For black students at UC Berkeley, protests are about Ferguson — and their own lives

A photograph from Thursday's "black lives matter" rally at UC Berkeley. Photo: Genesis
On Dec 4, 2014, the Black Student Union of UC Berkeley held the first of three protests. Students occupied The Golden Bear Cafe for 4.5 hours, the amount of time Michael Brown’s body lay in the street in Ferguson, Mo. Photo: Genesis

By Mara Van Ells

Over the last month, the Black Student Union at UC Berkeley has organized three separate events to protest police killings of unarmed black men.

Students have marched on the streets, through local businesses, and sat in at cafés. The demonstrations have allowed students to grieve, heal, and show solidarity with protesters in Ferguson and Staten Island. But they have also been a way to express concerns about race relations at Cal.

Cal senior Blake Simons feels “extremely blessed and grateful” to be a student at UC Berkeley. But he is also unhappy with the racist experiences he’s had while attending school.


“I’m not going to be the last black student at Cal, so it’s time now we start trying to make change,” he said.

BSU first organized a four-and-a-half hour occupation of Golden Bear Café, on Dec. 4, designed to last the same amount of time the body of Michael Brown was left on a Ferguson, Mo., street after he was killed by a white police officer. On Dec. 13, students peacefully marched from Berkeley to join the Millions March in Oakland. Most recently, BSU organized Black Brunch, where protesters marched through breakfast spots on Berkeley’s Fourth Street. The Jan. 3 event was meant to be reminiscent of sit-ins during the civil-rights movement when black protesters would peacefully occupy restaurants they weren’t allowed in, Simons said.

Simons emphasized that all three protests were peaceful.

Eniola Abioye, a senior studying integrative biology who co-led all three protests, said organizing the events has helped her feel less frustrated and helpless.

“Having platforms for black people to be able to speak and other people are listening — that’s empowering for us,” she said.


Junior Gabrielle Shuman, co-chair of political affairs for BSU, said students have been adamant that their protests are part of a larger movement.

“It’s not just about our problems as Cal students. This is about black people in America,” she said. That being said, “Within that, we feel it’s important to tell our stories as black students at Cal.”

The students have also expressed their own campus experiences through spoken word and poetry, according to freshman Zaynab AbdulQadir.

Before the Jan. 3 protest, students sent out a press release that referenced the 2014 Campus Climate Survey that found that half of black students at UC Berkeley felt prejudged by faculty based on their identity or background.

The survey revealed that 50% of black students felt they didn’t have the same opportunities for success as their classmates, and various racial/ethnic groups unanimously agreed that black students had some of the worst conditions on campus regarding climate and respect from peers.


Since California adopted Proposition 209 in 1998, which forbade UC schools from using race as a criterion for admission, the percentage of black UC Berkeley students has been halved. In 2012, there were 874 African-American undergraduate students, about 3% of the total student body, according to a UC Berkeley diversity census.

“It’s pretty hard when you don’t see people like you, when you don’t see people who have a similar perspective,” said Spencer Pritchard, a senior. He described being in a lecture hall with hundreds of students but few black students as “isolating.”

Shuman said it’s difficult to articulate the negative experiences felt by black students because other students usually aren’t blatantly racist, she said. Rather, students might appropriate black culture or make fun of being “ghetto.” Students might make black jokes or say, “Is it ok if I say n—– around you? Do you mind that?”

Simons said his first experience of racism at Cal was when a racial slur was carved on a wall in a Clark Kerr dormitory, where he lived.

He also recalls a professor using a racial slur in class to say, “I don’t understand why hip-hop artists call each other n—–.” Being one of few black students in class, Simons remembers the whole room staring at him.

Abioye said her negative classroom experiences have mostly involved fellow students — she’s one of the few black students in her department.

“A lot of people assume that I can’t do the work or I’m not smart,” she said, adding that the assumptions show when the students are asked to form groups or work together in class and some students don’t want to work with her.

Abioye, who is originally from Oakland, attended a predominantly black high school. As a freshman, she didn’t live on an African-American themed floor. It was an abrupt transition.

“Two black people lived on the floor and we were expected to represent all black people,” she said.

Pritchard said his friends have been targets of racial slurs hurled by drunken students while passing fraternity row on their way home. “It definitely happens all the time and it’s hard to deal with,” he said.

There have been other issues with fraternities. During Shuman’s freshman year, the fraternity Theta Delta Chi, which happens to be located across the street from a dormitory that has an African-American theme program, hung a “zombie” Halloween decoration — a pair of jeans and a shirt stuffed with straw topped with a gray head — from a noose outside their building for their annual charity Halloween party. The zombie looked like a black man, Shuman said.

“We were outraged and disgusted,” she said. Students took the issue to student government and the fraternity took the decoration down and apologized.

