Hungry for justice at Berkeley

December 9, 2014

Todd Chretien reports from Berkeley, California, on a campus demonstration by the Black Student Union and interviews some of the students involved.

AFRICAN AMERICAN students clad in Black Power sweatshirts blockaded one of the main campus dining facilities at the University of California (UC) Berkeley on December 4 for four-and-a-half hours to represent the time Mike Brown was left lying in the street after he was killed by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson.

"This is now a Black space. No one is going to eat today as long as we're hungry for justice," explained one student.

Organized by the Black Student Union (BSU), 200 African American students linked arms and shut down the Golden Bear cafeteria, while a multiracial line of least 100 Latino, Asian and white students stood together in solidarity with the BSU protest and faced off against campus police.

Cowed for the moment, the normally aggressive campus police, who often target students of color for arrest and beatings during student protests, lurked in the background, but made no attempt to interfere.

Emotions ran high as dozens of Black students took to the mic to express their frustration with life on campus and their rage over the epidemic of racist police violence. They spoke to the reality of Black life in America, even for students like themselves who overcome incredible barriers to "make it," by getting into an elite school like Berkeley.

Members of the Black Student Union at UC Berkeley blockade a campus dining facility
Members of the Black Student Union at UC Berkeley blockade a campus dining facility (Kimberly Veklerov)

Here are some of their words:

"This is a Black occupied space. The police didn't give it to us, we took it. Today, they're afraid of us!"

"We don't have a choice, it's gotten to the point where if we don't fight back, we are literally going to be killed."

"Police broke into my home and hit my mother to arrest by 17-year-old brother, who hadn't done anything."

"I want to say thank you to all our allies who are out here today standing with us. All you standing over there--you don't just have to watch the protest, you can join in."

"You know, we say 'Black lives matter,' but that's not a request, it's a declaration!"

"Being Black on this campus is really hard. It weighs on your spirit and breaks you down. But don't let it!"

"In America, Black people don't get to be children."

"My brother is 24 years old, and he has a masters degree, but no one cares. They just see a Black man."

"Being Black at Cal is hard. People think I'm stupid. Nobody wants to sit next to me in class, nobody wants to talk to you. But you are not stupid, you matter!"

"When I wake up, the first thing I think about is my mother. She's in jail for life, for nothing. And the cops who kill people get off easy. I live in East Oakland, near where Oscar Grant was killed. My own father tells me not to come home because he's afraid I'll get shot. I shouldn't be afraid to go home."

"It's been too damn long, and I am so fucking angry!"

"Thank you to allies for coming. It's not just happening to us, it's happening to you, too. We are here speaking our truth so you can hear it."

"I'm here with my 7-year-old son. I don't know how to explain all this to him. Michael Vick goes to jail for fighting dogs--and I like dogs, don't get me wrong--but the cops who kill people don't even get indicted."

"We have our allies here, and it's time that we, as Black people, join in other struggles. Our brothers and sisters in Palestine are teaching us how to deal with tear gas. We have to break down the barriers because we're all facing the same oppressive system."

"This movement comes from a sense of disgust, a sense of outrage. It's not about what race you are, but what kind of a human being you are."

"Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader in Chicago, was killed 45 years ago today. We've got to know our history. If you don't study, your movement won't work."

THE PROTEST marked the 50th anniversary to the day when Berkeley administrators attempted to shut down the Free Speech Movement by ordering the arrest of nearly 800 students sitting in at Sproul Hall. The student strike that was mobilized in response to the arrests paralyzed the campus.

Although the Berkeley administration now officially honors those historic protests, not much has changed in 50 years for Black students.

After California passed Proposition 209 in 1996 banning affirmative action in public universities, Black enrollment at Berkeley plummeted from nearly 8 percent to just 3.3 percent today. This means that out of 25,951 undergraduates, there are only 871 African Americans. It's the same for graduate students--there are a mere 379 Blacks out of 10,253.

The campus has gained such a reputation for hostility toward Black students that nearly 60 percent of African Americans accepted to Berkeley ultimately decide to attend another college.

Exams begin this week, so campus life is shutting down for the year, but the BSU aims to continue challenging the anti-Black atmosphere at Berkeley and making it a center in the struggle against racism and oppression.

Ariel Hollie, a third-year sociology major who works in the African American Student Development Office, explained why the BSU decided to take action.

TELL US why the BSU planned this protest today?

OUR PROTEST is, first and foremost, about standing in solidarity with the citizens of Ferguson. We are tired of having to protect ourselves from the very people who are meant to protect us. This is about occupying a space that is part of the way this campus runs on a daily basis. We want to stop that and show the university that our lives matter.

We, as Black students, are seeking justice, and we are seeking peace. But there's never been justice for Black people, so if there is no justice, there is no peace. The point of this is to let everyone know that this is a serious matter. It's not just localized to Ferguson, it's not just localized to New York. This is a nationwide issue.

WHAT'S IT like being a Black student at Berkeley?

BEING BLACK at Berkeley is very complex. It's not easy. Someone said it earlier, but it's tough being that person that no one wants to sit next to, that no one wants to work with because they believe that you're dumb. Even when you've been here for four years, even after you graduate, you still have to prove yourself simply because of the color of your skin. Being an African American on a predominantly non-Black campus is hard because every day you have to prove yourself.

People don't realize that even before we get here, we're coming from hard situations. We have to worry about whether our parents will come home in time to be able to cook for us, because they had to work late, or watching our siblings because our parents have to work long nights. Some of us don't live with our parents or even know who they are.

Then we come here, and we have to face that we're Black in America and that comes with a whole lot of obstacles. That's all because of the color of our skin, but we don't want to change the color of our skin. We want to be recognized as human beings, as people whose lives do matter.

That's why it's hard to be here at Berkeley. They pretend that we have so much diversity, but we don't, because diversity is not just the way things look, it's about having a cultural understanding and that is not present on campus. You can see this in our course work, in the syllabi, in the way the professors teach, the way the administration acts, the way UCPD treats us.

WHO IN history do you look to for inspiration?

OVER THE summer, I started reading Revolutionary Suicide, which is by Huey P. Newton. I didn't finish it because I didn't want to read the ending--I couldn't believe how much fire and passion somebody had for the struggle and for the liberation fight.

So when I think about today, I ask myself what are my priorities. Right now, my priorities are the liberation of Black people in America. And that is going down to the nitty-gritty and trying to change the understanding of what Black means in America. It's about getting back our unity--that's what Huey P. Newton did.

He was about liberating Black people in America. He was about teaching them self-defense so they knew how to protect themselves, because he understood that we couldn't relay on the system that was inherently built to be against us, to oppress us. He taught us about the need to have a strong core to survive, and the need to learn that for ourselves because he knew that wasn't something we were going to learn from people who aren't us.

So I look to Newton because he was so strong, so passionate, so courageous. He knew that he wasn't going to live long doing what he was doing, but he still went forward, because that's how important Black people's lives were to him.

HOW DO you see your fight being connected to other struggles?

FIRST AND foremost, my primary concern is the Black people here at UC Berkeley. So we make sure we stand in solidarity with other communities because we understand what they're going through, but we don't shift our focus from ourselves.

Black people have been oppressed for so many hundreds of years. The effects of slavery have been passed down through generations. Who is going to help us if we don't help ourselves? We help other people because on a basic level, we are all human beings. But in this world, I am a Black person and I fight for Black people. That is my foremost concern.

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