The place now known as Berkeley is xučyun land, the territory of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone.
The first thing to know about the university of california is that it was a settler institution, created by rich colonists who came from the east coast with dreams of Manifest Destiny and profit. They took a liking to this site between the bay and the hills, nestled away from what they saw as the “brutalizing vulgarity” of urban San Francisco and the coal mines near Antioch that powered its industries. No treaty was ever signed for this land, no sale was made.
Standing at Founder’s Rock, near modern-day Memorial Stadium, UC trustee and railroad magnate Frederick Billings was struck by a line written by Bishop George Berkeley, “Westward the course of empire takes it way,” and named the campus after its author. The rest of the poem discarded, this central line became prophesy and motto, slogan and parable. The university was named in celebration of the conquest – of the domination of the peoples and landscapes of the Western hemisphere, with hopes of extending the reach of the empire-to-be across the Pacific.
Between the violent establishment of the Bear Flag Republic in 1846, creating modern-day California, and the founding of UC in 1868, almost 85% of California’s indigenous population was killed – a genocide – by armed death squads, murders by individual settlers, and the spread of foreign infectious diseases such as smallpox and cholera. Of the 2,395 parcels of land granted to the University of California, 96% were expropriated from 125 individual tribes without ratified treaties. Many of these were then sold off at a profit, a lucrative business that funded the university’s early operations.
Billings and his colleagues accepted the genocide of indigenous peoples as a necessary condition to grow their industries and university. Shellmounds, once important ceremonial and burial sites numbering over 400 across the Bay Area, were demolished. They took the human remains to the university for study, while some of the earth gathered in the process was used to pave Berkeley’s first roads.
While officially having a race-neutral admissions policy, it is little surprise that the university primarily served Euro-American Protestants. Today, there are UC campuses and other public universities across the state. But in the beginning, there was only one. Berkeley was the University of California – that’s where the nickname “Cal” comes from. For students across California seeking higher education, Berkeley was the place to go.
The early university settlement was initially surrounded by farms. By the waterfront, now known as West Berkeley, was the factory town of Ocean View. A small port serviced bustling lumber facilities, a soap factory, mills, and other heavy industries.
When university Berkeley and industrial Ocean View were merged in 1878, the new town was highly segregated. Wealthy neighborhoods such as Claremont were bracketed by large stone pillars, still existing, which marked them as wealthy “sundown” white-only areas.
A 1920s census reported 1,333 people of Asian descent and 507 Black people living in Berkeley, of whom most were working in service or industrial jobs. Even in the university’s early years, students of color – though few in number – enrolled and obtained degrees. South and east Asians formed student organizations going back to the early 1900s. Early campus groups like these often confronted the segregated conditions of the city, and some learned tactics from farmworker activism in the local fields, or even anti-colonial struggles abroad.
While the university often portrays itself as a beacon of progress – a compelling story then and now against the backdrop of a segregated society – the campus has been deeply connected to the maintenance and expansion of deadly power, both locally and abroad.
Berkeley’s first chief of police, August Vollmer, was a professor of police administration at UC Berkeley. Known as the “father of modern law enforcement,” Vollmer honed military tactics from the amerikan imperialist war in the Phillipines into standard practice for domestic policing in Berkeley and Los Angeles. One of Vollmer’s beliefs was that crime was connected to “racial degeneracy,” and he described the patrol car – of which Berkeley had the first fleet in 1913 – as “the swift angel of death.”
Arriving students at Cal in the 1930s might have stopped in at Stiles Hall, a student union type of place, a big house with an info desk, library, and auditorium. Because the university did not provide any on-campus housing for many decades, arriving freshmen often went there to get a list of places to find room and board, or browse job listings.
Stiles Hall was closely associated with the campus YMCA, whose students often went across the Bay to volunteer in San Francisco. There, they encountered the explosive, communist labor movements of the Depression thirties.
The Depression severely impacted many UC students. Financial aid was insufficient and opportunities for students to earn money were meager. In this environment, organizations like the YMCA became more secular, and shifted their work to focus on basic needs and civil rights. In 1930, the Berkeley International House – founded by a New York YMCA member – opened as a lodging and community space for foreign students, who were often barred from Berkeley’s other housing and dining establishments.
