UC Berkeley needs to respond

April 13, 2015

Three months after occupying the Golden Bear cafeteria at the University of California Berkeley in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the Black Student Union (BSU) at Berkeley presented Chancellor Nicholas Dirks with a list of demands intended to address the hostile climate for a dwindling number of Black students on campus. The chancellor was given three weeks to respond to the demands--he failed to do so. The BSU has released a statement decrying his lack of engagement--and declaring that the organization remains willing to have a serious dialogue if the administration is prepared to commit to one.

Cori McGowens, a leader of the BSU, talked with Dan Russell and Sarah Jo about the conflict with administrators as well as larger political questions about the fight for justice.

BEFORE DIVING into the current situation at Berkeley, can you tell us what made you decide to get involved in the BSU?

I'VE ALWAYS been in Black organizations, ever since high school--even in middle school, we had Black organizations. This is my second semester. I'm a transfer student, so as soon as I got here, I asked, "Where is the Black student union?" The BSU here has a long history of political activism, and I wanted to be a part of that.

The first activism I was involved in was fighting environmental racism. I'm from Los Angeles, and many neighborhoods bordering mine had power plants within them. In grade school, Greenpeace came and talked with our class about how to fight back. I've always had a lot of energy, so once I saw that there was a way to use that to fight for my community, I decided to get involved.

WHY DO you think the administration is stonewalling, if that's how you would describe their tactics?

THE ADMINISTRATION actually reached out to us initially to improve the climate for Black students on campus, and we wanted to work with them. We don't want this to be a conflict, because this issue is bigger than both of us. I do feel like they're not taking us as seriously as they could. I can't speculate why they didn't give us the point-by-point response we demanded. I do feel they're trying to hold us back until summer break when we'll lose momentum--but we're not going to stop fighting.

Members of the UC Berkeley Black Student Union outside the cafeteria occupation, with supporters in front
Members of the UC Berkeley Black Student Union outside the cafeteria occupation, with supporters in front

WHAT HAS the BSU's relationship with other activist groups been like? Is there anything students can do to show solidarity right now?

BSU HAS historically been at the forefront of social justice struggles and maintains connections with other organizations that share that vision. We work with Bay Area BSU, and collaborate and coordinate events with Berkeley High and Berkeley Community College BSU directly as well. The African Black Coalition helps coordinate BSU actions at all levels. We've also worked on actions Blackout Collective, including the Million Man March to Oakland and Black Brunch.

Our comrades from other organizations should definitely e-mail chancellor Dirks on our behalf, sign our petitions and show up to future actions.

ARE MANY Black faculty or staff in consistent contact or showing support with the BSU?

YES, VERY much. One of our demands is aggressive recruitment and retention of Black faculty and staff as well as tenure for Black professors.

HOW DO you see your relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement as an individual and as the BSU?

ANTI-BLACKNESS is not specific to this campus--what we experience here is fairly minor in comparison to other manifestations of anti-Blackness around the world. As a Black student at UC Berkeley, I feel like I need to fight the manifestations that I see here.

As far as BSU, I recently visited Ivy Leagues over spring break, and they all had similar demands fighting for recruitment and retention of Black students. This isn't an isolated issue, and we're all in solidarity with each other.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a reaction to extreme anti-Blackness that we're in solidarity with. As students, and especially as Black students, it's our job to use the platforms we have to address wider issues of anti-Blackness around the country.

ARE OTHER BSUs facing similar challenges within the UC system?

YES, ABSOLUTELY. If Berkeley is singled out, I think it is because it is the top public university in the world, and we should be leading by example. UC Irvine and Merced are fighting for similar demands, but Santa Barbara and San Diego already won these demands and are working to implement them. They have a resource center and funding for recruitment and retention.

The main difference is whether an administration demonstrates an interest in working with students, which our administration hasn't shown.

WHAT DO you think the role of BSU is in taking BLM forward?

THE WHOLE BLM movement and police brutality aren't new--the difference is that for some reason, the media is putting this on blast right now. We have a lot of power to speak out as Black students and oppressed people right now. The issues we're bringing up with the chancellor aren't new, but they're getting more attention now, so we don't understand why he isn't more interested in working with us.

WHY DO you think BLM is getting so much media attention right now? We're hearing about more and more police killings even though we know that this has been happening on a daily basis for a long time.

BLACK MOVEMENTS and revolutions go in cycles, and there was a certain colorblind ideology that had started to permeate. We need to use that energy we have as all marginalized people to address the issues that the country is facing.

DO YOU feel like there has been progress in the last year, and what do you think the way forward is?

THERE HAS been progress, but it's been superficial. The marches and the actions have drawn attention has been drawn to these issues and that's cut through the idea that we're in a post-racial society. But there needs to be institutional changes--in-depth changes. The changes that we're demanding from the chancellor are just a tiny part of these. Rather than saying that he wants to address these issues, he needs to actually take steps to do that.

Unfortunately, you have a lot of cooptation and commodification of the movement, meaning the idea that you can change things through Twitter or Facebook, rather than understanding that people are being killed in your community.

Dirks can start by implementing the demands or at least addressing them, but he hasn't even responded to any of them specifically. He has an African American initiative that's been sitting around for a long time and has no timeline. We want an honest conversation about our demands rather than trying to sweep them under the rug.

BEYOND BERKELEY, what kind of changes do you think we need to make Black lives matter and challenge institutionalized racism in our society?

WELL, THAT'S a big part of my studies, so I could talk about it all day, but to keep it short: I think that this country needs to understand that our society was set up to oppress and marginalize Black people. I'm not supposed to be here as far as this country is concerned. People need to understand that racism--which is a product of the system--is not a random, sporadic thing. We need to de-program our minds to understand that there isn't a superior or inferior race.

The revolution needs to be psychological rather than material, which is hard. Deprogramming minds is difficult, but we need to look at historical developments, rather than just the effects of the system--police murder, racism.

ANY FINAL thoughts?

WE'RE NOT trying to antagonize the administration. I believe they want to recruit and retain Black students, but I don't think they know how to do that. I think they need our help, and I don't think they're taking us seriously right now. We need a better dialogue, an honest conversation. We've seen this work at other UC [schools], so it isn't a far-fetched demand; it's something that needs to be done.

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