeley and the call for a March 4 strike and day of action for UC campuses, the California State University system, community colleges and pre-K through 12th grade public education, see the California Campaign to Save Public Education web site.

[Socialist Worker is the newspaper of the US International Socialist Organization.]


Struggle heats up in California

November 20, 2009 -- Socialist Worker -- Todd Chretien reports on protests at UCLA and campuses across the University of California system during three days of strikes and actions by students and staff.

Nearly 2000 students from University of California campuses -- including Berkeley, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Irvine and San Diego -- converged on UCLA's campus November 19 to confront the UC Board of Regents as it voted to increase tuition by 32 per cent next school year.

Several hundred students surrounded the Regents' meeting, chanting, "UC Regents, I see racists!" and "Lay off Yudof," referring to UC President Mark Yudof. Workers and students disrupted the meeting, and 14 people were arrested, as large numbers of police lined up to defend the regents.

California Highway Patrol officers were even brought on campus for crowd control. Three Black students were reportedly Tasered in altercations with campus police.

After the regents voted for the fee hike, students held a die-in, blocking the busy intersection of Wilshire and Westwood for several minutes. But protests began earlier in the day, even before the sun came up, when around 30 students occupied Campbell Hall with a banner reading, "In solidarity with university occupations everywhere."

The action came in the middle of a three-day system-wide protest, anchored around a strike by members of the University Professional and Technical Employees union at UCLA and UC Berkeley, which was supported by Coalition of University Employees union members and others.

On November 18, around 500 students, faculty and staff blockaded the main entrances to UC Santa Cruz, and more than 150 students occupied Kresge Town Hall in solidarity with the actions in LA. On November 19, more than 250 occupied the Clark Kerr administration building.

At UC Berkeley, two busloads of students from the UC Davis campus joined over 2000 Berkeley students, staff and faculty at a rally and march to send off a bus caravan to join the protests at UCLA. Later in the day, some 200 students occupied a building at UC Davis, and police were threatening mass arrests late November 19 night.

At Berkeley, in an ominous development, police have charged a student for "incitement to riot", which could be a felony charge -- and they moved aggressively to break up an attempted occupation of the Engineering Library. Police also threatened students with arrest if they erected a tent city in historic Sproul Plaza, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement during the 1960s.

The police even shut down a planned teach-in in the Bear's Lair, a campus café -- on the grounds that the students were not authorized to use the cafeteria for the purposes of an educational event.

In response, students on the strike planning committee have issued an emergency call for a rally and march to the UC police department on November 20 to oppose police intimidation.

Action also spread beyond the UCs, as around 100 students at San Francisco State University occupied the administration building for the afternoon, disrupting campus business. Nearby, more than 500 students at City College of San Francisco marched through the campus before confronting the vice chancellor to demand that the administration support the call for a March 4 statewide strike to defend public education.

The regents' vote is certainly a defeat for the movement to defend public education. But the statewide response shows that the movement is growing--and points to a large mobilisation for the March 4 statewide strike and day of action to defend public education.