UC Berkeley community reflects on divisive election, looks forward

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Ethan Epstein/File

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Regressing, unspooling, unraveling.

This was the sentiment that sparked an immediate protest on Election Night, beginning on Sproul Plaza and heading down Telegraph Avenue toward Oakland. Protesters chanted, “Not my president!” into the early morning.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election engrossed the world and consumed the media’s attention for almost two years. When Nov. 8 finally arrived, a crowd of campus students and community members convened on Sproul Plaza, watching the results in preparation to celebrate. As traditionally key Democratic states were won over by Donald Trump, however, several gaping faces were aglow in red as the screen displayed an increasingly Republican electorate.

For the majority of those gathered, the night turned into a scene of panic, ending in widespread shock. About midnight Pacific Time, Republican victor Donald Trump took the stage in New York City as the 45th president-elect of the United States.

“Of course this was — and this is an understatement — quite a divisive election,” said Celine Bookin, a campus freshman and a member of the Berkeley College Republicans.

Despite the political engagement of both major parties throughout the race, Bookin believes there was a lack of engagement between the supporters in each party — a fissure that ultimately was to blame for the surprise felt by both the mainstream media and those who followed election coverage, Bookin said.

UC Berkeley senior and Green Party member Jason O’Neal, however, had considered the possibility of a Trump presidency. O’Neal, who grew up in a conservative region of South Texas and has lived in San Diego for the past 20 years, said he has lost friends over his political views after he moved to Berkeley.

O’Neal, who voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, said he had identified as a conservative for many years and called the transition to organizing rallies for Green Party candidates a “20-year process.”

“Just because people don’t believe what we believe, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Maybe it just means they don’t have access to the same information. We are all products of our environment,” O’Neal said, adding that he still finds it difficult to talk to family members about his political views, such as his mother, who he knows voted for Trump.

O’Neal said his principal concern when voting is a candidate’s stance on climate change policy. While he weighed the risk of voting for a third-party candidate, O’Neal ultimately decided to vote for Stein because of her platform’s attention to climate change and because California is considered a securely Democratic state.

In the wake of the election, campus political science and Haas School of Business lecturer Alan Ross said he was most surprised by the lack of enthusiasm toward Hillary Clinton among his students, as she would have been the first female president.

“The reaction wasn’t that ‘I’m upset Hillary didn’t win’ — it was ‘How could Trump have won?’ ” Ross said.

Several students noted that their professors were visibly distraught and openly expressed their disillusionment with the results after the election. Maureen Ochi Sides, a UC Berkeley sophomore majoring in political science, said she witnessed three professors break down in tears.

Responses throughout the city included the Election Night protest, a sit-in organized by Berkeley High School students and a Trump teach-in held by UC Berkeley faculty members. Several students decided not to participate in the impromptu protest, noting safety concerns.

“The Trump teach-in was more policy driven, a really classy way to fight what we’ve been given with this election,” said Divya Vijay, communications director for Cal Berkeley Democrats.

Though the reality of Donald Trump as a successor to President Barack Obama has been difficult for many in Berkeley to come to terms with, others hope the discontent will fuel a more active constituency.

The campus Progressive Student Association, or PSA, has seen a dramatic increase in attendance at its weekly meetings, according to PSA Executive Vice President Soli Alpert. About 60 people attended last week’s meeting.

Moving toward inauguration day Jan. 20, both the Cal Dems and the PSA are refocusing their efforts on supporting local and state candidates, such as for the open Berkeley City Council seat vacated as a result of Jesse Arreguin’s recent election to mayor.

“California and Berkeley are the last line,” Alpert said. “We need to be prepared for Trump. Local politicians are what’s between you and Trump.”

Bookin, meanwhile, is making preparations for a second debate between members of BCR and Cal Dems in the upcoming semester. Bookin said she hopes the debate will allow people to understand the motivations behind the votes for different candidates.

“I would love to see UC Berkeley return to its roots of activism,” O’Neal said. “California leads the nation — wherever California goes, eventually, the rest of the nation will follow. And the Bay Area specifically, we have a responsibility to lead again. … Let there be light. We have to be that light when the rest of the world is going dark.”

Contact Audrey McNamara at [email protected].