Occupy Oakland Protests Regroup at Berkeley

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Max Whittaker / Getty Images

University of California, Berkeley, students set up tents on Nov. 15, 2011, after a general assembly voted to again occupy campus as part of an "open university" strike in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement

A day after tents were razed by police in downtown Oakland, they popped up again at the University of California, Berkeley, campus, a symbol of defiance in the escalating row between students and school administrators over soaring tuition fees. And despite heavy pressure from authorities to pack it up, they've only multiplied. More than 5,000 people — including scores of Oakland protesters — endorsed the camp at a massive nighttime rally on Nov. 15. Cooler heads have prevailed so far, but the stage is set for another potential confrontation with police in the East Bay as the Occupy movement grinds on. "This is a continuum of what's going on [in Oakland], with a common thread: distrust of the power structure," says Darren Fisher, 28, a grad student who has been active on both fronts.

The resurgence in Berkeley is a shot in the arm for Occupy movements across the country. The breakup of Occupy Wall Street on Nov. 15 was accompanied by similar actions in Seattle and at an ancillary camp in San Francisco, on the heels of other raids in Portland, Oregon, Salt Lake City, Denver and Oakland. Authorities cited concerns about sanitation, drugs and crime to justify police actions. But in Berkeley, heavy-handed police conduct (recorded by an abundance of cameras) appears to have backfired, much as it did in Oakland on Oct. 25 when an Iraq-war veteran was seriously injured by police. Last week, police used batons to disband a student rally against tuition hikes and budget cuts. Video of the incident went viral on the Internet, galvanizing sympathy for the campaign.

Indeed, the Nov. 15 rally stretched from the columns of Sproul Hall, a touchstone of the Free Speech Movement, to rooftops surrounding the plaza out front. Students stood shoulder to shoulder with nostalgic veterans of the 1960s-era protests, and counterparts from Oakland, many of whom had marched about five miles from the cleared City Hall plaza to show their support. "You can raid a camp but not a movement," says Luke, 22, a displaced Oakland camper, moments before a speech by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich calling on students to take a moral stand against the hyperwealthy. The rally culminated in a vote on whether to set up tents in defiance of a university order; it passed unanimously.

"This is overpowering for me; it's a movement I helped start," says Bradford Cleaveland, 80, a longtime activist and former graduate student who offered encouragement to students. He shared a black-and-white picture of him on the steps of Sproul Hall next to Mario Savio, the late student leader famous for his "put your bodies upon the gears" address, to establish his bona fides. "It's the same, but better, because it's more difficult to do this kind of thing now — there's so much fear."

Early on Nov. 16, student traffic hummed past about 20 tents that had lasted the night amid a small forest of signage, including a giant red dinosaur affixed with a sign that read "Regent-o-saurus Rex: Stop tyranny, police brutality, devouring education." Another poster juxtaposed a quote from university chancellor Robert Birgeneau with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists in a human chain. (Birgeneau had initially disparaged students for linking arms against the police, calling it "not nonviolent civil disobedience"; he later backtracked and said the officers' actions had been "unworthy of us as a university community.") Small clusters of police surveyed the scene at a distance, save for the moment every hour or so when an officer with a megaphone would walk up to the steps and read a short message ordering the students to shut down. Jeers ensued.

In the afternoon, busloads of Berkeley protesters traveled across the bay to San Francisco to converge with other Northern California students for a march through the financial district. Dozens surged into a branch of Bank of America, denouncing the University of California regents for being numb to the inequity of a state education system that fewer and fewer can afford. A tent was pitched indoors, and police in riot helmets had to drag protesters away one at a time amid chants of "Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!" (In Long Beach, the California State University Board approved a 9% systemwide hike, sparking a violent clash that sent one officer to the hospital.)

Among those who stayed behind in Berkeley to hold the encampment were many transplants from the defunct Oakland camp. Julion, 22, an unemployed Oaklander, shifted to Berkeley with his large "Occupy Oakland" sign and was planning to stick around until his group decided its next move. "Cal is book smart. Oakland is street smart. We gotta combine the two," he says. "There's no such thing as a Berkeley movement and the Oakland movement. It's really one and the same," agrees Anthony Wright, 29, pointing out how many Berkeley students had come downtown for the Nov. 2 general strike. Some Berkeley students, however, assert that while it's a shared struggle, this is their fight to lead.

"We're thankful for the support, but this is not Occupy Oakland. It's Occupy Cal," says William, 22, a history major hanging out on a couch in a Great Gatsby T-shirt. He was in class last week watching a film on Hungary's 1956 revolt against Soviet rule when he heard screams from the police raid on the campers outside his window, an incident that moved him to "try and connect what is going on in class to what is happening in the world." But he insists he's for dialogue, that he's not a radical or anticapitalist, just against school fees that have jumped fourfold since his first year. He's also worried about the debt burden and the dismal job market he'll soon enter. "It's unprecedented, and un-American," he says. "We deserve better."