One year later, Occupy Cal struggles to reignite large-scale support

Top row: Josh Healey, Joey Freeman, Navid Shaghaghi. Middle row: Robert Reich, Lynne Hollander Savio, Jeffrey Skoller. Those pictured above were just some of the thousands of people who played a part in last year's Occupy Cal movement.
Anya Schultz/Senior Staff
Top row: Josh Healey, Joey Freeman, Navid Shaghaghi. Middle row: Robert Reich, Lynne Hollander Savio, Jeffrey Skoller. Those pictured above were just some of the thousands of people who played a part in last year's Occupy Cal movement.

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A year ago on Nov. 15, thousands stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the steps of Sproul Plaza as the words of UC Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich rang out.

His words were infused with the intensity that the Occupy Cal movement had built up over the previous week. Just six days before, on Nov. 9, police used batons against protesters linking arms around their encampment. The violent confrontation went viral, garnering national attention for the movement, and drew thousands to the steps of Sproul Plaza Nov. 15.

“Forty-seven years ago, we were graced with the eloquence and power of Mario Savio’s words from these steps,” Reich told the crowd of more than 3,500 on the cold November night. “These words continue to live on. The sentiments Mario Savio expressed 47 years ago are as relevant now as they were then.”

But with time, the power of Reich’s words seems to have diminished as the movement struggled to unify under a common set of goals aligning with the national Occupy Wall Street movement. After the movement reached its peak in fall 2011, members of a once-united movement began scrambling to maintain a strong campus presence and organize a grassroots campaign to impact on UC policies.

“What’s changed from last year is that the campus demonstrations are no longer happening in the context of a national movement with a sense of unified mission,” said Maggie Hardy, an Occupy Cal protester who is now a member of Students for a Democratic University, an organization that stemmed from Occupy Cal.

She added that members of the movement are still debating whether the best strategy is to withdraw from campus demonstrations or to build a structure for long-term student discussion.

SDU is currently trying to gather students to build a universitywide undergraduate student union meant to serve as the main long-term student movement structure. A conference held in October — SDU’s first attempt at recruiting students for the union — was “very successful,” Hardy said.

In contrast to the crowd at Reich’s speech, a few weeks ago, a campus protest to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal demonstrations drew roughly 200 people to Sproul Plaza. Later in the day, only about half of the protesters remained to plan a demonstration to be held at the UC Board of Regents meeting the following week. And an intended encampment that night on Sproul Plaza did not last through the night.

Then on Thursday of last week, about 80 protesters demonstrated outside the regents meeting while about 10 disrupted the meeting inside by chanting slogans that called for the regents’ resignation — one of the only constants of the movement’s continuously evolving message.

Sarah Cowan, a protester at the meeting and a first-year UC Berkeley graduate student, said the assembled protesters did not have a list of clear demands. They merely wanted to cause a disruption to have their voices heard, she said.

“(The movement) appears to have lost its momentum because it’s not making news,” Reich said in an interview last week. “It’s difficult to tell what’s happening at this point.”

Yet Hardy said the spirit that fueled Occupy Cal is still a driving force behind grassroots movements.

In addition to forming SDU, which ran executive candidates in last spring’s ASUC elections, Occupy Cal led to the creation of the statewide Occupy Education California movement and Occupy the Farm, which aims to create an urban farm on UC-owned land in Albany. The crops planted by Occupy the Farm protesters in April were razed last week under the orders of campus administration.

Since the Occupy Cal movement and a pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis later that month both drew national attention, various UC and independently commissioned investigations scrutinized the use of police force and each campus administration’s disorganized response to the events.

At UC Berkeley, demonstrations from Nov. 3, 2011, to Nov. 20, 2011, cost the campus police a total of $311,517, according to UCPD Lt. Eric Tejada, while the settlement for a lawsuit stemming from the pepper-spraying incident will cost the university roughly $1 million.

In response to the criticism and financial costs, the campus created a new protest response team in January consisting of administrators, police officers and faculty to “minimize the prospect of physical harm,” according to a campuswide email sent by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer and Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance John Wilton announcing the initiation of the team.

Yet protesters remain dissatisfied with progress made by the campus to better handle protests.

“There have been some short-term changes to the campus code of conduct, but I don’t think the administration has necessarily changed its mind,” Hardy said. “They have tried to suppress us in the past, but we’re still here.”

Staff writer Curan Mehra and Multimedia Editor Anya Schultz contributed to this report.

Afsana Afzal is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected].