Eighteen years ago, there was a protest at UC Berkeley. It got heated. Police used chokeholds and dragged away protesters.
While the dust has long settled, this particular protest remains notable because of who was in charge when it began: UC Berkeley’s next chancellor, Carol Christ.
Today, Christ says that she wouldn’t have addressed the protest in the same way — she changed, the school changed, policy changed. Yet, memories of the protest still linger on campus.
On April 14, 1999, a noon rally commemorating the 30th anniversary of the ethnic studies program’s creation was held on Sproul Plaza. The program, the first of its kind in the country, was described by some at the time as having been whittled down by the administration — claims that the administration rebuffed. Several vacant faculty positions were unfilled and students alleged the campus was skimping on the program’s budget, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report from the time.
Shortly after noon, the rally moved en masse to Barrows Hall — the home of the ethnic studies department — and locked the hall’s front doors with chains. More students banded outside Barrows and discouraged others from entering through a still-open east side entrance. A list of 10 demands were drawn up, including for more department staffing and a new research center. By 4 p.m., 38 protesters had taken over the Barrows Hall lobby.
Then-campus chancellor Robert Berdahl was in Los Angeles, so Christ, the campus vice chancellor and provost at the time, was thrust into the spotlight as the highest-ranking administrator on campus. She met with representatives of the protesters in the Eshleman Hall senate chambers at 4:15 p.m., where they alleged Christ agreed to three out of their 10 demands, according to The Daily Californian coverage from the time.
After this meeting, police moved in to clear out Barrows — the first of many attempts. Forming a sitting circle, the protesters declared that they would not move until Christ acceded to all 10 of their demands. When a Daily Cal reporter asked for comments at the time, Christ walked away and ignored all questions.
In Barrows, the occupation stretched into its seventh hour and campus officials began to press students to peacefully leave. Protesters then cursed at police officers, and chanted over officials who attempted to read out an administration statement. Protesters were then told they would face student conduct charges, and at 8 p.m., officers began to close in.
Eleven of the students were removed by police, after which the remaining protesters were told by administrators that Christ wanted to meet the next morning to discuss the rest of the demands. The protesters rejected Christ’s proposal, and said that they would remain until Christ accepted all of their demands in writing. According to campus officials at the time, Christ did not agree to this.
When the protesters learned of Christ’s refusal, they began to chant, “Christ, You Liar, We’ll Set Your Ass on Fire.”
Campus police tactics to remove the last protesters turned violent. Officers began to forcibly remove the 22 remaining holdouts. Accounts from the time depict a chaotic and intense process, where police used chokeholds and pressure points as they dragged protesters away.
When the havoc cleared, 46 protesters had been arrested, mostly for trespassing. Five were charged with resisting arrest. The 10-hour standoff was over.
Conflict over ethnic studies continued throughout the rest of the semester, including a protracted hunger strike and more arrests, and derision shifted from Christ to Berdahl once the chancellor returned to campus and took on a negotiating role.
Eventually, the campus and the protesters came to an agreement, and protests subsided. Ethnic studies faculty appointments were fast-tracked, and new resources were granted to the ethnic studies department.
For a brief moment, however, some on campus vilified Christ, the now-incoming chancellor. Posters were made branding Christ a liar with a Pinocchio-esque nose, and she was frequently singled out by protesters.
Christ would later leave UC Berkeley in 2002 to begin an 11-year tenure as president of Smith College, a women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts. But the legacy of the 1999 protests lingers in the ethnic studies department. A documentary featured on the department’s website depicts the protest as an influential point in the program’s history. In addition to multiple faculty appointments, the multicultural community center survives as one of the concessions granted to the protesters.
Although she said doesn’t remember many specifics, the protest still hangs in Christ’s mind as well.
“If I were who I am now, then I would’ve handled it differently,” Christ said in an interview. “But that’s not how (life) works.”
A culmination of factors led to the protests, she said, including the passage of a 1996 proposition that bans the use of affirmative action for admission to California state universities.
Protests, and the headlines they generate, often define a chancellor’s tenure more than they may wish. Even after leaving office in 2013, ex-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was dogged by concerns about the campus’s handling of the 2011 Occupy Cal demonstrations, when police used batons on protesters — which later contributed to reforms in the use of force by campus police. Birgeneau was scheduled to give Haverford College’s 2014 commencement address, but later backed out after students and faculty raised concerns about his handling of the Occupy Cal incident.
Under outgoing Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, the campus received widespread national criticism for the handling of protests that led to the cancellation of a talk by controversial conservative Milo Yiannopoulos in February. Some believed campus police erred by not stepping in before the protests became violent. President Donald Trump later threatened to cut the campus’s federal funding if the campus did not “allow free speech.”
As the campus touts Carol Christ’s deep connection to UC Berkeley and budgetary expertise, past experience shows how a single day on Sproul Plaza can alter a chancellor’s course.
“You can be the most wonderful leader of all time and a series of historical events can derail that,” Christ said.