A tale of two protests


They were the best of times, they were the worst of times at UC Berkeley. Like any other typical days, these two began with students sleepily strolling through Sproul, dodging endless obstacles of suit-clad solicitors, sanctimonious eccentrics and agitated activists. However, these two days were by no means typical. Rather, they were of the special sort for our campus, where the Plaza transforms into a circus so entertaining it can give Barnum & Bailey a run for their money. These were protest days.

Two demonstrations have occurred on our campus in the past two weeks — the Sept. 22 “Day of Action” for higher education and the “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” against affirmative action on Sept. 27. While protests at Berkeley may be as frequent and forgettable as bombings under the Obama administration, I believe these two in particular highlight a shameful hypocrisy in our campus’s tolerance for freedom of expression.

Indeed, upon comparing the two protests, Berkeley’s honor as the home of the Free Speech Movement seems more like an anachronism than a relevant title today.

While the red-bandanaed radicals of the “Day of Action” and the cleancut conservatives of the “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” may at first seem unsuitable for comparison, the two protests started quite similarly.

Both were organized in opposition to a contentious political proposal — the first, to the UC Regents’ possible 81 percent tuition increase and the second to California Senate Bill 185’s easing of affirmative action restrictions — and began nonviolently on Sproul Plaza. However, by the end of the day, the former would culminate in a bloody clash with police, including a building occupation and two arrests, while the latter would end in a peaceful sellout of delicious sweets. Yet, which of the two has been administratively condemned as offensive, received threats of violence and jeopardized a club’s funding? Shockingly, it is the sugary sellout, not the savage showdown.

Certainly the Berkeley College Republicans’ bake sale broached a touchier subject than boring budget cuts, and its discriminatory pricing — which was not actually enforced — was rightfully viewed as unfair.

However, such arousal of anger was exactly its aim: to demonstrate how affirmative action, in the organizers’ opinions, unjustifiably judges applicants more by “the color of their skin” than “the content of their character.” So what if Chancellor Birgeneau deemed the event “hurtful” and “offensive?” That was precisely its point — to elicit emotion and subsequently dialogue. Considering the national media attention the sale drew, it seems undeniable that it achieved both goals. Contrarily, the aim of the gang of protesters who occupied Tolman Hall on Sept. 22 was precisely the opposite: to silence dialogue by disrupting classes, trespassing and vandalizing. But somehow, the former protest was more offensive than the latter?

While I’m on the topic of offense, I’d like to list a few times during my three years at Cal that I’ve been hurt.

I was offended on Nov. 20, 2009, when a fringe group of the higher education movement occupied Wheeler Hall, restricting my access to learning. I was offended on Nov. 22, 2010, when a similar group went on a vandalizing rampage, needlessly wasting student funds to clean up the detritus they left behind. But worst of all, I am offended that the administration gives these lawbreaking villains a pass while picking on peaceful students making a political point through a legally compliant bake sale. I think this difference in treatment can only be explained by ideology.

In 1971, professor John Searle of the philosophy department published a book called “The Campus War” reflecting on the widespread student movements of the 1960s. At the end of his chapter on academic freedom, Searle warned of a rising “radical intolerance” following the Free Speech Movement, where “the right to dissent” is reserved only for “a set of approved left-wing views,” while any others “that departed from the orthodox” are chilled by the tyranny of the majority.

Unfortunately, it looks as if Searle’s prediction has manifested itself at Cal, with speech deviating from the political norm, like the bake sale, receiving threats of violence, administrative condemnation and possible defunding. While these channels of disapproval may not constitute a legal breach of free speech per se, they nevertheless take a form of backdoor censorship that is hypocritical to any institution dedicated to the free flow of ideas, let alone the home of the Free Speech Movement.

Returning to my Dickensian opening, we find ourselves in both “an age of wisdom” of championing free speech and “an age of foolishness” of chilling opinions we disagree with.

So which will it be, UC Berkeley?

Allow for the wisdom of open dialogue to flourish or succumb to the foolishness of subtle censorship?

