Occupy Cal Makes Occupy History at Berkeley

After their tents were pulled by the university, UC Berkeley students turned the school's celebration of a '60s icon into massive Occupy meeting

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Mario Savio was a UC Berkeley student in the '60s and a key member of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. He's become an activist icon; Mario Savio Youth Activist awards are given out by his memorial fund. By the '90s, the steps of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus where he gave his now famous "put your bodies upon the gears" speech were renamed the Mario Savio Steps. It was there last Wednesday that police raided an hours-old Occupy Cal protest and pounded student activists with batons. Yes, the chancellor of the university that celebrates Savio in its brochures, Robert J. Birgeneau, waited mere minutes before setting in motion a response that saw students beaten on the very steps bearing Savio's name ... just for setting up tents.

As the massive Occupy crackdown unfolded nationally, students facing yet another tuition hike -- in a UC system that has seen its tuition triple in 10 years -- took note and took to organizing.

In less than a week the campus had a general strike. Tuesday most classes were cancelled. And it just so happened to be the day the annual event Mario Savio memorial at Sproul Hall was going to take place. Which in turn led to the largest General Assembly (GA) in the history of the Occupy movement.

An amazing coincidence. One of those historical ironies that should make the school administration cringe indefinitely.

Some 4,000 (if you were to be really conservative) participated in a massive direct democracy meeting, now commonly referred to as the GA. The sea of students was tutored in the now identifiable consensus hand signs used by the movement. The facilitators laid out the ground rules: They were going to vote on whether or not to bring back the tents and set up an Occupation on campus. Yes, it was against the rules. Would they all (80 percent anyway) agree this was the right course of action? The GA attendees broke up into groups of 20 to discuss. That's right: 4,000 people broke up into groups of 20 with at least three helicopters hovering just above to discuss the merits of the action. And then the facilitators clarified: just because you vote "yes" doesn't mean you're obligated to sleep there.

This came the day of Zuccotti Park being cleared by NYPD at the request of Mayor Micheal Bloomberg. In Oakland, embattled Mayor Jean Quan let it slip that there was a coordinated effort with 18 cities to clear Occupy movements in their cities. Occupy Oakland was raided for a second time this week. But police arresting and in some cases brutalizing Occupiers hasn't made them go away. It's made others more interested in the movement and made their struggle more sympathetic. Occupy Oakland made a march into UC Berkeley to support Occupy Cal. "I saw a revolt sign," one protester remarked. "And I said 'Oh shit, Occupy Oakland is here.'"

Oakland as a city and as an Occupation have their own very unique, very Oakland problems: One is their city government, two is their police and three is with the distrust of one and two. Oakland was one of a handful of cities in America to have had a solidarity riot for Rodney King in Los Angeles. It's a tough town. Oakland fell during the crack epidemic three decades ago and has never been able to fully pick itself back up. Of all the cities in America with an Occupation, the message of economic justice for the 99 percent should have been welcomed there. It wasn't. At the end of October, the mayor went on vacation while over a dozen different police agencies accompanied the Oakland Police Department and moved in on the camp in front of the mayor's office at city hall. The melee ended with multiple protestors injured, including a former Marine, Scott Olsen, whose skull was fractured after he was hit with a tear gas canister. Oakland has been a focus of the Occupy Movement ever since. It's members came to Cal in a show of solidarity with the students.

In the largest GA history has ever seen (larger by at least 3,500 than similar meetings in New York) the group consensus was that they would, in fact, bring tents and set up an occupation on the Mario Savio Steps.

Berkeley professor Robert Reich, who was already slated to speak at the memorial tribute, offered the massive crowd these words: "Moral outrage is the beginning. The days of apathy are over, folks. And once it has begun it cannot be stopped and it will not be stopped."

After he left the microphone, half a dozen tents slowly paraded through the crowd and up the Mario Savio steps to rest at the top. The PA system played the first song of a promised dance party. The first tune? Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive."

Of course.

Image credit: Tina Dupuy