In 1934, thousands of students and faculty, UC atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer among them, went out to San Francisco’s waterfront in support of the 1934 general strike. This city-wide work stoppage paralyzed the city’s economy for four days until the port workers won the right to unionize.
As striking and unemployed workers struggled to survive under capitalism, many organized self-help cooperatives. Food and housing projects sprung up across the Bay, as well as a group called the Unemployment Exchange Association. One group of UC students and YMCA people took inspiration from these efforts and created the student-run housing co-op now known as the Berkeley Student Cooperative (BSC).
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 were developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory under the direction of UC scientists. This military-academic program was understood as an emergency war measure, to force surrender of the Nazis, but since the war its capacity has only continued to expand.
A decade after Japan’s surrender, vastly more powerful weapons were tested in Bikini Atoll, resulting in the forced relocation of the island’s residents and the permanent poisoning of their homeland. One man was murdered in a 1954 hydrogen bomb test. UC Berkeley atomic scientist Edward Teller remarked, “It’s unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman.” (In the fall of 1970, protesters avenged the fisherman by descending on Teller’s Berkeley house.)
Attacks and Counter-Attacks
Elites in the 1950s tried new measures to restrict anti-capitalist expression. Their growing power manifested on UC campuses in a new requirement that faculty sign a “loyalty oath” to the State and university.
The purpose of this policy was to shut down solidarity between campuses, laborers and de-colonial struggles happening internationally, by demanding faculty pledge allegiance to the newly powerful amerikan empire rather than the oppressed. Oppenheimer, for instance, had often associated with communists and underground campus groups, before being pressured to cut ties.
Faculty strongly opposed the requirement. Although the struggle against the loyalty oath enjoyed wide student support, the faculty chose not to include students, workers, or other marginalized people in their fight so that their “role as gentlemen” would not be compromised. To the faculty’s rude surprise, the Regents weren’t so gentlemanly in their successful strategy of isolating the more outspoken faculty and setting the demoralized remainder at each others’ throats. This marked the end of a tradition of faculty initiation of university reform.
The 50s were a dark time at UC Berkeley. Off-campus speakers were banned, political student groups were prohibited, and the Daily Cal lacked editorial independence. The chief administrator of student affairs had been on record for over a decade declaring that moves to racially integrate fraternities were part of a communist plot.
Rumbles of new movements – some seeking reform and others proposing visions of entirely new societies – were reaching the campus, however. Student organizers with a group called SLATE campaigned for an end to racial discrimination in Greek houses, fair wages and rent for students and protection of academic freedom.
People were pissed when a student was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in May 1960. Several hundred noisy demonstrators were barred from attending their hearing in San Francisco. Without warning, police opened up with fire hoses, washing the students down the steps of city hall. 12 were injured and 64 arrested. The next day, 5,000 showed up to protest.
During the summer and fall of that year, the administration tried to thwart the growing activism by throwing graduate students out of the ASUC and censoring the Daily Cal. In 1961, Malcolm X was barred from speaking on campus under the pretext that he was a minister.
From 1961-63, there was constant conflict between students and the administration over civil liberties issues. The administration was steadily forced to make concessions. The campus was soon opened up to outside speakers and mandatory ROTC (the military cadet program) for all men was dropped.
In 1963-64 campus political activity in Berkeley focused on anti-Black employers. Students picketed downtown merchants, Lucky Supermarket, Oakland Tribune, a restaurant chain and Jack London Square to protest racial discrimination in hiring. Sit-ins and picketing of the Sheraton Palace Hotel and the Cadillac agency in San Francisco led to industry-wide agreements to end hiring discrimination.
Migration from the South, China, and Japan, had brought large changes in Berkeley’s population since the 20s. The G.I. bill, entitling veterans to higher education at institutions like UC Berkeley, transformed public education from “a limited privilege to a generalized public expectation.” Low, or free, tuition allowed students to experiment with new ideas and practices without huge debts or concerns of future employers.
