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Sunday, June 16, 2024

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News + PoliticsProtestA peaceful protest at Berkeley; what will the administration do?

A peaceful protest at Berkeley; what will the administration do?

Imagine if they just accepted the student demands.


I crossed city lines by Bay Area Rapid Transit. After a ride from San Francisco to downtown Berkeley, I walked to Sproul Hall, a building once famous as the site of the Free Speech Movement. Now, over half a century later, the steps of Sproul Hall and adjacent areas of the Berkeley campus are covered by dozens small tents housing Gaza war protesters.

When standing outside their tents, the University of California students call for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. Their demands on a sign posted over the front entrance to Sproul also ask the University to divest financial holdings that profit from and sustain the war, to boycott Israeli universities, to end silence and repression.

Author with wife and friend outside Sproul Hall. Photo by Art Persyko

No one was arrested during my time on campus, or before I arrived, which could explain why mainstream news reporters take so little interest in this story. Across the country, at other campus sites of antiwar protests, hundreds of students have been arrested, some banned from university grounds, their tents dismantled by police and security guards. Those stories attract coverage.

I saw no police or campus security officers during my Berkeley visit. It was Sunday, maybe the officers were taking the day off. But the protesters had been out there during the rest of the week, too, missing classes, inviting other students to join them. The administration has left the encampment alone, so far.

The peace and friendliness of the environment make it un-newsworthy, perhaps. I heard not a word of anti-Semitism, no shouting at all, just some group chants about freeing Palestine—and those only lasted a few minutes.

I read in one report that “Zionists” are not welcome at the site, but Jewish Voice for Peace has a tent there. Last Sunday I met outside the tents with some members of my own group, the Arbeter Ring (Workers Circle, a very old mutual aid society founded by Yiddish speaking Jewish immigrants) and the Bay Area Democracy Action Circle, which is working against the threats of fascism and war. Our banner displaying the words “Arbeter Ring” in Yiddish, along with “Never Again for Anyone, ” attracted a few photographers and no objections.

Near the plaza’s water fountain a friend, longtime activist Henry Norr, passed out stickers that said “Free Palestine.” His grandchildren played nearby. It was family day. An outdoor kitchen offered campers free meals, with some appetizing Mideastern entrees. Students and visitors ate, talked, rested quietly. The calm, sunny scene was far removed from the terrible violence, famine, death and displacement of the war in Gaza; and yet the encampment on Berkeley’s campus in its own way constituted an alternative to war, a demonstration of peace.

I don’t know how long the tents and their occupants will be able to stay camped outside Sproul Hall.  At some point, who knows when, police could enter the peaceful Berkeley scene and disrupt it with arrests, as they have on other campuses in California, Massachusetts, Texas, Ohio, and New York. Meanwhile, I can see a curious dialogue going on inside the UC Berkeley administration building.

(The following is, of course, not based on fact, but on my imagination:)

Administrator: Why is this campus different from all the other campuses?  We used to be known as a hotbed of radicalism. Now our students quietly go to bed in tents, and the press hardly notices them. 

Security officer:  You want headlines, you have to break heads.

Public relations officer: How about if we invite Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, to visit. He stood on the steps at Columbia. Students were very upset and the reporters loved it.

Administrator:  Johnson won’t come here, it’s too dangerous.

Security officer:  But it’s quiet, safe, no disturbances unless you count the chanting and tent-pitching.

Administrator: That’s the danger, as far as Johnson is concerned; he thrives on discord, not civility. Where are all those outside agitators I used to hear about?

Security officer: A few were here on Sunday, but they’ve all gone back to San Francisco.

Public relations officer: I offered them free housing, tents and sleeping bags; but they prefer their own beds.

Security officer: There’s one other way to clear out the protesters. Give in to their demands.

Administrator:  That would make national news, wouldn’t it?

Public relations officer: Berkeley would be in the headlines again!

Security officer: Without a single arrest!

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