Alumni join Occupy protests on college campuses

Taryn Erhardt / The Daily Californian

Colleen Bazak, Outside News Editor

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Sleeping in tents and organizing online, students get involved at UCBerkeley, McGill.

On Sproul Plaza at the UC Berkeley campus last month, Shalhevet alumna Elana Eden ‘09 was among a handful of students spending the night in tents set up for the Occupy Cal movement.

Staying all night, even when there was no one around, was one of the ways that Elana and the rest of the Occupy demonstrators at Berkeley protested, as part of the larger Occupy colleges movement that grew among campuses all around America during the first semester of the 2011-12 school year.

Many colleges are on winter break now, putting their Occupy movements on hold.  But nothing has changed so far in the minds of the occupiers.

“This is our state and we have right to occupy it,” Elana said. “I am really happy that so many people are just fed up and demanding that the people with power play fairly, at the very least.”

The Occupy Colleges movement was created in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, and according to occupycolleges.org, has spread to more than 90 campuses nationwide during the fall semester.

The UC schools’ protest movements are fighting in particular against a proposed tuition hike of 81 percent over the next four years.

“We’re advocating for many of the same issues represented in the global Occupy movement, like the refunding of public education, the death of corporate greed, and an end to the growing wealth gap,” said alumna Lexi Gelb, ’10, also a UC Berkeley student. “Because we’re at a university, there is a particular emphasis here on affordable public education.”

Lexi said that since the movement is full of opinions, it is hard to say whether there has been a consensus on solutions to the problems being highlighted. However, there is a lot of support at Occupy Cal for equal benefits for union workers, democratic election of the UC regents (who set policy for the entire nine-campus system), and repealing Proposition 13.

Proposition 13, passed by voter referendum in 1978, decreased property taxes, so repealing it would generate revenue that could that be invested into the education system, Lexi said.

Students use Facebook, Twitter and posters, to organize, Lexi and Elana said. Once on site, protesters set up committees in charge of things like propaganda and food.

As at other Occupy protests, General Assembly meetings were held daily to discuss political and practical issues.

The Occupy college protesters had several confrontations with police.  Most notably, at UC Davis, protestors were pepper-sprayed by policemen on Nov. 18. Pepper spray irritates eyes and causes pain, tears and even temporary blindness.
Videos that went viral and were showed on national television showed police spraying students who were kneeling passively on the ground, having refused; this caused outrage and the UC Davis chancellor, Linda Katehi, apologized. Various campuses also held protests in reaction to the UC Davis encounter.

Elana said that at Occupy Cal, there was a night when about 100 police raided their tents, forcing 30 students to leave.

“The police were not violent,” she said. “But they were excessively forceful. There was no need for that many cops to move sleepy students.”

In the Los Angeles area, Occupy movements have sprouted at the University of Southern California, UCLA, and Cal State Northridge, according to occupycolleges.org, though no Shalhevet alumni are known to be involved.

But alumna Bracha Stettin, ’10, is active in the Occupy movement at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where she is a freshman. There, the Occupy movement is known by its French name, Occupons Montreal.

McGill protesters are arguing against a proposed tuition hike that would raise annual tuition from $2,900 to $4,700. Although that would still be a lot lower than at any of the UC’s, Occupy protestors say the change would exclude at least 7,000 students from attending school next year, according to quebectuitionfees.ca.

“The entire group works together until everyone is behind the decision that comes out,” Bracha said about the consensus-based model of the movement. “This means that everyone is behind every decision. It’s definitely a longer process, but ultimately more powerful as it calls on every person as a powerful participant.”

Events at campuses like UC Berkeley have attracted up to 10,000 people.

“When I first started, I didn’t think I would be living on Sproul,” said Elana Eden. “I thought I would go to just the big events. But when I am on Sproul, and I stay, I feel like I am building on something important and positive. “It is often miserable, if it’s raining, you’re tired and the cops are coming,” she continued.”You wonder what you are doing here if no one is seeing you anyway.  But if no one is there, that’s worse.”

Elana said she sometimes only gets four hours of sleep during a 72-hour period, but she still goes to classes and also to her job. Staying at the tents all night, she said, is not an always an enjoyable experience, especially because of the cold weather. The protestors staying at the tents all night are not allowed to actually sleep there, and if they fall asleep, the police will wake them up.

But even without sleeping over, Shalhevet alumni find their involvement in Occupy important and meaningful.

Lexi Gelb has gone to the larger events, like the General Assembly meetings and Days of Action.

“It’s empowering to be part of a movement that advocates ideas I feel passionately about,” Lexi said. “This is an important reminder that people don’t need to accept the status quo. I think a lot of people feel a bit like Peter Finch in Network: ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”

Even those students who have not been involved with the protests say that its impact is unavoidable on campus.

“It’s common hearing students debate the issues presented by the movement in class, during lunch, and in the dorms,” said alumna Jenny Newman, ’11, who is at American University in Washington, D.C. “More than once, people have used chalk to write out messages in support of Occupy DC.”

History teacher Dr. Beerman said that these types of protests have been common throughout our country’s history, often during the time of the Vietnam War.

“This tactic of occupying has been around for a very long time,” said Dr. Beerman. “There are many instances where people used this tactic to protest.”

For example, she said, in May of 1970, demonstrations on college campuses even resulted in shooting deaths, at Kent State University in Ohio, where students burned the ROTC building and the government called in the National Guard.

“The anti-war demonstrations certainly were effective,” Dr. Beerman said. “They made the government stop the draft. I certainly think that the Occupy protestors now will be effective as well.”
However, for now, the protesters only hope they will be just as influential.

“It’s too early to say in any final way whether we succeeded,” Elana said. “But the first battle of surviving and growing is being won enormously.”

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