The Free Speech Movement
From 1960 to 1964, students greatly strengthened their political and civil rights. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) in October of 1964 was one of the most impactful demands for student civil liberties.
Since political tabling was banned on Sproul Plaza, students traditionally set up political tables on the sidewalk at the Telegraph/Bancroft entrance since this was considered public property. However, the Oakland Tribune (which students were then picketing for hiring discrimination) pointed out to the administration that this strip of land actually belonged to the university.
When the university announced that students could no longer set up their tables on “the strip,” students organized and defied the ban through direct action. They deliberately set up tables where they were forbidden and collected thousands of signatures of students who said they were also sitting at the tables.
In October 1964, police suddenly arrested a man sitting at a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) table. First one, then two, then thousands of people rebelled and trapped the police car on Sproul Plaza for 32 hours. The car became a speakers’ platform from which many spoke grievances against the university.
The governor declared a state of emergency by request of UC president Clark Kerr, and sent hundreds of police to the campus.
In a complex struggle with many tactical phases extending over two months, the FSM exposed and isolated the administration and regents so effectively that a notice of disciplinary proceedings against four FSM leaders triggered a sit-in of 800 students and a student strike of up to 20,000.
This forced Kerr to go before a gathering of 18,000 in the Greek Theater with some pseudo-concessions. When FSM leader Mario Savio attempted to speak, the administration ordered UC police to drag him off stage. But they underestimated students’ dedication to the FSM. This repression caused increased anger and further activated the campus. The eventual settlement greatly expanded student political rights on campus and inspired movements across the country.
Opposition to the Vietnam War
In the late 1960s, the anti-war movement grew and students focused on the draft and the university’s role in military research. The number of troops in Vietnam increased from an initial 125,000 to 500,000 by early 1968. Tens of thousands — US troops and Vietnamese civilians and military — died each year. Protesters responded with increasing militancy.
About 30,000 people turned out in spring 1965 for a huge outdoor round-the-clock anti-war teach-in on a playing field where Zellerbach Hall is now located.
During the summer of 1965 several hundred people tried to stop troop trains on the Santa Fe railroad tracks in West Berkeley by standing on the tracks. In the fall, 10,00-20,000 people tried three times to march to the Oakland Army terminal from campus. Twice they were turned back short of Oakland by masses of police.
In the spring of 1966, a majority of students voted for immediate US withdrawl from Vietnam in a campuswide referendum initiated by the Vietnam Day Committee. Graduate student TA’s used their discussion sections to talk about the war in one third of all classes. Soon after the vote, the VDC’s offices were bombed by reactionaries and thousands of students responded by marching on Telegraph Ave.
A new level of militancy was reached in the fall of 1967 with the Stop the Draft Week in Berkeley. Actions at the Oakland Induction Center and teach-ins on campus were planned. The Alameda country supervisors got an injunction to forbid the use of the university for “on campus advocacy of off campus violations of the Universal Military Training and Services Act.” On Monday evening, returning from Oakland, 6,000 demonstrators found that the auditorium which they had reserved was closed and on-campus meetings were banned.
Tuesday morning police broke up a demonstration at the Induction Center with clubs and mace, injuring several dozen including medics and news reporters. On Friday the protesters returned, ready to stop buses of troops from leaving and ready to defend themselves. They numbered 10,000 and many wore helmets and carried shields. They built barricades, stopped traffic and spray-painted a twenty-block area while dodging police.
In 1969, students at Stanford broke into the Applied Electronics Laboratory (AEL), which developed military technologies for use against the Vietnamese communists. They took over the building, using the copiers to produce flyers and a journal called Declassified, which published confidential files found in the offices. Black Panther Bobby Seale stopped by to give his support to the occupation. Stanford was forced to cancel military research at the campus.
Eldridge Cleaver’s Class
In the late 60s, the Black Panther Party became a cultural and political force in Oakland. Their ten-point program included among its demands land, food, housing, education, justice and peace.
In summer 1968, there was an underlying spirit of rebellion on Telegraph Ave, which flared into riots against police harassment on Southside. One spark that caught fire on campus in the fall was the decision of the Regents to limit guest speakers to one appearance per quarter per class, which effectively stripped the credit from Social Analysis 139X – a student-initiated course on racism in America, featuring well-known Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver as the principal lecturer.
