So last night at the University of California at Berkeley, seventeen people were arrested at Wheeler Hall after refusing to leave when the building was scheduled to close. Wheeler has been the site of two previous mass arrests in recent months, arrests that have been heavily criticized by civil libertarians.
Today, a smaller group of protesters found a new tactic, one that seems to have at least temporarily stymied the administration.
According to the student newspaper The Daily Cal, nine protesters — identified as students by witnesses — made their way to a fourth-floor outside ledge on the Wheeler facade early this afternoon. Six of them have apparently chained themselves together, and they have reportedly linked arms inside PVC pipes, making it logistically difficult for campus police to bring them down from the ledge against their will. (One student has apparently been dragged through a window and arrested. Eight remain on the ledge.)
This action would appear to place Berkeley in a difficult position. If they negotiate with the protesters — who are currently demanding, among other things, that charges against previous Wheeler occupiers be dropped — they break from their recent hardline stance, and in doing so encourage future similar actions. If they do not, they allow what the administration has already called a campus “health and safety issue” to continue.
Students at UC Santa Cruz and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee spent last night occupying campus buildings without police involvement, disciplinary action, or other incident. Such non-disruptive student occupations have recently been met with a reflexive punitive response at Berkeley.
There’s a lot that’s still murky about today’s events and their possible consequences, but it seems clear that in choosing to arrest students who have been demonstrating peacefully and non-disruptively on their own campus, the Berkeley administration has created the conditions which have now led several of those students to take up positions chained together on a high, narrow ledge on the face of an iconic campus building, demanding a change of course.
6:10 pm Pacific Time | UC Berkeley police have declared the group of supporters and gawkers outside Wheeler Hall an “unlawful assembly,” and are clearing the area. Reports on Twitter suggest they’re using batons and pepper spray.
6:30 pm | I’ve created a Twitter list of folks tweeting about the ledge occupation.
- Roll back the fee hikes, both the 8 % increase of 2010 and the 32 % of 2009.
- End police repression on campus. Hands off student protesters!
- Democratize the Regents.
- Put a stop to Operational Excellence, our campus’ incarnation of structural adjustment programs.
The occupiers are also reportedly demanding amnesty for themselves and other recent Berkeley student demonstrators.
6:50 pm | As I just posted on Twitter, UC cops have taken one of two approaches to campus occupiers since 2009: Arrest or wait them out. Neither seems like a viable option here. It seems pretty obvious that the Berkeley administration doesn’t want eight chained-together students falling asleep on a ledge tonight. So now what?
7:30 pm | According to tweeter (and Berkeley grad student) @callie_hoo, the ledge occupiers are willing to “consider coming down” if four conditions are met:
- That all student conduct charges against participants in previous demonstrators be dropped.
- That they be given a meeting with Berkeley’s chancellor.
- That two students, and one union worker, elected by a general assembly be added to the university’s “Operational Excellence” committee.
- That they themselves face no criminal or student conduct charges.
8:05 pm | From photos, it looks to me like the ledge the protesters are on is about five feet deep, shallower where there are columns. It’s about fifty feet in the air, maybe a bit more. There’s no railing whatsoever.
8:40 pm | Multiple reports on Twitter that the eight students are coming down from the ledge, having won concrete concessions from the Berkeley administration. If true, this marks the first tactically successful Berkeley occupation since the current movement began in 2009.
8:45 pm | The Daily Cal is reporting that the students from the ledge will not be arrested when they come down, and that all “protesters facing student conduct charges from the last year and a half – including those from the Nov. 20, 2009 Wheeler occupation” will be offered probation through the end of this semester as a resolution to their cases.
9:15 pm | Daily Cal now saying that all 17 protesters detained yesterday will have their charges dropped completely, while others from previous protests will either have charges dropped or be offered probation through the end of this semester.
9:20 pm | As I said on Twitter a few minutes ago, I have a hunch that today’s events could prompt a dramatic scaling back of the use of mass arrests as a disciplinary tool in Berkeley — and perhaps throughout the UC and CSU systems. Students have found a form of protest that gives them leverage over administrators, and until the administration finds a way to neutralize this new tactic, they won’t want to risk a replay of this evening. Students, faculty, alumni, staff, politicians, the public — none would ever forgive Berkeley if a student fell to his or her death while pressing the university to drop charges against friends who had been arrested in a peaceful, non-disruptive campus protest.
If tonight’s protest had ended badly, it could have been — without exaggeration — another Kent State. To their credit, the Berkeley administration recognized the gravity of the situation, and responded appropriately. But where they go from here remains an open question.
9:28 pm | The demonstrators have left Wheeler Hall, and have been met by a cheering crowd below.