You see it on the snickering smiles of new acquaintances after introducing yourself as a Berkeley student. You hear it in the endlessly annoying jokes your reactionary uncle cracks about “those commies at Cal.” You feel it walking to class each day passing monuments like the Mario Savio Steps and the Free Speech Movement Cafe. Our campus has a unique reputation that is almost indescribable — an amorphous mixture of political activism, radicalism and counter-culturalism that’s become embedded in its very name: Berkeley.
While the more conservative among us may sigh at Berkeley’s notoriety with shame, for most of us it is a point of pride. Indeed, its bohemian character has indubitably been a magnet attracting the more eccentric students of California. I personally remember being a young liberal at a conservative all-boys Catholic high school yearning for a new experience. Berkeley was the school for me. Even after initially being denied admission, I knew I couldn’t settle for anything less (sorry, UC San Diego). So, after miraculously getting admitted on appeal, I packed my bags and made my way to the Bay. I was a political junkie, and Berkeley was the perfect place to get my hits.
I imagine many students share a similar story. Indeed, there seems to be a certain myth of a “Berkeley experience” that permeates our campus. Whether it involves listening to Stoney Burke’s political rants outside Dwinelle, dropping acid and wandering Tilden Park or enrolling in Robert Reich’s Wealth and Poverty, there’s a certain script that many students act out that is thought to be quintessentially Berkeley. In doing so, many of us hope to graduate Cal able to answer Jimi Hendrix’s age-old question with a nostalgic, “Yes, I am experienced.”
Protesting is perhaps the cornerstone of the Berkeley experience. From the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s to the tuition hikes of the 2000’s, students have crowded Sproul Plaza over the decades, raising their voices about the hot topic of the day. While this zeal for free speech is always an inspiring sight to see, too often a protest’s message can get muddled by the assorted interests present vying for their slice of the Berkeley experience.
Regardless of any given rally’s topic, it is sure to transform into a diatribe about almost every other issue than the one at hand. For example, at last Wednesday’s Day of Action rally for higher education, speakers ranted against California’s anti-affirmative action Proposition 209, Mississippi’s proposed personhood initiative, and — their perennial favorite — capitalism.
Meanwhile, many students passing to class stopped to shout their support without having a clear conception of what the rally was about.
Our campus’s Police Review Board noticed this phenomenon last year in a report they compiled about UCPD’s actions during the 2009 Wheeler Hall occupation. “As some students have told us, one reason they joined the rally outside Wheeler on the 20th was their desire to have what they considered ‘the Berkeley experience,’” the report recounts. “That inchoate desire can be expected to enlarge demonstrations and protests on campus — independent of their specific agendas.”
While our campus rightly treasures its reputation for free speech, it is undeniable that the Berkeley experience’s negative side effects of incoherent messaging and uncomprehending audiences has made our protest culture the laughingstock of ordinary Americans and reactionary uncles everywhere.
Then came Occupy Cal. This spin-off of the larger Occupy movement sweeping the nation is undeniably impressive. Its gatherings have sometimes swelled to over 3,000 protesters on Sproul, capturing national media attention, from the conservative Wall Street Journal to the liberal MSNBC and even the comedic Colbert Report. This is our campus’s time to shine. To ensure that they’re effective, protesters should not succumb to past mistakes.
If Occupy Cal wants to harness the media attention in a productive manner to produce political change, they must stay on message so as to appear like educated demonstrators rather than bohemian Berkeleyeans longing for the ’90s. With $100 million in midyear cuts and a potential 81 percent tuition hike looming as possibilities for the UC, this rhetorical focusing should not be too hard to do.
Indeed, Occupy Cal has the potential to channel the national obsession with the larger protest movement towards a specific cause the media has been longing to find — in our case, cuts to higher education. But in order to do so, the Marxist pamphlets, union hacks and other negative side effects of the Berkeley experience are best left at home so as to form a unified movement in support of higher education to sustain the national limelight.