SACRAMENTO —The decision to set out on foot from the East Bay toward Sacramento was an easy choice to make for Maggie Hardy.
The UC Berkeley freshman had participated in the Occupy Cal movement and committed to the “99 Mile March for Education and Social Justice” — a four-day walk across the Bay Area to Sacramento for the March 5 education protests — after learning of the march in early January.
“I think the symbolism of us being willing to sacrifice our bodies shows how important this is,” Hardy said of the physical toll the walking had taken. “It shows that it’s not just a passing phase for us college students. We believe education is necessary for a better democracy.”
Hardy and the about 45 like-minded marchers did not walk every mile — they used vans to shuttle part of the way on Saturday and took buses from UC Davis to Sacramento on Monday morning — but they crossed through about 18 towns and cities mostly on foot, sharing the joys of solidarity and community as well as the toll of physical ailments.
Members of Occupy Education conceived the idea to march to Sacramento at a December meeting in Berkeley. After months of planning, it began last Thursday following demonstrations in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco for the March 1 Day of Action.
The journey ended up covering about 79 miles traveled on foot, during which marchers went around the bay and cut inland, through urban streets, suburban neighborhoods and rural roads flanked by farmland.
While none of the marchers ever expressed any desire to quit, one member of the group was at risk of being left behind several times: a 12-foot long industrial cardboard tube made to look like a pencil.
The pencil — made by Bay Area activist artist David Solnit — started off behind the podium at the Berkeley Federation of Teachers’ March 1 rally and was carried with bare hands and shopping carts through streets, over hills and across wooded trails to get to UC Davis.
“The pencil gets our point across dramatically,” said Chris Perry, marcher and participant in Occupy SF. “It demonstrates the importance of struggle in a movement like this. The people who think it’s easy aren’t the ones out here.”
Marchers attempted to load the pencil on the Monday morning bus for Sacramento, but it would not fit. None of the marchers are entirely sure what became of it, but they made sure to sign it before leaving for the capitol.
Because many of the marchers were students — from UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, Berkeley City College, San Francisco State University, City College of San Francisco, Laney College and Stanford University — they not only prepared by packing sleeping bags and tents, they had to get ahead in their coursework and arrange for more favorable work schedules.
UC Berkeley junior Karina Rodriguez reconciled schoolwork and the march by reading while she walked. When she was casting her voice into the group’s chants or angling her “Oakland to Sacramento” sign toward motorists’ view, she had a course reader and pen in her hands.
Emma Wilde Botta was one of three Stanford students who joined the march on its last leg, and she said that she was there because accessible public higher education is necessary for a functional democracy.
“(Stanford students) go to a private university, but that doesn’t exclude us from the outside world,” Botta said. “Those of us here are trying to get the (Stanford) campus to see that.”
Along the way, the marchers spoke with passers-by about their goal — free, high-quality education for everyone — and received mostly positive reactions.
“It’s about engaging people in a dialogue, and the reaction we’ve gotten validates that,” said UC Berkeley junior Micah Love of the handshakes, hugs, and car horn honks the group received. “That validation really helps, too. The march would be a lot more challenging without it.”
Those positive reactions did not just come from passersby on the street — several members of the communities the marchers passed through sought out the march to provide more substantial support.
Local politicians like Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Vallejo Vice Mayor Erin Hannigan stopped by to thank the marchers before they set out on Thursday and Friday, respectively.
Also, about 15 UC Berkeley faculty members visited the group during Friday’s lunch stop in Pinole and marched along with the group for a few miles. Berkeley Faculty Association co-chair Wendy Brown, who helped organize the visit, served vegetarian chili to the marchers before walking alongside them.
Anant Sahai, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, said he felt compelled to march because he is a UC Berkeley graduate.
“When I was in school, everyone knew Berkeley was the best, and it still is, but the state is threatening to make it not be the best,” Sahai said.
The first three nights, the march stopped at churches that opened their doors to the group and provided much needed food, restrooms and places to sleep.
Reverend Sandy Gess of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Vacaville is an Oakland resident and participant in Occupy Oakland’s Interfaith Tent, and she said said she was more than happy to provide all of the above despite hers being a small church.
“A reporter asked me why I let these people stay, and I said, ‘Because they asked,’” Gess said. “People have big hearts if you give them a chance.”
Several police departments provided escorts for the march and blocked traffic so the march could pass through intersections without stopping.
This police presence started on Thursday night with the Richmond Police Department and continued Saturday with the San Pablo, Pinole and Hercules police departments and the California Highway Patrol. Just before the march crossed the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge into Vallejo, the CHP escort pulled away, and the group fended for itself the rest of the way.
Steven Dawson, chief of police for Solano Community College, said that while most police departments could not express outright support for the march, they are all aware of the problems in California’s education system.
“Who’s going to keep this state running five or 10 years from now,” Dawson said. “We need educated people to work those jobs. This march is helping bring awareness that the state needs to bring money back to schools.”
The march did not go without encountering some resistance from people opposed to their cause, with the most coming on the last leg from Vacaville to UC Davis. Several residents came out of their homes and yelled at the marchers, calling them lazy and telling them to get jobs.
One man stayed hidden by trees about 200 ft. away from the road and used a bullhorn to say that he paid for college so they should have to, as well.
Marchers responded by saying that they already have jobs or by simply yelling “I love you.”
After arriving at UC Davis on foot Sunday evening, the marchers spent the night on the campus quad — the same site of the controversial Nov. 18 pepper spray incident — and celebrated the end of their walking journey with hugs, tears and tamales provided by members of Occupy Davis and Occupy UC Davis.
Sacramento and beyond
Once the tight-knit group took buses to Sacramento Monday morning, the marchers separated. All were expected to be in the rotunda of the Capitol building, but several were stuck in blockaded hallways and prevented from taking a bigger part in the “People’s Assembly.”
The group was further split when an impending dispersal order from the CHP forced the marchers who were unwilling to be arrested to leave.
Rhea Patenaude, a graduate student at San Francisco State University, was one of the marchers who did not leave.
“I walked across my state so they will rethink their principles and their priorities when it comes to education,” Patenaude said. “Getting arrested shows them how serious we really are.”
A total of eight marchers were arrested and released Monday night, according to Stephan Georgiou, one of the arrested marchers, but by then most of the group had already boarded buses for their schools and homes.
UC Santa Cruz freshman Iriany Lopez-Hernandez said she felt out of place when getting back to her normal routine. A reunion for the marchers is currently being planned.
“It feels a bit weird to go back after having spent five days — which felt more like a month — walking long distances with these people and then go back to our everyday lives,” Lopez-Hernandez said.
Christopher Yee covers Berkeley communities.