By Jake Schoneker
Eight student protestors armed with PVC pipes, carabiners and Depend diapers, who had chained themselves to a fourth floor ledge of Wheeler Hall, came down and emerged from the building at about 9.30 p.m. yesterday after a long day of demonstrations.
All told, the UC Police were occupied for more than seven hours dealing with the protestors, and news helicopters hovered noisily over the city for several hours last night.
The group had climbed onto the ledge at about 2 p.m. and a crowd of several hundred people watched from the ground, chanting slogans.
By the end of the demonstrations, the protesters were released without student conduct charges, scoring what they called “a major victory in their fight to democratize the UC Regents and defend public education”. The UC Police cited seven of the students for trespassing. They were Cindy Alvarenga, Alexander Barnett, Marika Iyer, John Mason, Joanne Reynoso, Jan Szymon and Cristina Urista. A ninth student, Alexander Poska, who was originally part of the rooftop protest, attempted to climb back into the building in the afternoon and was arrested.
“Today was a huge accomplishment,” said Urista, a Cal senior. “We got a lot of sentences reduced so that this struggle can continue.”
The protesters agreed to descend from the balcony after UCB negotiators agreed to some of their demands. The administration dropped university charges against Thursday’s protesters and those on Wednesday, when 17 students were arrested after a short-lived occupation of Wheeler Hall’s entrance way. In addition, the administration agreed to grant a semester-long probation to students involved in the November 20, 2009 Wheeler occupation.
The protesters’ broader demands — an end to higher education budget cuts, the democratization of the UC Regents, and representation in the university’s Operational Excellence program — went unmet. But the administration did agree to host a public town hall meeting about the Operational Excellence program, a cost-cutting effort instituted by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau last year.
Protesters left Wheeler Hall without handcuffs and were mobbed by about 100 jubilant students who had been supporting them from the ground throughout the evening. Though no substantive policy changes were made, the protestors felt they had achieved a significant moral victory for a movement that had lost much of its momentum.
Last year’s protests — in September, November, February and March — had strong and sustained support, no doubt due to the drastic tuition and student fee hikes announced by the administration that year. This school year, the movement for the most part has been quiet — until now.
“We’ve really fallen prey to the intimidation tactics of the university,” said Zachary Miller, who completed his coursework at UC Berkeley in December 2009 and was arrested last February during a protest south of campus. “The repression has been extremely effective. It’s created a hardened, resilient core of organizers.”
Miller said the idea for Thursday’s action — with protesters using PVC pipes over their arms and carabiners to link themselves together around the high Wheeler Hall ledge — was kept under wraps until just a few days ago. Depend diapers were needed to endure the long hours of protest — and also because the students on the ledge did not have the use of their arms.
“The eight kids who were up there — these are youngsters, undergrads at Cal,” Miller said. “They were scared, they were intimidated, facing these insurmountable odds… and they chose to take this action. It emboldens people, it inspires people. When other people are willing to put themselves on the line, it challenges each and every one of us.”
For Miller and the other protesters, Thursday’s action represents a chance to regalvanize the student movement and continue their struggle to defend public education. “The core organizers who have been part of this movement for the past year and a half, we’ve poured everything we have into this,” Miller said. “Moments like this, they remind me why I’m involved.”
Jake Schoneker is a student in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His video reporting can be found at the Mobile Reporting Class blog.