Drawing on Occupy movement, protesters turn out en masse

Protesters filled Sproul Plaza Wednesday afternoon for the Nov. 9 Day of Action.
Anna Vignet/Senior Staff
Protesters filled Sproul Plaza Wednesday afternoon for the Nov. 9 Day of Action.

Large turnout at Wednesday’s Day of Action showed signs that UC Berkeley’s signature student protest movement, widely perceived to have been losing its muster in recent years, may have found strength in the nationwide Occupy movement.

After more than two years of protests that decreased in size, Wednesday’s demonstration saw the crowd on Upper Sproul Plaza swell to more than 1,000 individuals. Those involved attributed the national appeal of the Occupy movement as a sign that student protests may be able to carry Wednesday’s momentum into the future.

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Since about 5,000 protesters swarmed Upper Sproul Plaza on Sept. 24, 2009 and the violent confrontations with police during the occupation of Wheeler Hall on Nov. 20, 2009, demonstrations in response to budget cuts and rising tuition have declined.

But on Wednesday, organizers tapped into the energy of the Occupy movement — a broader, more decentralized narrative targeting economic inequality. Speakers tied university issues, like the state’s disinvestment from higher education, to the big picture focus of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland.

“This is part of a larger conversation about wealth equality,” said ASUC President Vishalli Loomba.

Even campus administration recognized Occupy Wall Street’s motivating role. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Le Grande said “the Occupy Wall Street is an important point” and added that he supported the goals of resolving economic inequality.

Signs that hung from Sproul Hall likened the UC Board of Regents to the richest 1 percent of America, the scorn of the Occupy protests.

“After Occupy Wall Street, I was getting worked up, almost raging that nobody in America was standing up and showing their disappointment with how corrupt the government really was,” said Avi Lieberman, a Berkeley High School student.

Several different movements, ranging from United Auto Workers and other unions to a pro-Palestine group, drew upon the central message of the Occupy movement.

“I think (Occupy Cal) crossed coalitions,” said UC Berkeley junior Aseem Kever. “It came together with the Occupy movement. We really do identify as the 99 percent. That shared identity hadn’t been together as much as it is now.”

Despite the broadness and expansiveness of the protest, several individuals at the event said they felt personally impacted. Organizers mobilized the campus by going directly to classrooms to speak about the financial issues specifically facing the University of California and the UC Berkeley campus.

“I was at Occupy Oakland — that was good, but this really connects to me,” said freshman Rishi Ahuja.

ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President Julia Joung worried that the momentum would not continue, though. She said that while she supported the message of Wednesday’s protest, she questioned whether the student movement would continue to have as much vigor if the Occupy movement was not occurring simultaneously.

Many realized the historical significance of the encampment’s location on the Mario Savio steps, a place where demonstrators had encamped in the ’70s in opposition to the South African apartheid.

“I chose to come here because of the history in civil rights and the Free Speech Movement,” Kever said. “If I’m here, I want to participate, and I leave a legacy.”