After weeks of meetings, rallies and negotiations, the students in the class took the initiative. They held a sit-in in Sproul Hall. About 120 were arrested, while hundreds more massed outside.
Two days later another sit-in was held at Moses Hall, organized by radicals who planted barricades against forced entry. About 80 were eventually arrested. The administration seized on some alleged property damage to divide the students, and the struggle dwindled due to division over tactics, the burden of court and disciplinary proceedings, and end of the quarter.
The Third World Strike
In 1968, Third World students led the first campus-wide struggle at UC Berkeley around self-determination and demands specifically relevant to BIPOC students, faculty, and workers.
Three Third World groups had been involved in separate smaller negotiations and confrontations with the administration for a year. Impressed with the strike at San Francisco State, these Berkeley students formed the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) and put forward their demands, chief among them a Third World College with adequate funding, open admissions and financial aid for Third World people with direct control of these programs.
The first stage of the struggle was mainly an attempt to educate the campus. Picket lines were set up, along with a program of dorm speaking, convocations and circulation of literature. Then there were blockades of Sather Gate and the Telegraph Ave entrance. Police were mobilized on campus and students responded by marching through buildings to disrupt classes.
Governor Reagan declared a “state of extreme emergency” and placed control of the campus in the hands of Alameda County Sheriff Madigan. The administration and police began a brutal campaign to crush the strike. Picketers were arrested and beaten in the basement of Sproul Hall. All rallies and public meetings on the campus were banned. But the demonstrations got bigger and bigger. On campus, police fought against students with tear gas and clubs; students responded with rocks and bottles. Hundreds were injured or arrested.
After two months of strike, students were worn down and exhausted by court battles. A divisive debate about tactics had arisen. Under the circumstances, the TWLF decided to suspend the strike. They entered into negotiations with the administration over specifics of an Ethnic Studies program, which, while falling short of their initial demands, was a partial victory and created today’s Ethnic Studies programs.
The Battle for People’s Park
In 1968, UC seized all 30 buildings on the block between Haste and Dwight that is today People’s Park. Affordable units and homes from unwilling sellers were taken through eminent domain. The university evicted all tenants during finals week and demolished the entire block.
A year later, it was still an empty and dirty lot used informally for parking. On April 20, 1969, people decided to liberate the land, by bringing sod and turning it into a garden. People’s Park was created on the abandoned land by thousands of students and other volunteers. Swing-sets, art, plants and free meals blossomed.
On May 15th, known as Bloody Thursday, UC fenced off the new green gathering space. A rally protesting the fence was quickly organized by ASUC people on Sproul Plaza. In the middle of the rally, police turned off the sound system. 6,000 people spontaneously began to march down Telegraph toward the park. They were met by 250 police with rifles and flack-jackets. Someone opened a fire hydrant – when cops moved into the crowd to shut off the hydrant, some rocks were thrown and the police retaliated by firing tear gas.
An afternoon of chaos and violence followed. Sheriff’s deputies walked through the streets of Berkeley firing into crowds and at individuals with shotguns. At first they used birdshot but when that ran out, they switched to double-0 buckshot. 128 people were admitted to hospitals that day, mostly with gunshot wounds. James Rector, who had been quietly watching from a roof, died of his wounds a few days later.
The day after the shootings, 3,000 National Guard troops were sent to occupy Berkeley. A curfew was imposed and a ban on public assembly was put into force. Meetings on campus were broken up with tear gas. But mass demonstrations continued. Mass arrests occurred. 482 people, including passerby and journalists from the establishment press, were arrested in one swoop. Prisoners from that arrest reported extensive beatings at Santa Rita jail.
At a rally on Sproul plaza, troops surrounded the gathering, admitting people but preventing them from leaving. Then the troops put on gas masks and a helicopter flew over spraying CS tear gas, a gas outlawed for wartime use by the Geneva Convention. They mistakenly teargassed Cowell hospital as well as several local public schools.