Spencer Pritchard, Gabrielle Shuman and Blake Simons stand in front of the Afro House, an African-American-themed residence owned and operated by the Berkeley Student Cooperative, which is a nonprofit student-run cooperative housing organization. Most of its members attend UC Berkeley. Photo: Mara Van Ells
Spencer Pritchard, Gabrielle Shuman and Blake Simons stand in front of the Afro House, an African-American-themed residence owned and operated by the Berkeley Student Cooperative, which is a nonprofit student-run cooperative housing organization. Most of its members attend UC Berkeley. Photo: Mara Van Ells

One of the places where black students on campus feel safe is the Afro House, an African-American themed student co-op, said Shuman. It’s also affordable. She said 19 or 20 of the 21 students that live there are black. Several other first-year students eat meals and participate in activities at the house, through the Donald Foster Boarder Scholarship program.

For about 10 years, no black students lived at the house, Shuman said. In 2011-2012, one black woman lived at the Afro House; the following year six black men, including Pritchard, lived in the house. The group, who called themselves the Afro Six, launched a campaign to reclaim the space. By 2013-2014, all but one resident of the house identified as black.

“We don’t come across a lot of space by and for black students. We really really have to fight for it,” Shuman said.

Freshman AbdulQadir lives on an African-American theme floor in her dormitory. Although she’s able to surround herself with students who have similar viewpoints, she said she experiences many micro aggressions on campus every day.

“They see me as a black student before they see me as a UC Berkeley student,” she said.

The fact that campus climate is an issue is “not news” to administration said Gibor Basri, Vice-Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion.

Basri, who created his position more than seven years ago, said improving the campus climate has been one of the top strategic goals since the Equity and Inclusion Department was founded.

The Campus Climate Survey, which included questions such as, “Do you feel excluded from study groups or social situations?” and “Do the faculty make assumptions about you?” produced “confirmatory” data that black staff, students and faculty feel the least included of any of the groups identified within the survey, Basri said.

Basri noted that the survey showed that most exclusionary incidents occurred between students.

“People seem to think faculty to student is the issue, but that was minor compared to student to student,” he said. However, Basri added that faculty is responsible for what goes on in their classrooms.

The survey, which was taken by students across the UC system in 2013, showed a correlation between the perceived respect level specific groups have on campus and the number of students of that group attending a university.

“I see the climate issue as essentially one of critical mass,” said Basri. “We just don’t have enough [African-American] students [at UC Berkeley] so they don’t feel isolated,” he said.

Only 40% of all students accepted by Cal go on to attend the school. If more of the admitted black students would attend Cal that could help solve the problem, he said.

“We’re looking to get outside agencies, foundations, whatever to provide targeted financial aid,” Basri said.

The university is also trying to attract more transfer students. Generally, transfer students are a more diverse population than the freshman class, he said.

Besides increasing the black student population, the department will continue funding innovation grants that encourage students and staff to propose projects that could improve equity and inclusion, Basri said. “A number of nice initiatives” have come from past innovation grants such as Bears Baking Bread, which brought together Palestinian and Israeli students to bake bread together and have dialogue, he said.

In response to the campus climate survey findings, a number of new initiatives will take place in the spring. There will be several symposiums focused on the climate for racial minorities on campus and Graduate Student Instructor training will include discussion of climate issues. Staff will receive an email about the issues and a group of about ten faculty members are working out how to get instructors into a room to discuss the issue, Basri said.

A professor from the psychology department hopes to make climate on campus the focus of special discussion sessions within a new course called Critical Dialogues. Students would be encouraged to take what they learn back to their dorms.

For several years, Basri said, black administrators have held monthly breakfasts where students can attend and discuss issues. Three top administrators at the school are black: Basri, Vice-Chancellor Harry Le Grande and Executive Vice-Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele. Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs for Residential and Student Service Programs, LeNorman Strong, is also African-American.

Shuman said representatives from BSU plan to meet with administration in February to discuss conditions for black students on campus.

Despite these efforts, many students feel the university isn’t doing enough. “If they really prioritized or cared about students, I’d hope they’d be doing way more than they are,” Simons said.

However, he acknowledged that black faculty has been supportive of black students, particularly after effigies hung around campus by an anonymous artist collective left many students traumatized. “They staged a protest during finals week when they knew we were taking finals which meant a lot to black students,” he said. Counseling hours were extended for black student during finals, AbdulQadir said.

Simons said he’s speaking up to make the university a better place where students are treated fairly and equally.

“That’s all my goals are,” he said.

Mara Van Ells is an aspiring digital journalist who is pursuing a master’s degree at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Related:
Protesters stage “Black Brunch” on Fourth Street (01.03.15)
Anonymous artist collective claims responsibility for effigies erected at Cal (12.14.14)
CHP arrests 150 protesters after they block I-80 freeway (12.08.14)
City of Berkeley told police to use restraint, avoid tear gas, on second night of protests (12.08.14)
Photo Gallery: Two nights of protests, riots in Berkeley (12.08.14)
Protesters take to streets for second night: violence, vandalism of local businesses, looting (12.07.14)
Ferguson demo: injuries reported, tear gas used, property vandalized; arrests (12.06.14)
Cal students, supporters, hold Black Lives Matter rally (12.05.14)

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