More than 200 occupy Wheeler Hall at height of protest against tuition hikes

Occupation began Wednesday night, continues Thursday without major class disruption

Occupy-Wheeler-FULL_Michael-Drummond
Michael Drummond/File

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Update: Read more about the second day of the occupation here.

After a general assembly meeting on Sproul Plaza, student and community activists began occupying Wheeler Hall just before 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the aftermath of a UC Board of Regents committee voting 7-2 to approve a controversial tuition increase plan earlier in the day.

The group of occupiers, who hail from an array of progressive organizations, started with about 50 individuals but more than quadrupled in size by midnight. About 7:45 a.m. Thursday, protesters voted on whether to fully occupy the hall but instead resolved to declare an “open university,” allowing students access to the building for classes.

“We’re planning to hold this space as long as need be, and we’re trying to do so in a civil way,” said UC Berkeley junior Paula Jaramillo on Wednesday night. “We don’t want violence.”

UCPD Lt. John Suezaki told occupiers shortly after 10 p.m. that the building was closed. He later said in an interview that his announcement was not a dispersal order but that police would remain on site to monitor the situation and student safety.

The plan that passed in committee Wednesday will raise tuition by at least 5 percent annually for five years, with a chance for the state to reduce or eliminate the increase through additional funding to the UC system. On Thursday, the regents voted 14-7 to pass the tuition plan.

Resident systemwide fees in 2015-16 will increase by $612. The plan will also allow the university to enroll at least 5,000 more in-state students and 2,000 more nonresident students over the next five years.

UC Berkeley sophomore Jake Soiffer, a member of Fossil Free Cal, was among those occupying Wheeler Hall.

“Students are constantly dismissed at regents meetings,” Soiffer said. “We’re here because we’ve tried the normal routes, and they didn’t work.”

Occupiers originally posted a 13-point list of demands on a wall that included stopping fee hikes, adding more students to the UC Board of Regents, creating a corporate tax to fund education and holding public dialogue on tuition increases.

At the top of their list was releasing Jeff Noven, a 21-year-old UC Berkeley student who was arrested Wednesday at the San Francisco regents meeting. As of about 11 p.m. Wednesday, Noven was no longer being held in jail, after his attorney worked to help him post bail, which amounted to $40,000. About an hour later, he rejoined fellow demonstrators in Wheeler Hall. Noven could face two felony charges of vandalism and inciting a riot. His hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court.

“This is an incredible of outpouring of student voice, and I hope that it inspires others as both students and associates of California to think about the ramifications of further increasing student debt burden,” said Noven, who declined to discuss details of his arrest.

By 2:30 a.m. Thursday, occupiers were hammering out the specifics of their immediate demands, which ultimately included that any potential charges facing Noven be dropped and that tuition hikes be halted. Additionally, they demanded financial transparency of the UC budget after some state officials said the University of California failed to produce an extensive financial report detailing its expenditures under AB 94.

The activists also considered including two additional demands — rolling back executive pay increases and adding more students to the UC Board of Regents and the committee that approved the hike — but voted against doing so in favor of more pressing issues.

“What we’re doing right now is, by far, not all we’re trying to accomplish here,” said Maiya Moncino, a UC Berkeley senior who helped facilitate conversations, referring to long-term demands.

The demonstration parallels the 2009 occupation of Wheeler Hall, which was also largely in response to fee hikes. About 40 occupiers were arrested and cited then.

“The fact that we’re coming back again means something didn’t work,” said Navid Shaghaghi, a UC Berkeley alumnus who was actively involved in the occupation five years ago. “The issues haven’t changed. The decision-makers are the same. The villains of the story are the same — the Board of Regents.”

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore emphasized that low-income students whose financial aid is fully covered will not be impacted by the fee hike. Of the occupation, she said the situation appeared calm and peaceful.

“We know that these events are fluid and we will continue to monitor and assess the situation as the day unfolds,” Gilmore said in an email.

Staff writer Arielle Swedback contributed to this report. 

Contact Kimberly Veklerov and Jane Nho at [email protected].