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  • In 1980 when I arrived at Cal, there was no longer a Berkeley College Republicans organization.  Young Republicans at Berkeley had been driven underground by the campus lurch to the left of the late 60’s and early 70’s, and ultimately the disillusionment following Watergate.   In 1981, I came across a lone student with a table on Sproul Plaza bearing a sign reading “Republicans vs. The Moral Majority?” and promoting “moderate” Republican issues.  I went over to talk to him, and over the next few weeks he and I and a small group of other “closet” Republicans re-established the Berkeley College Republicans.  

    We were allowed to register as a student group, but we were denied all forms of campus funding.  We were denied ASUC recognition.  Eschelman office space wasn’t even imaginable.  When we had our table out on Sproul, we were mostly left alone, but there were certainly plenty of times we were screamed at, verbally abused, and occasionally spit on.  When we dared to actually hold a rally or other form of demonstration, we were always physically attacked, and although mostly it was limited to a few people grabbing our signs and some pushing and shoving, there were a few times when punches were thrown or things were thrown at us.

    It is good to read that the attacks from the hypocrites on the Left and their efforts to silence dissenting views from the middle and right have moderated since those days when College Republicans were never quite sure they would not be badly injured for voicing their views.  But it is still very, very sad that such shameless hypocrisy continues to exist at Cal, especially in the administration.

  • Anonymous

    of California Berkeley:
    the need for transparency has never been so clear. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau
    ($500,000 salary) displaces qualified for public university education at Cal. instate
    Californians for a $50,600 payment and a foreign passport.


    UC Berkeley, ranked # 70 Forbes, is not increasing
    enrollment.  Birgeneau accepts $50,600
    FOREIGN students at the expense of qualified Californians.


    UC Regent Chairwoman Lansing and President Yudof agree to discriminating
    against instate Californians for foreigners. Birgeneau, Yudof, Lansing need to answer to Californians.


    Your opinion makes a difference; email UC Board of
    Regents   [email protected]

  • Sam

    I totally agree with you and am so glad you were brave enough to voice these opinions.  You represent students like me who have opinions diverging from the majority on Cal campus.

  • Bronwen Rowlands

    “boring budget cuts”? 

    Honey, you’re no Dickens.

    • Guest

      That’s disingenuous. You know very well he’s not trying to compare himself to Dickens as a writer. He’s just using the two cities motif as a comparative tool.

  • Mr. Given, Columnist, what a sugary waste! 
    I get you point, but there is no need for drama poor thing. Vandals should be dealt with properly if they lock you out of “your learning”, and indeed the Young Republicans “satire-so funny” mirrors a perceived unfairness in the recruitment of Cal students. But, no one can deny they are bunch of donkeys for trying it in such a crude way. Do some PR outreach Republicans! Get people to talk about your cause BEFORE you play the right-wing A-hole archetype in front of the U.S.
    And if you do, don’t explain things. Salute the flag, howl patriotism and invoke Christ!
    Haven’t you learned anything from Glenn Beck?

    This is pathetic circus. Go ahead monkeys, you are on TV!

    P.S. Education should be free for everyone.

    • Anonymous

      “P.S. Education should be free for everyone.”
      In your case, you got what you paid for

    • [Education should be free for everyone.]

      I notice you seem to make this a signature of all your diatribes, so I wanted to ask you this question. In your quest to make education “free” for everyone, do you ever consider that things which are totally “free” tend to get overused and abused considerably? Do you also ever bother to consider that someone, somewhere has to PAY for this education? Last, but not least, have you ever considered that perhaps those actually PAYING for your college education (i.e. the taxpayers of this country) have SOME rights to determine how much of their money is allotted for education, AND how that money is spent?

      Here’s the problem: you insist that a university education should be “free” for everyone. Does that include people who who are neither intellectually nor academically prepared for college? What about those whose track record indicates that they are simply not interested or otherwise motivated to attend college except as something to do with their otherwise unplanned lives?  Given that we can’t provide a free ride for everyone who expresses some interest in attending college, how do we determine (a) who gets in, and (b) who pays the bills?

