As ‘Occupy’ protesters from across the Bay area gathered at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza on Tuesday to join a university-wide strike against police violence and privatization, a UC police officer shot and killed an armed undergraduate student in an apparently unrelated incident.
An estimated 4,000 demonstrators including representatives from Occupy Oakland, Occupy Cal, faculty, staff, students and alumni converged for the day of action and voted to reestablish the plaza’s Occupy Cal encampment despite its violent removal by UC police last week. Law enforcement agreed to remain on the outskirts of events and maintain their presence for safety purposes only but did move into the central area from which they forcibly removed students last week.
Earlier in the day, police received reports of a man carrying a firearm in the Haas School of Business and quickly tracked down 32 year-old transfer student Christopher Nathen Elliot Travis, who allegedly turned a loaded .9 mm handgun on the officers in the school’s computer lab. According to UC Police Department Captain Margo Bennett, Travis was shot multiple times after ignoring several orders to drop his weapon and died Tuesday evening at Oakland’s Highland Hospital.
Jeff Totten, a third-year Berkeley student in the Haas School of Business who was a floor below the conflict at the time, said no demonstrations were taking place near the area.
“We were working on our computers and over the loudspeaker, someone said something along the lines of, ‘This is not a drill; you need to evacuate the building now,’” Totten said. “Immediately everyone in the library stood up, packed up their stuff and left. As we were walking out the side exit, we heard two gun shots.”
In contrast, the throng of demonstrators remained peaceful throughout the day of action with no arrests made. Following a strong faculty presence at the rally, more than 70 professors from UC Berkeley’s School of Law sent an open letter to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and other top administrators denouncing the violence and free speech violations in the handling of the protests.
UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Tyrone Hayes said while faculty do not necessarily agree with students’ demands, many still decided to mobilize to guard the student body from the school’s own law enforcement.
“I debated whether to cancel class, but I realized [the main purpose of striking] wasn’t just being here in support of the movement; it’s being here to be of service and protect the students and, if necessary, put ourselves on the front line,” Hayes said. “Many of the faculty out here don’t agree with the methodology of protesting and ‘Occupy,’ but it’s really to be here for the students.… When I think about the movement — what people want and where we are going to go — I’m not so sure, but I know people’s rights were violated and nobody took responsibility.”
Kory Barrios, a fourth-year gender and women’s studies and English major at UC Berkeley, said students’ peaceful protests did not give the UC Board of Regents sufficient cause to cancel their scheduled meeting, which was set to take place at UC San Francisco yesterday and today.
“I think the main thing they’re afraid of is direct confrontation and I think it was a way to mask themselves and put a buffer around themselves,” Barrios said. “As far as ‘rogue-ness,’ our demonstrations have been very non-violent. The air of dissent and the energy of being pissed off are definitely present, but I don’t think in a physical, tangible, destructive way.”
Barrios said professors’ solidarity helps safeguard students’ well-being while also upholding the public university’s commitment to free expression.
“[Professor] Jennifer Miller specifically said that a lot of professors who are still around in this university are here because they believe in public education and can go anywhere to teach but stay here as a form of activism,” Barrios said. “I think that yes, they are protecting us physically, but also our right to an education as well.”
Hayes said supporting the students in such a manner is a fulfilling way to teach by example.
“I’m not the police — I don’t want to start to imagine what goes through their minds — but I know that personally, I go home every day and I tell my family, ‘Hey, guess what I did today?’” Hayes said. “I know there’s no way I could go home and say, ‘Hey, guess what I did today? I beat a person who was laying on the ground.’”
The crowd swelled during a speech delivered by UC Berkeley professor of public policy and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who said the movement’s legitimacy lies in its ethical consciousness.
“You are already succeeding. I urge you to be patient with yourselves because, with regard to every major social movement in the last half century or more, it started with a sense of moral outrage,” Reich said. “Things were wrong and the actual coalitions of that moral outrage and the specific demands for the specific changes came later. The moral outrage was the beginning. The days of apathy are over, folks.”