Mass unrest continued in Berkeley for 15 days after the park was fenced. 30,000 people participated in a march for the park. The fence, however, stayed up.
In the summer of 1969, a group of organizers baked wire clippers into loaves of bread for a march. When the march reached People’s Park, the fence came down and the park was liberated again.
Anti-Imperialism in the 70s
On the April 15 Moratorium Day against the Vietnam war, Berkeley students attacked the Navy ROTC building. The university declared a state of emergency. Campus was still under a state of emergency when the media announced the invasion of Cambodia. Activists at Yale called for a national student strike over the Cambodian invasion and the strike spread further when news came about national guard murders at Kent State, Jackson State and Augusta.
Berkeley students paralyzed the school with massive rioting the first week of May. Students went to their classes and demanded that the class discuss the Cambodian invasion and then disband. 15,000 attended a convocation at the Greek Theater and the regents, fearing more intensified riots, closed the university for a four-day weekend.
The Academic senate voted to abolish ROTC but the regents simply ignored the vote. A faculty proposal sought to “reconstitute” the university so students could take all classes pass/not pass and could get credit for anti-war work. Thousands of students participated.
In the fall of 1970 a War Crimes Committee (WCC) was formed by radicals to attack the university’s role in the amerikan war effort. When amerikan troops began an invasion of Laos in February, WCC called a rally on Sproul Plaza. Thousands marched to the Atomic Energy Commission building on Bancroft to protest the deployment of nuclear weapons in Thailand. After police provocation, skirmishes broke out and an AEC car was burned.
During the spring of ‘72, a coalition of groups formed into the Campus Anti-Imperialist Coalition (CAIC) to oppose the increase of the bombing of North Vietnam. CAIC and other groups organized an April 22nd march of 30-40,000 people. They demanded enactment of the Seven Points peace plan proposed by the North Vietnamese. A national student strike was called.
Construction workers at Berkeley were on strike to protest administration efforts to break their union. Other campus unions joined in. At the same time, Chicano students and other Third World groups held a sit-in at the law school (then known as Boalt, named after an anti-Chinese racist) to demand more admission of Chicano and other BIPOC students.
A massive, campus wide strike, including both workers and students, was beginning to emerge. Students held huge meetings, rallies and spirited marches, joined the workers on the picket lines and covered the campus with garbage, to be picked up later by scabs guarded by the police. Active students were banned from campus. The strike lasted for 83 days.
In Early May, a candlelight march was hastily called in Willard Park (informally known as Ho Chi Minh Park) to respond to Nixon’s latest acts of war. Starting with only 200-300 people, it grew to thousands as they marched through Berkeley. Campus administrators had re-fenced People’s Park, and that night, people tore down the fence with their bare hands. A police car was overturned and burned. Skirmishing with police lasted into the morning hours.
In the fall of 1972, the Black Student Union (BSU) mobilized against the absorption of the Black Studies Department into the regular academic College of Letters and Science. The department had been won as part of the Ethnic Studies Division during the Third World Strike. A BSU led boycott only lasted for a quarter but was defeated. The chancellor then closed the Research Institute on Human Relations, which had also been created by the Third World Strike.
During the school year, students from the Education Liberation Front formed alternative discussion sections for large social science classes. Members of the alternative sections would study together and challenge the professors’ “apolitical” course content during lecture.
In the early 1980s, the struggle against imperialism would continue. Thousands organized, marched, and held sit-ins against US intervention in El Salvador.
In the 60s, students at Cal with disabilities had started a movement to get basic rights – adequate accessible housing, services, educational facilities, books, etc. Many innovations such as the now ubiquitous “curb cuts,” where sidewalks dip down to allow wheelchairs to cross the street, started in Berkeley. People with disabilities organized and started communal places to live together when they couldn’t find accessible housing or safety from discrimination.
Workers of lungless labs- when dying
Will you be proud you were midwife
To implements exemplifying
Assaults against the heart of life?
You knew their purpose, yet you made them.
from Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate
In the early 1980s, students and other local activists began mass blockades of Livermore Lab, another major nuclear weapons research and design facility operated by UC.
