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A tale of two protests

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OCTOBER 03, 2011

They were the best of times, they were the worst of times at UC Berkeley. Like any other typical days, these two began with students sleepily strolling through Sproul, dodging endless obstacles of suit-clad solicitors, sanctimonious eccentrics and agitated activists. However, these two days were by no means typical. Rather, they were of the special sort for our campus, where the Plaza transforms into a circus so entertaining it can give Barnum & Bailey a run for their money. These were protest days.

Two demonstrations have occurred on our campus in the past two weeks — the Sept. 22 “Day of Action” for higher education and the “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” against affirmative action on Sept. 27. While protests at Berkeley may be as frequent and forgettable as bombings under the Obama administration, I believe these two in particular highlight a shameful hypocrisy in our campus’s tolerance for freedom of expression.

Indeed, upon comparing the two protests, Berkeley’s honor as the home of the Free Speech Movement seems more like an anachronism than a relevant title today.

While the red-bandanaed radicals of the “Day of Action” and the cleancut conservatives of the “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” may at first seem unsuitable for comparison, the two protests started quite similarly.

Both were organized in opposition to a contentious political proposal — the first, to the UC Regents’ possible 81 percent tuition increase and the second to California Senate Bill 185’s easing of affirmative action restrictions — and began nonviolently on Sproul Plaza. However, by the end of the day, the former would culminate in a bloody clash with police, including a building occupation and two arrests, while the latter would end in a peaceful sellout of delicious sweets. Yet, which of the two has been administratively condemned as offensive, received threats of violence and jeopardized a club’s funding? Shockingly, it is the sugary sellout, not the savage showdown.

Certainly the Berkeley College Republicans’ bake sale broached a touchier subject than boring budget cuts, and its discriminatory pricing — which was not actually enforced — was rightfully viewed as unfair.

However, such arousal of anger was exactly its aim: to demonstrate how affirmative action, in the organizers’ opinions, unjustifiably judges applicants more by “the color of their skin” than “the content of their character.” So what if Chancellor Birgeneau deemed the event “hurtful” and “offensive?” That was precisely its point — to elicit emotion and subsequently dialogue. Considering the national media attention the sale drew, it seems undeniable that it achieved both goals. Contrarily, the aim of the gang of protesters who occupied Tolman Hall on Sept. 22 was precisely the opposite: to silence dialogue by disrupting classes, trespassing and vandalizing. But somehow, the former protest was more offensive than the latter?

While I’m on the topic of offense, I’d like to list a few times during my three years at Cal that I’ve been hurt.

I was offended on Nov. 20, 2009, when a fringe group of the higher education movement occupied Wheeler Hall, restricting my access to learning. I was offended on Nov. 22, 2010, when a similar group went on a vandalizing rampage, needlessly wasting student funds to clean up the detritus they left behind. But worst of all, I am offended that the administration gives these lawbreaking villains a pass while picking on peaceful students making a political point through a legally compliant bake sale. I think this difference in treatment can only be explained by ideology.

In 1971, professor John Searle of the philosophy department published a book called “The Campus War” reflecting on the widespread student movements of the 1960s. At the end of his chapter on academic freedom, Searle warned of a rising “radical intolerance” following the Free Speech Movement, where “the right to dissent” is reserved only for “a set of approved left-wing views,” while any others “that departed from the orthodox” are chilled by the tyranny of the majority.

Unfortunately, it looks as if Searle’s prediction has manifested itself at Cal, with speech deviating from the political norm, like the bake sale, receiving threats of violence, administrative condemnation and possible defunding. While these channels of disapproval may not constitute a legal breach of free speech per se, they nevertheless take a form of backdoor censorship that is hypocritical to any institution dedicated to the free flow of ideas, let alone the home of the Free Speech Movement.

Returning to my Dickensian opening, we find ourselves in both “an age of wisdom” of championing free speech and “an age of foolishness” of chilling opinions we disagree with.

So which will it be, UC Berkeley?

Allow for the wisdom of open dialogue to flourish or succumb to the foolishness of subtle censorship?

Contact Casey Given at 


OCTOBER 03, 2011