Wheeler Hall occupation faces shrinking numbers, questions about next steps

Ariel D. Hayat/Senior Staff

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In the fifth day of an occupation that began Wednesday evening to protest tuition increases, occupiers started to bump up against shrinking numbers and the looming presence of Thanksgiving break, posing new problems and new opportunities for a largely leaderless movement.

The weekend saw occupation numbers dwindle — only about 20 camped out Saturday night, down from a peak of more than 200 on the first two nights of the occupation. Despite the decline, Wheeler Hall, the demonstration headquarters, buzzed with a core group of activists. They remained in the space, crafting signs and holding general assemblies in the evenings, which aim to de-emphasize the role of leadership by rotating facilitation of group gatherings.

Although activists have rallied around a variety of causes, the movement’s primary driving force has been the tuition plan approved by a regents committee Wednesday and by the UC Board of Regents as a whole Thursday. The plan, which will increase systemwide fees for in-state students by $612 and for out-of-state students by $1,800 in 2015-16 contingent on state funding increases, marks the end of a three-year tuition freeze.

On Monday, protesters plan to hold a rally and walkout at noon, followed by a march through Berkeley. Participants at a general assembly Friday also voted to surround and occupy California Hall on Tuesday morning in a culmination of the two days of action.

Protesters discussed plans for the movement’s short-term future and possible ways to continue with the occupation despite Thanksgiving break. Some suggestions have included maintaining the space through the holiday, but UC Berkeley sophomore Jake Soiffer said he only saw this as a viable possibility if a significant number of individuals choose to stay in Wheeler.

“For the safety of those people and for the strength of the movement, I don’t want it to peter out,” Soiffer said. “I would probably lean toward pausing and then coming back with a bang on Monday. I really want to come back with a bang.”

At Saturday’s general assembly, members of the movement voted unanimously to approve a proposal of solidarity with the occupation at UC Santa Cruz and supported escalating their actions if police evicted or disrupted students occupying buildings at that campus.

UC Berkeley protesters have also received support from college students, alumni and faculty members both abroad and in the United States. On a website called “The Open UC,” created by members of the campus movement, letters of solidarity were posted from campuses as far away as Cairo, Egypt, and New South Wales, Australia, and as close as Santa Cruz.

In Wheeler, tables have been piled high throughout the week with food from organizations such as Food Not Bombs and some local churches, which donated items including coffee, oatmeal and pizza.

Although the occupation of Wheeler paralleled a 2009 occupation in terms of location and impetus, the campus’s and activists’ responses have largely diverged from previous approaches. In 2009, about 40 occupiers locked themselves in Wheeler, resulting in their subsequent arrests.

In contrast, UCPD has not made any arrests so far this time around. Although police have made announcements every night to declare the building closed, they have not taken any action to evict individuals. Police have maintained a small presence every night.

“To me, it shows how much they’ve changed since Occupy, or how much Occupy scared them,” Soiffer said. “Now, they just kind of send cops here … and wait, hoping that stuff will die down and that we’ll just leave on our own accord, which presents a different dilemma.”

After the events of Occupy Cal, the campus administration developed a Protest Response Team that enacted guidelines such as only allowing a fully briefed senior administrator to make decisions regarding police engagement, who must be on site during police action.

UCPD Lt. Marc DeCoulode said police plan solely to monitor the occupation as long as it remains peaceful. Even though staying in Wheeler after 10 p.m. is technically trespassing, he said, the campus is allowing the occupation to continue.

On Thursday night, graffiti was discovered on walls and on the back of a chair in Wheeler Auditorium with messages such as “Fuck the UC Regents,” “Kill Napolitano” and “Struggle is forever.”

“The credibility students have when stuff like this happens diminishes,” said UCPD Sgt. Thomas Wing at the scene. “This stuff frustrates the heck out of us. All the (public sees) is that they’re starting to be destructive.”

UC Berkeley junior Madaly Alcala said she felt that the movement wasn’t being taken seriously by campus administrators or police officers.

“We’re here trying to stand for something,” Alcala said. “We’re not trying to start a riot or be crazy. So it would be nice to be taken as serious students and adults in this movement.”

Still, administrators took action to limit access to Sproul and California halls, allowing only staff and individuals with appointments to enter. Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said that those buildings had been protest targets in the past and that it is not unusual for UC Berkeley to take such actions.

Because of concerns about the public image of the occupation, UC Berkeley junior Claire Rosenfield suggested a blockade of California Hall on Tuesday that would incorporate a human chain around the building — a central administrative building where senior campus officials have their offices.

“We have an opportunity to define a very visual, powerful image, and linking around California Hall is a way of bringing students together,” she said at Friday’s general assembly. She later emphasized in an interview the importance of a focus within the movement.

Some messages disseminated throughout the course of the occupation, which have encompassed transgender awareness, corporatization, racial injustices and the disappearance of students in Mexico, might have the power to drive people away who don’t feel strongly about certain causes, Soiffer said.

On Friday, after some cited concerns that using the language of an occupation might symbolize colonialism and deter others from joining, members of the movement moved to rename the space Wheeler Commons.

Claire Morrison, a campus sophomore, said she did not think the future depended on occupying Wheeler. She characterized the movement as being about “building a community of people,” and said that if the occupation were paused, it would be because “just holding this space isn’t the whole point.”

None of the protesters’ three concrete demands — eliminating tuition increases, dropping the pursuit of charges against 21-year-old Jeff Noven, the UC Berkeley student arrested at the regents meeting Wednesday, and releasing a financial report detailing UC expenditures — had been met as of Sunday night. Noven’s hearing is scheduled for Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in San Francisco.

Michael Braud, a campus junior transfer, said even with an outpouring of student support, he did not think the demands would necessarily be met.

He and other protesters said they do not know how the occupation will ultimately play out. They speculated about a future in which the atrium of Wheeler remains a community gathering place in the spirit of the occupation but also acknowledged that more direct action may be necessary for more people to take notice.

“As much as occupying Wheeler and student buildings is powerful and a way to make a community space … It’s not so much a statement,” Rosenfield said. “Right now, this movement is very alive, but I don’t think it’s necessarily being very loud.”

Katy Abbott covers crime and courts. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @katyeabbott.