To date, LLNL has released a million curies of airborne radiation, roughly equal to the amount of radiation released by the Hiroshima bomb. Lab documents disclose that Livermore wines contain four times the tritium found in other California wines, and a California Department of Health Services investigation found that children in Livermore are six times more likely to develop malignant melanoma cancer than other children in Alameda County.
People were fed-up with the bomb research in Livermore, and it became a major target of Bay Area activists in 1982. That June, over 1,000 people were arrested at a protest against the labs. They were held in circus tents for 10 days because there were too many to jail.
During Hiroshima and Nagasaki Week 1985, about 80 were arrested at the Livermore Labs. This action included powerful disability solidarity. Three women who use wheelchairs were arrested. Alameda County Sheriffs didn’t want to deal with their needs, planning to cite them out. They wanted to remain in resistance with the rest so people refused to enter buses at all until confident these women would be kept with the larger group. All the others promised unrelenting refusal to cooperate if the cops continued to try to separate these women.
Protesters were held at Santa Rita for 5 days, refusing to cooperate with any number of orders, pointing out that they were waiting to go before a judge, to have their day in court. When they were ordered to get ready to go to court, it came to light that, there was no ramp into the on-site courthouse. Guards said they would carry the women. Total refusal to cooperate ensued. Protesters made clear: No ramp, no cooperation. A ramp was built and protesters had their day in court, together.
In early 1977, as a response to the struggle against racial apartheid in South Africa, activists demanded divestment of university holdings in companies doing business in South Africa.
Mass arrests at Santa Cruz and Stanford sparked demonstrations up and down the state including a sit-in at Berkeley.
In 1984, the United People of Color (UPC) and the Campaign Against Apartheid (CAA) joined forces in the UC Divestment Coalition. They demanded that the university divest the $1.8 billion it had invested in South Africa.
Students plastered Sproul Hall with banners and signs and renamed it Biko Hall, after the murdered South African Black Consciousness Movement leader, Stephen Biko. On April 15, 350 slept out and UCPD began making arrests at 4:30 am.
Police arrested over 160 protesters and it took so long that the bust was still going on when students arrived on campus for their 8 am classes. Students were angered at the violence of the police. That day 5,000 gathered to hear FSM leader Mario Savio speak in support of the “Biko 160+.” Organizers of the rally called for a student strike the following day and that night over 600 people slept on the steps.
At the end of March, CAA and UPC achieved a tenuous alliance to set up a shantytown together in front of California Hall. After 4,000 rallied in Sproul Plaza, students marched to California Hall and built a couple dozen shanties. After midnight, police brutally arrested 60 protesters who had surrounded the shanties.
Two days later, after the university had issued orders banning leading organizers from campus and sought an injunction banning all protests on campus, several thousand rallied and marched to the edge of campus where banned protesters joined the crowd and marched onto campus. More shanties were constructed.
Over 1000 people remained at the shantytown shortly after midnight when over 250 cops from 16 police departments attacked and swept the arestees off campus before classes started in the morning. Efforts to blockade the buses were met with police clubbing of hundreds.
In June 1985, the regents seemed to turn a new leaf and voted to divest $3.1 billion of investments in companies with South Africa ties. Unfortunately, it was a sham – their investments continued to increase – but this wasn’t discovered until the movement had dissipated.
During this time and after, Third World students organized to create a new Ethnic Studies requirement, demand more BIPOC faculty and tenure for them, stop program cuts, and get affirmative action in California. 90% of law students struck for similar demands in their school; some students occupied the law school administration office and were arrested.
As 1983 began, four Chicano students were attacked and beaten by members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. Hundreds of students marched in protest demanding the withdrawl of university recognition of the frat. Two days later, with no action yet taken, students occupied California Hall. The university later announced it would withdraw recognition of Beta Theta Pi for two years.
Women Get Organized
Women at Berkeley began to organize independently during the height of the sit-in and throughout the anti-apartheid movement because they felt they didn’t have a significant voice in decision making, although their numbers equaled those of the men involved. They organized Women Against Oppression to create a forum for women to discuss the sexism occurring within the student movement and as a base for organizing women’s actions within the anti-apartheid movement.
