About 75 black UC Berkeley students peacefully commandeered the Golden Bear Cafe and demonstrated outside its doors for four and a half hours Thursday — organized to last the same amount of time the body of 18-year-old Michael Brown was left on a Ferguson, Missouri, street after he was killed by a white police officer.
By 11:45 a.m., protesters had swiftly cleared out employees and customers from the campus cafe. The students, many of whom are members of the Black Student Union, then formed a human chain around the building, sealing off access. The choice of the cafe as backdrop for their protest, organizers said, was to interrupt “business as usual” — specifically, the business of a revenue-generating arm of UC Berkeley.
“It’s about, ‘You want to eat?’ Well, we want to be recognized,” said UC Berkeley junior Ariel Hollie, a coordinator and executive assistant in the African American Student Development Office. “It’s about showing people you got to be more aware — that the world you live in is so fucked up.”
UC Berkeley junior Gabrielle Shuman, co-chair of political affairs for the BSU, said as much as the event was about disrupting campus operations, it was more about empowering the black community and standing in solidarity with the families of victims who died from police use of force.
The rally included speeches by black students on their experiences with racial injustice. Spoken word and song were also featured in between choruses of “no justice, no peace, no racist police” and “ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop.”
Student organizers stressed the need to take space and declare it theirs— in the form of a building takeover — rather than asking for space they say is rarely afforded for them on campus. Navvab Safavi referenced in his speech how few black students are enrolled on campus today compared to when he was BSU president in the early 1990s.
As of fall 2013, students who identified as African American or black comprised less than 4 percent of the student body.
The chants and freedom songs on campus echoed those in cities across the country in the aftermath of a recent slew of cases in which unarmed black men and youth died at the hands of mostly white law enforcement officials such as Ferguson’s Darren Wilson and New York City’s Daniel Pantaleo, whose grand juries denied indictments — and thus criminal charges — for each of the two men.
The grand jury decisions — and killings themselves — touched off demonstrations including a march through Berkeley in August and a protest in Oakland attended by about 40 UC Berkeley students Nov. 24.
“Hearing the indictment made me realize I’m either about it, or I’m not,” Hollie said. “I’m either a revolutionary, or I’m not. I’m all, or I’m nothing.”
Although the absence of indictments was the driving force behind the rally, students emphasized the cases of police-involved deaths with black victims that have not received as much publicity as the cases of Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner.
At the end of the occupation, the names of black victims of police killings were read aloud, including Kayla Moore, a transgender Berkeley woman who died in custody last year, and Oscar Grant III, who was killed by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle five years ago.
“What brought me here — it’s the accumulation of black bodies dying on U.S. soil,” said UC Berkeley sophomore Nicholas Ross, a member of the BSU who pointed out after the rally’s close that, for some, day-to-day activities had returned to their usual course. “People are walking around business as usual. But when this happens, classes and your everyday life don’t matter.”
For Kelechi Emeziem, also a member of the BSU, organizing and attending Thursday’s events weren’t a question.
“I have to do this. I’m a black man in America,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t.”