Activists erect tents to celebrate Occupy Cal’s second anniversary

Kelly Fang/Senior Staff
Activists erected tents on Sproul Plaza on Friday evening to commemorate the Occupy Cal movement on its second anniversary.

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On Saturday morning, Cal football fans arrived at the steps of Sproul Plaza for a pregame rally only to find the space already occupied — by three tents and a small group of six sleep-deprived protesters.

The activists said they woke on the second anniversary of the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal demonstrations after frequent interruptions throughout the night by police announcing the illegality of the encampment. The protesters held signs during the morning rally before traveling to International House to put on a satirical performance shortly before the game.

The demonstration — organized by the political advocacy group Open University at Occupy Cal — satirized what the group considers undue corporate influence on the UC Berkeley campus, in particular research funded by the British oil company BP. Protesters dressed as Cal cheerleaders, a “BP Bear” and a BP executive for the event.

Occupy Cal, a local iteration of the national Occupy Wall Street movement that swept the country two years ago, attracted national media attention after police used batons against protesters linking arms around their encampments on Nov. 9, 2011. The police actions prompted criticism from students and faculty and set the stage for a gathering on Sproul six days later that drew thousands.

“We were saying we were there to privatize the public education system, and we’d already started,” said Navid Shaghaghi, a UC Berkeley graduate who actively participated in Occupy Cal. “We were (there) to finish the job and buy off Cal completely.”

Although the weekend’s activities were timed to commemorate the anniversary, Shaghaghi and many other Occupy Cal veterans continue to contribute to political discourse that came to a fore on campus in fall 2011 surrounding higher education, workers’ rights and the distribution of wealth.

When the movement dwindled in spring 2012, many of the students and faculty involved joined a range of pre-existing organizations and splinter groups, including Open University, the Coalition for Public Education and labor unions.

After Occupy Cal, UC Berkeley graduate student Amanda Armstrong took a more active role in United Auto Workers 2865, a union representing more than 13,000 student workers across the UC system. Armstrong said her service on the union’s bargaining team, which is in the midst of contract negotiations with the university, and participation in a series of teach-outs with the Coalition for Public Education are in many ways a continuation of Occupy’s legacy.

“There were a lot of relationships of solidarity and care that took shape in the context of the Occupy movement that have been maintained over the last couple of years,” she said. “There were friendships and relationships with people in the context of organizing. Movements are built on relationships.”

UC Berkeley associate professor of English Celeste Langan participated in the Nov. 9, 2011, protests after hearing about the budding movement from her graduate students. Langan, who was arrested during the day’s action, participated extensively in police reviews of the incident and later joined the UC Berkeley Faculty Association to deepen her involvement in campus operations.

“(Occupy) has an important place in the history of Berkeley and keeping alive a spirit of dissent,” she said. “One of the values of Occupy was that we’re staying here until things change. I’d like to think that is still, in some sense, driving peoples’ interests — that they’re not letting go of problems that they know need fundamental change.

In the wake of the Occupy Cal movement, campus administrators acknowledged the need for continued mindfulness when responding to protests.

In February 2012, the campus created new protocols for responding to protests that were called into action during the November 2012 occupation of Eshleman Hall. Administrators were able to negotiate with students and clear the building without the use of force.

“(Administrators have) definitely looked at the timing of the protest and the manner of the response (and) tried to be patient rather than react immediately,” said Claire Holmes, the campus associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs.

Still, the possibility of another large-scale movement with the broad appeal of Occupy Cal is unlikely, said UC Berkeley junior Maggie Hardy, who found herself tired of the disorganization of activists after Occupy Cal.

“(People like me) came with the expectation that … we would only build uphill in terms of numbers and in terms of mobility and ability to change campus policy,” Hardy said. “You really have to work hard and have a lot of external circumstances come together to build something like that.”

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected].