UC Berkeley liberalism: then and now

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Daily Californian Archives /File

The average afternoon at the Free Speech Movement Cafe, more commonly known as FSM, is a hubbub of activity. Sunlight filters in through the clear glass doors. Students order coffee and apple clouds, have shouting conversations over the whir of the loud blender and jockey for a free seat when the weather is too cold to allow outside seating.

In all the buzz of our everyday lives, it’s easy to forget just where we go to school — that is,  until we notice the photographs lining FSM’s walls. Large, high-quality prints of UC Berkeley students during the Free Speech Movement protests cover the back of the room to remind students of the powerful role this campus and its students have played in our nation’s history.

It’s no secret that UC Berkeley has a long history of student activism. In fact, photographs of overwhelming crowds in the Free Speech Movement of 1964 and daisy-chained hippies in the Vietnam War protests of 1969 provide testimony to this fact: the world’s number one public university has a penchant for political action, a need to speak up.  

In fact, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the university was even lambasted by the former U.S. president for its largely established liberal reputation. The man who later garnered the title of “The Great Communicator” put into effect the mantras of “cleaning up the mess at Berkeley.”

The students’ response? More protests, of course.

Now, however, UC Berkeley is far more moderate than it was in the ‘60s. The student population’s somewhat reserved attitudes toward social justice contrast strongly with those of the city of Berkeley. Many have begun to feel like there is more inaction now than ever before.

Some students’ responses? The same as always: more protests, naturally.

In the last two years, a number of notable protests have graced the concrete of Sproul Plaza.

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In October 2014, Redefine Mine arrived at UC Berkeley’s campus for the first time with its mission to “redefine, reclaim and revolutionize the rape culture on college campuses.” It does this by holding a photoshoot for both men and women to write empowering messages on signs or their skin, which are all later made available for distribution through throughout participants’ Facebook newsfeeds, allowing those who partake to share their images with friends. Since then, Redefine Mine’s online photo campaign and on-campus rallies have made enormous ripples in UC Berkeley’s student population, right around the same time as discussions regarding consent and rape culture have begun to take form.

The movement was a huge success, returning again in October 2015. Campaign coordinator and UC Berkeley student Holly Wertman explained in an email interview with The Daily Californian that the goal of Redefine Mine is to, “create a space where people can display themselves in their own words … to challenge sexism, street harassment, beauty standards and colorism, assault and faulty notions of consent.”

For Wertman, and the campaign as a whole, live protests play less of an integral role than in previous UC Berkeley manifestations. Instead, Redefine Mine takes “advantage of social media to raise awareness.” Wertman sheds light on the option of offering “different avenues of empowerment,” because the campaign takes into account the fact that “live protests may not be a comfortable way of standing up to oppressive forces” for many people. On the whole, Redefine Mine’s wide exposure enforces Wertman’s opinion that UC Berkeley students are still generally “receptive to live activism.”

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Shortly after the spur of activism accompanying the Redefine Mine campaign, a group of organizers named Open UC made waves by protesting against an approved tuition hike at UC Berkeley in November 2014. Disagreeing with a UC Board of Regents’ proposition to increase tuition by 5 percent each year for the next five years, students occupied Wheeler Hall, staged dramatic walk-outs and marched through campus and Downtown Berkeley to demonstrate their dissent.

A communications activities organizer and former UC Berkeley student, Jonathan Millang, wrote in an email interview with the Daily Cal that the group stood for “recognizing that education is a universal human right.” The protests conducted by Open UC possessed the purpose of asking “the state to reinvest in schools.”

In contrast with Redefine Mine, Millang felt that the use of live protests, as well as physical manifestations, have never been so necessary to garner attention than in today’s digitalized world. For Millang, Berkeley’s proclivity toward social justice aided the Open UC’s rallying, noting that some who participated even “became much more attentive of their own privileges and prejudices as the movement grew.”

Generally, Millang voices the concern that students often “agree with the movement’s purpose, but not (with its) overall tone.” In these cases, he recommends students to “join … to change the tone that you don’t agree with” and hopes to see “more united student movements in the future.”

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Yet, despite the success of the Redefine Mine and the tuition protests, the most notable of the year’s movements were arguably the Black Lives Matter protests, making international news, in late 2014.

The demonstrations, which the community refers to as “direct actions” rather than “live protests,”  centered around the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two black men killed in shootings by white police officers.

In an email interview with the Daily Cal, integral BLM organizer Alana Banks wrote that the purpose of direct actions were to “disturb business as usual” by displaying the “type of disruptions (those) who face these (racial) issues encounter every single day.” Although the main group for Black rights on campus is the Black Student Union, Banks describes the group of organizers for this particular BLM movement as nothing more than “Black students on UC Berkeley’s campus … who are sick of injustices that are happening, … sick of the racism.”

Contrary to Wertman and Millang, Banks feels that, in regard to the social justice culture on campus, “it’s about half-and-half” — for her, there are people who those who seem very passionate and others who appear “sort of dismissive about direct actions.”

Once, during a BLM march, Banks recounted how another fellow UC Berkeley student not participating in the walk tried to run over some of the demonstrators with her car. According to Banks, the woman in question claimed the protesters were “taking up too much of her time.” For the future, Banks hopes to see more “cultural humiliation trainings” so that the campus can propagate a more positive climate around activism — or, in her words, simply “us fighting for what we need as Black students.”

Despite the growing disparity between the school’s passionate stereotype and changing reality, student activism continues to play a dominant role on campus today. Although the contemporary campus has diverged quite a bit from the level of activism present in the ‘60s, UC Berkeley’s liberal, vocal culture and history continues to contribute to our powerful student activism — and how social justice on campus might grow in the future.

Contact Eda Yu at [email protected]