Berkeley was not in its accustomed position at the cutting edge of the vanguard. Quietly conceived by Canadian and Spanish activists, the Occupy movement against economic and social inequality was born as protests in Kuala Lumpur in July before it reached Wall Street in New York and several sites in San Francisco in September, and city landmarks in Oakland and San Jose in the Bay Area and many locations worldwide in October.
Ongoing frustration in California with budget cuts and resulting increases in tuition for students and forced leave for employees had spurred large demonstrations at UC and CSU campuses during the last two years, without remedy by regents, trustees, or the powers of Sacramento. This fall at Berkeley, that cluster of issues was folded into the wider one of inequality, and rebranded as Occupy Cal, with a tactical shift to match.
November 9 brought a number of faculty and student “teach-outs” on campus, followed by a midday rally and march off campus to a nearby bank and back to the steps of Sproul Hall, where seven tents were set up. Within hours, campus police, with reinforcements from several local jurisdictions, broke through a line of protestors who had linked arms to protect the tents, and took apart the nascent encampment. Amateur and professional video coverage of the confrontation sparked conflicting stories, outrage, and considerable controversy.
By the next week, Occupy Cal had called for a general strike on November 15, which would have been the day before a meeting of the UC Board of Regents — but that gathering was cancelled, based on “credible law enforcement intelligence. With no encounter looming on the morrow, the 15th was a spirited, upbeat, and largely peaceful day of teach-outs, a march, speeches, Occupy Cal’s group-participation style of decision-making. As well-attended as the day was, more people also attended class and worked as usual. The evening, however, brought a culmination that was both planned and altered. The 15th in the series of Mario Savio Memorial Lectures, which had been scheduled to take place in the Student Union’s Pauley Ballroom, was relocated to the steps of Sproul Hall, merging the memory [invoking the spirit] of the Free Speech Movement’s most famous leader with the site where much of the FSM drama was enacted. This year’s speaker was former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, now a public policy professor in the Goldman School. Despite the advancing chill as night fell, suspense (some tents had been erected on the steps) combined with the day’s festive mood and Reich’s own star power to attract perhaps the largest mass of onlookers in Sproul Plaza since the inauguration of Barack Obama was telecast on a giant screen there in January of 2009. (Crowd estimates ranged from a cautious 3,000 to upwards of 10,000. Still-photographers did their best, but no lens could capture it all in a single image.)
Reich said, among other things, that when Mario Savio was here, “the typical CEO in America was earning 30 times what the average worker was earning. Today, the typical CEO in America is earning more than 300 times what the average worker is earning.” The problem, he continued, “has to do with what that does to our democracy. It undermines our democracy. When all that money can come down from the wealthy, from the corporations, when there are no limits to the amount of money that can infect and undermine and corrupt our democracy, then what do we have left?”
He informed the throng “how proud I am to be a member of this wonderful community. Not only is the University of California, Berkeley, the best system and institution of public education in the world, but more importantly, it has for years, for decades, dedicated itself to the principles of free expression, of social justice and of democracy, and implicitly we understand the connections between all of those points. You must also — and in fact I’m sure you do — feel in your gut that the Occupy movement — the Occupy Cal, the Occupy Oakland, occupations are going on all over this country — are ways in which people are beginning to respond to the crisis of our democracy. And I am so proud of you here today. Your dedication to these principles, your willingness to be patient, your willingness to spend hours in general assemblies, your willingness to put up with what you have put up with is already making a huge difference.”
More events would follow, and create headlines. Many of them are documented in the links below. But Berkeley’s Occupy protest, atypically for its popular-culture reputation, perhaps, was merely one of an astonishing range of Occupy protests elsewhere — a month earlier, there had been Occupy movement events planned for 951 cities in 82 countries around the world.