Through the cold, Occupy Cal protesters find sense of community

Protesters set up tents in front of Sproul Hall early Thursday morning.
Kevin Foote/Staff
Protesters set up tents in front of Sproul Hall early Thursday morning.

In their last unified act of the night, the Occupy Cal protesters ascended the steps of Sproul Hall at 4 a.m. Thursday morning when police completely retreated to the grass north of the steps.

However, they did not rush the steps to keep law enforcement from retaking the space. They wanted to clear the trash from the steps that had been left there before the police blocked it off.

The group — largely composed of strangers who had stood side-by-side the day before — picked up half-empty water bottles and fliers because they wanted to keep the area clean. They were planning on living there in the immediate future, after all.

Once the steps were clear, the large group separated into smaller ones as protesters cozied together to keep warm — and maybe sleep — as they settled in for the rest of the night.

Junior James Chang, wrapped in a fleece blanket, talked with other protesters as they huddled together.

“We’re not trying to fundamentally change our country,” he said. “We’re asking our country to stay the same so something fundamental doesn’t move toward extremes like increased wealth disparity between the rich and the poor or inequality.”

He remained bundled up in his blanket with a t-shirt wrapped around his face until another protester gave him his sleeping bag around 4:30 a.m.

Freshman Jenny Sholar, sitting across the steps from Chang, simply came down to the protest Wednesday afternoon at the behest of a friend. Energized by the 1,000-plus people in attendance, she went back to her Unit 1 dormitory to get blankets in preparation for staying the night.

When she got back, the crowd had thinned significantly, but since she was already there, she figured she might as well stay.

“A lot of people were there, and it was cool,” Sholar said. “I did it for the experience.”

She and her group of friends left at 5 a.m. because they were cold and tired.

On the other side of the encampment — which consisted of three tents on the middle plateau of the Sproul steps — freshman Brandon Ferguson lay alone on his piece of cardboard, wearing only black pants and a black jacket, trying futilely to sleep.

He did not actually intend to attend the protest at the start of his day.

But after watching video of police with batons violently jabbing protesters posted Wednesday afternoon, he felt the need to come and support the other protesters.

“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said. “So I came down, and I was part of the chain when the police made their second push. I was thrown to the ground, but it wasn’t that bad compared to what happened to other people.”

Similarly, Chang had not decided to stay until he witnessed the police’s activities firsthand.

“The emotions that I saw on the cops’ faces, they were pretty ape-like,” he said. “I think it was humanity at its worst, human-expression-wise. That’s what did it — when I saw the violence and unfairness, it really made me want to stay.”

By the time the sun rose around 6 a.m., UCPD officers no longer presented a menacing sight. Instead of lining up, they congregated in circles, talking and stretching their legs after standing at the ready for most of the night.

When asked how her night was, one UCPD officer smiled and replied, “Cold.”

As the sun rose higher and higher, the group of protesters rose from their attempted slumber and began to mill about.

Ferguson joined another small group of protesters and chatted. He has no classes on Thursday, so he said he could sleep later in the day.

They reforged their sense of community around 7:30 a.m. when Ignacio Chapela, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, brought doughnuts for the group.

Even in their bleary-eyed state, the protesters maintained the sense of order they had established at their general assembly the night before, making sure that everyone took just one doughnut each.