Occupying for a better Berkeley campus

Urban Animal

Hours after the noontime rally, the police arrived on Sproul Plaza in riot gear.

Riot gear, I thought. Were they kidding?

The police told us — a few hundred students — to leave. We linked arms around the tent. This was the moment I became an Occupier.

They jabbed clubs into our bellies. They pulled students off of one another and whacked at those cringing in pain. I didn’t know what was happening. Tents were smashed. Everyone was scattering. A woman screamed as an officer dragged her by the hair. Another officer hit a student clean in the back of the head. I used my arms to protect him from more blows as he crawled away.

“Stop,” I yelled in the officer’s face.

He looked me in the eye. My arms were down. He could have knocked out all my teeth in one swing. Lucky me. He never took it.

It was like I was back at my high school, Bloomington High. Every year, there were race riots. Hundreds of Hispanics and blacks yelled at one another from opposite sides of the lunch area. Students threw up flags and gang signs. Freshmen fought each other. Security guards pepper-sprayed everybody. We yelled, cried and then went to class.

I assumed I would be safe at UC Berkeley studying and standing up what I believe in. The world knows us for serving the public good. This is why I chose to come here.

I wanted to learn how to change cities. American culture neglects nonaffluent life. Bloomington High was so poor it was almost funny. After it rained, we trudged through hallways flooded with hair, dirt and candy wrappers. Some days, only one bathroom was open, because the others were vandalized or broken. In Introduction to Chemistry, a lake formed in the center of the room because the ceiling leaked.

This is why I came to the noontime rally. I’d feel like a fake if I didn’t protest. I didn’t know whether the Berkeley community knew schools like Bloomington existed, or if they even cared. And I wanted to change that.

A few nights after the first confrontation, thousands of people flooded Sproul Plaza. Stadium lights lit up the crowds. Robert Reich finished lecturing on inequality and bullying, and TV cameras captured it all. The world was watching.

The police told us to leave. Students linked arms. We chanted, “You’re sexy. You’re cute. Take off that riot suit.”

Some officers laughed. A few officers stood there, crying.

“Move. Move,” the rest commanded. Then they uppercut our stomachs.

Students screamed and chanted, “This is our university” as officers swung at them.

Students were grabbed by their shirts or hair, kicked and then thrown onto the pile of other aching young activists. In the end, the police occupied the site. Students went to jail. The rest were threatened with arrest.

Occupy Cal reminded me of the use of administrative violence at my high school. But there was one big difference: Security guards at Bloomington High pepper-sprayed anyone who was fighting. It was standard protocol.

When the police cracked down on students, it wasn’t just protocol. It was personal. During nights at the encampment, I chatted with police on duty. Some blamed students for making them workovertime and keeping them away from their families. When they beat us, it was as if they were taking their anger out on us.

Occupy 2011 traumatized me. Writing this column, I have to overcome the memories of police batons raining down on me, the possibility of someone ripping out my hair and putting me in prison. Yet I write this column not because it’s easy but because my family and friends at Bloomington High deserve more.

Berkeley was supposed to be the place where nobody would beat you for standing up for what you believe in. Administrators said they were in solidarity with students. But by calling in the police, the administration revealed how much it believed in us.

In November 2011, a bunch of strangers came together to stop the erosion of public education. In solidarity, we raised awareness of inequality. We rallied for the redistribution of wealth from the 1 percent to the 99 percent.

But two years have passed, and still Berkeley finds itself stranded. The problems we face in 2013 are the same ones we faced in 2011.

So, I don’t want Occupy Cal to be a fairy tale that ends with the inauguration of Chancellor Dirks. I doubt a new administration can effectively fight budget cuts with the current policies in place. But I hope I’m wrong.

Two years have passed, and still Occupy Cal makes headlines rather than reform.

Josh Escobar writes the Monday column on the intersection of student and urban life. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @urbananimale.