During the Spring of 1988 the African Student Association organized a sit-in at the UC housing office to protest the racial harassment of a Black woman in one of the dorms and the general climate of racism in the housing system and on campus. 19 students were cited by the police.
In 1986, a group from women who were involved in anti-imperialism and anti-apartheid struggles held rallies in support of a young woman who had been gang-raped by four football players. The university protected the football players, while the woman dropped out of her first semester.
Later in the decade, abortion came under siege. A campus anti-abortion group was blockading abortion clinics and harassing pregnant women, so a group called RORR formed to protest them. In spring of 1989 they also began a 50 day, 24-hour vigil on Sproul plaza in favor of a women’s right to an abortion.
The spring saw publication of the first issue of Broad Topics, Writings by Women, a journal of women’s poetry and prose that grew out of the Feminist Student Union (FSU). Multi/Multi, from the Multi-Cultural/Multi-Racial Women’s Coalition, also provided a new forum for women’s discussion and organization.
With the war on drugs in full swing, students held a smoke-in on Sproul Plaza in fall 1989 that attracted 2,000, the largest event of the semester. Barrington Hall, a student co-op that helped organize the smoke-in and that had long been a center of organizing efforts (the Disorientation guide itself was often associated with Barrington) was threatened with closure from a vote within the co-op system. There had been several other votes over the years to try to close Barrington, but the November referendum passed.
After the vote, residents took legal action to remain in their home and started to squat the building. There had been irregularities in the vote, including involvement on the part of staff who were supposed to be neutral parties. Finally in March, residents holding a poetry reading were stormed by police, who declared it an illegal assembly. A crowd developed, building fires and resisting the police. The cops attacked, badly beating and arrested many residents and bystanders and trashing the house. Assaults and arrests were primarily targeted at women and the people of color present. The Barrington building is now leased to a private landlord.
Also during the spring of 1990, student protests demanding a more racially and sexually diverse faculty continued. Students occupied the chancellor’s office. After a long educational effort, the United Front, a coalition of groups, called a two day strike for April 19 and 20. Pickets were set up around campus and many classes moved off campus or were sparsely attended.
The first issue of “Smell This!” was also published that year, reflecting the increasing organization of women of color.
Organizing around the defense of People’s Park expanded to include opposition to police harassment on Southside. Unhoused people were targeted for removal. Copwatch, a group which monitored police harassment and helped people fight police abuse, was founded.
The (First) Persian Gulf War
As the winds of war gathered strength, several groups turned their attention to preventing it. Students for Peace in the Persian Gulf organized teach-ins and educational events. The Anti-Columbus Coalition, along with students at SF state, organized a militant occupation of the military recruiting center in SF. 13 people were arrested on felony charges.
The day before the war started in early 1991, Roots Against War helped organize a huge march in San Francisco in which the Bay Bridge was taken over. The next day another huge march gradually turned into a rampage and the military recruiting station was trashed, along with some porn stores. A police car was set on fire.
Battle for People’s Park, Again
In the spring of 1991, the university released plans to redevelop People’s Park. They proposed removing the Free Speech Stage and installing several large volleyball courts throughout the park. Bulldozers were ushered in, accompanied by riot police, to install the sand volleyball courts.
A new wave of protest began, with the rallying slogan “Defend the Park,” which was shared in coordination with organizers fighting the redevelopment of Tompkins Square Park in the Lower East Side of New York City.
Emergency committees were established, such as the People’s Park Defense Union. Nightly vigils and open meetings were held each night in the summer of 1991. An event hotline was also established to share information about rallies, direct action, and community events to defend the park. As a UC construction team arrived in July 1991, hundreds of protesters gathered to prevent the bulldozer from breaking ground. Several arrests were made.
Protests grew each day, and police escalated to shooting wood pellets and rubber bullets at demonstrators. More than 95 people were arrested in the first four days, and 3 people injured, including a photographer for the San Francisco Examiner. The Examiner later reported the total cost to UC of installing one sand volleyball court to be $1 million.
UC reportedly paid individuals $15 an hour to play volleyball in order to make the courts appear to be in use, with round-the-clock police protection. When a group slapped away a volleyball during play and dunked it into a porto-potty toilet, police tried to press charges against those responsible.
