Protesters to UC’s chancellor: Use it or lose it

April 26, 2018

Bill Naro, Alex Schmaus and Sarah Wheels report from Berkeley on an action to draw attention to homelessness--among both UC students and the community.

WHILE THOUSANDS celebrated 4/20 by sunbathing amid a haze of marijuana smoke on Memorial Glade at UC Berkeley, a group of undergraduate student activists gathered for a "party" of their own.

Blasting music from a mobile sound system, these were revelers with a mission--to seize a moment during the most densely crowded weekend of the year on campus to draw attention to the issue of homelessness among students and in the Bay Area generally.

Roughly 75 protesters, many of them students, but including members of the local community and homeless rights activists, assembled on the lawn and then marched toward their objective: the empty chancellor's mansion.

"Our chancellor has chosen not to live in this mansion, which is fine, but what's not fine is that it's unoccupied when 11 percent of Berkeley students will face homelessness," explained Sara Wexler, a leader of a new campus chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists. She continued:

It could easily house a good number of students. Our chancellor promised to give 6,000 beds, but none of that has come to fruition. So the Homeless Students Union and the [Associated Students of the University of California] Housing Commission organized this event to try to send out a message that this is not okay.

It's not right that [Chancellor Christ is] clearly ignoring her students that are homeless. There's a widening gap between rich and poor. We're seeing it all over, and it's happening on campus. It's very much a socialist issue.

Student activists protest homelessness outside the chancellor's residence at UC Berkeley
Student activists protest homelessness outside the chancellor's residence at UC Berkeley (Kayla Brown | The Daily Californian)

At least 15 police in full riot gear had already taken up positions inside the mansion by the time the protesters arrived. Dozens more police, all carrying large duffel bags, showed up shortly thereafter. One student suggested that it looked like the police were the ones planning to spend the night inside the mansion.

"Originally, our plan was to stay here as long as we could, potentially overnight," Wexler said. "We wanted to go over the security fence, but it didn't work because the cops are holding the house hostage."

A homeless rights activist who lives at the Here/There homeless camp in South Berkeley commented, "There's always more money in the budget for boot heel."

PROTESTERS, HOWEVER, did not allow the show of police force to ruin their event.

They wrote slogans in chalk on the asphalt and decorated the security fence surrounding the mansion with colorful streamers and a banner reading, "Welcome home, homeless students." They even set up tents on an adjacent field, evoking the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011.

"It's a gem," Danit, a second-year undergraduate whose friend helped to organize the protest, said. "It's a delight. I'm happy to be out here with everyone...I wish that people didn't have to deal with the anxiety of finding housing around here. It's very stressful. It's very expensive."

An international student questioned the date of the protest, saying, "Everyone wants to have fun and be on the lawn [at Memorial Glade] over there."

But that same student, who asked to remain anonymous, conceded that the protest "was bigger than I imagined it would be."

Left-wing student activists at UC Berkeley were relatively quiet for most of the fall 2017 and spring 2018 semesters. That can be partially explained by the activity of racist intimidators and right-wing goons who have been targeting Berkeley since Trump won the 2016 election.

But this small protest may be a sign that the student left is getting ready to make more noise in the coming semesters.

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