      Let’s assume that the purpose of a publicly-funded college is to give promising/deserving students an opportunity to attend, AND provide some sort of financial support for those who can’t foot the bill on their own. Most people don’t have a problem with that concept (neither do I), but how do you structure admissions to be (a) to the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, (b) structure it in a manner that is not only fair to the students applying, but the taxpayers paying the bills? A system based primarily on demonstrable academic achievement (grades) and ability (SAT scores) may not be perfect in your Utopian/cosmic justice frame of reference, but it guarantees a reasonably fair and objective standard under which students can compete, as well as reassuring the taxpayers that their education dollars will provide the most utility for their expenditures – in other words, “bang for the buck”. What happens when you start gaming the system to admit individuals NOT on some assessment on how well they can benefit from their educational opportunities, but for the sake of pushing someone’s social agenda (affirmative action, “diversity”, et. al.)?

      The fact of the matter is that Cal Berkeley, along with other schools in the UC system, have admitted people who aren’t just slightly less prepared, but completely UNPREPARED to attend and participate in any real meaningful academic experience whatsoever. This isn’t an issue of someone failing/repeating a class or two, falling back a semester, and graduating with a lower-than-average GPA. We’re  talking about people who can’t graduate in 5 to 6 YEARS from the date of admission, and eventually wind up dropping out of Cal. The education dollars spent on dropouts don’t benefit these students, OR the students who would have made the cut if not for discriminatory treatment AGAINST them as a result of AA/diversity, OR the taxpayers who have to subsidize this mess. If you don’t believe me, just stop and read some of the posts by these very AA students on this site. We’re not talking the occasional typo or dropped word – we’re talking rambling, disjointed, INCOHERENT posts by individuals who can’t even perform at an 8th grade level when it comes to basic English composition and reading comprehension. Why are we turning away kids who paid their dues, did well on grades and standardized tests, and demonstrated the MOTIVATION and ABILITY to attend Cal, in order to give preferential treatment to many who simply are not college material?

      • That is a very well reasoned argument, but it only sheds light on more systemic issues. Why are these kids so unprepared? Are they genetically inferior? Is every underperforming student the offspring of illegal immigrants? Where does the U.S. rank in STEM education among developed and developing countries? Once you get you degree, what are the best paid professions? 

        I know the answers for these questions, but I’m not here to lecture you. I am here to (hopefully) make you think, in a broader sense, if you will.

        The choir song goes along these lines: “In view of our limited resources, we must allocate yada yada yada”…

        So where is the money, yours and mine, going? What are our priorities?

        I can tell you neither education, nor health are. 

        “Being educated and healthy”; where would you place that in your priority list?

        The approach of filling classrooms based on racial or sex quotas may be flawed, but it’s unwise to let the kids squabble over crumbs, and it is absolutely unhelpful to strike the intellectualoid pose trying to pinpoint the exact details when the picture is quite clear.

        The people and the system we have entrusted to serve us are failing us; laws are being auctioned to serve whoever offers the highest bid, which neither you nor me can afford to pay. You and me are left in the middle, arguing over cupcakes and illegal aliens, while four hundred people hold on to more wealth than one hundred fifty million people combined.

        What is education to generate other than proper and politically correct pets?

        • Were you actually trying to make a point? Your blather-to-substance ratio is a bit excessive…

        • Guest

          “while three hundred thousand people hold on to more wealth than one hundred fifty million people combined.”
          Is there an actual reason (other than envy) why this should not be so?  If some people have the motivation and know-how to make money, and others don’t, the result is inevitable.  The real question is whether the one hundred fifty million people are suffering deprivation.  Most of them are comfortably well off compared to the rest of the world.

  • Guest

    “Contrarily, the aim of the gang of protesters who occupied Tolman Hall
    on Sept. 22 was precisely the opposite: to silence dialogue by
    disrupting classes, trespassing and vandalizing.”

    You know there are no classes in Tolman this semester because of seismic issues, don’t you?

  • Not a bad article in substance, but what a terrible writer.

  • Guest