On December 15, 1991, the Daily Californian reported that a heroic “unidentified vandal used a chainsaw to cut down the central wooden post of the volleyball court.” The sand boxes remained until 1997, however, when UC finally removed them from the park.
Free the UC, Occupy Cal
In the 2000s, the regents aggressively raised tuition while welcoming corporate influence, outsourcing labor, and developing new and improved anti-union, anti-worker practices. The Regents made dozens of deals with Wall Street which specifically pegged investors’ profits to UC tuition increases.
In response, March 19, 2008 was “Free the UC Day,” a direct action held in front of the regents’ meeting as an “Alternative Regents Meeting” with free food and music. People called for free education, democratically elected regents, an end to warmongering and military contracts, better wages, and affirmative action.
In September 2009, thousands gathered in Berkeley to protest a massive proposed tuition increase of 32%. Students at UC Davis took over an administration building that November, with the slogan, “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing,” hoping to seize power from the Regents rather than continue begging for concessions. The movement gathered steam across campuses, so the Regents delayed the tuition hike. Then, once the immediate pressure had eased, they passed it anyway.
By fall 2011, that “Occupy” demand may have inspired activist scholars to sound the call to Occupy Wall Street. Students and faculty held anti-capitalist “teach-outs” around Berkeley, mirroring street education projects at New York and the Oakland Commune. Rallies and protests were held around around town. When police forced participants to remove their tents from Sproul Plaza, the campus was galvanized as a result and a General Strike was called. Students and professors skipped class. Word spread across the UC, with a particularly strong presence at UC Davis – where a cop was famously photographed casually pepper spraying seated students in the face.
In February 2020, grad students at UC Santa Cruz went on a “wildcat strike” – meaning without the blessing of their union, since their contract contained a no-strike clause. The strike spread rapidly to every campus, as many others being exploited by the UC began to build a collective struggle.
Students at UCSC liberated the dining halls to offer free food, classes were canceled due to a strong picket line, and eventually strikers withheld grades and stopped labor for the UC. At its most radical, “COLA” (Cost of Living Adjustment) was not just about more money but a collective demand for UC’s looted wealth to be shared, decolonization of academia, and abolition of police. The Crossroads dining hall at UC Berkeley was momentarily liberated, before management threw away all the food to prevent people from eating for free. Nonetheless, people chipped in money for pizza and co-opers brought big pots of pasta and salad from their houses.
As things reached a fever pitch with huge rallies stopping labor at many UC campuses, the pandemic hit. The movement diffused as people scattered and avoided crowds. UC wasn’t able to deport the non-citizen wildcat hold-outs as they had hoped, and were forced to re-instate them. Some token concessions were made. But sparks were lit. In May 2022, UC Davis Cops off Campus disabled the swipers in the dining hall and opened it up for hot, free meals. Grad student workers eventually got a raise from the UAW strike of 2022. Most importantly, while campuses were dormant in 2020, flames burned wild in the summer uprisings against police murder.
One warm summer afternoon that year, a small block party was held before a riot in Oakland. A group marched from UCOP headquarters to former UC president and warmonger Janet Napolitano’s luxury condo, carrying the banner “Fuck the UC!” There were free burritos and literature. People talked and planned, wondering what the struggle to come will be like. What’s next is up to us.
Further reading & bibliography
“Where are those ancestors now?,” interview with Corrina Gould, East Bay Yesterday Podcast
On UC’s origins: “The University, the Gate, and the Gadget,’” chapter in Imperial San Francisco by Gray Brechin
Berkeley: A City in History by Charles Wollenberg
On early California, Oakland, and legacy of the Panthers: Blues City by Ishmael Reed
On 1960s anti-imperialism at universities: “How to Destroy an Empire,” chapter in Palo Alto by Malcolm Harris
On wildcat strikes and abolition of the university: “Wildcat Imaginaries: From Abolition University to University Abolition” by Y. Gilich and T. Boardman in Critical Times
The core text of this article has circulated and been periodically updated for over 30 years. This version was revised and published in September 2023.