Rise Up, Berkeley
Why is it that 60 years after the Freedom of Speech Movement, we can’t rally more than 200 people to fight for the future of our planet? Why is it that when we’re being faced with injustices like racism, fascism, worker abuse, animal abuse, income inequality, loss of reproductive rights and environmental destruction, one of the most progressive student bodies in the world barely rises up?
Last semester, I spent a night in jail. The semester before, I spent three nights in jail. Neither experience was pleasant and both disrupted my coursework, but I knew the risks going in. I’ve been getting arrested since I was 14 years old, indulging in the hospitality of the American judicial system in cities from Los Angeles and San Francisco to my most recent jail time in Memphis.
No, I’m not a shoplifter or drug smuggler – I’m an activist. Like thousands of UC Berkeley students before me, my arrests were for rising up and being loud about the problems facing our world. In the 60’s and 70’s, my jail time wouldn’t have surprised anyone. During just one protest at Berkeley in 1964, 800 students were arrested for a sit-in at Sproul Hall to fight for freedom of speech after the university enacted a ban on on-campus political activities. Because of their sacrifice, those of us attending Berkeley today have the right to raise our voices.
Unfortunately, despite our school’s legacy as the epicenter of social change and despite the harrowing issues facing young people today, it’s a struggle to mobilize just 100 Cal students to briefly stand in Sproul Plaza and hold protest signs. Trust me, I’ve tried many times. Now, I know that most students believe there’s no shortage of activism on campus, but as someone who has organized nearly 100 protests across California and is passionate about social change strategy, my perspective is starkly different. Not a single activist was arrested on campus this school year, and that is a bad thing. If Berkeley wants to live up to its legacy by fighting urgent crises like the onslaught of climate change, the rise of white supremacy, and the weakening of our democratic institutions, then we students need to seriously raise the volume.
On December 2nd, 1964, Mario Savio stood on the steps of Sproul Hall and addressed the 3,000 students who had gathered to fight for free speech. There, he delivered his most famous quote, “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can't take part! You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus -- and you've got to make it stop!” Following his speech, the 3,000 students marched into Sproul Hall and 800 refused to leave when police stormed the building. 800 students put their freedom and their futures on the line to stop the machine of oppression.
Last semester, nearly 60 years after this historic protest, I attended a rally on those very steps to advocate for climate justice on Earth Day. This event, which aimed to defend all life on Earth, was widely promoted on campus and social media. It barely attracted 200 attendees. The protest wasn’t loud or disruptive – it was quiet and polite and no one was arrested, detained, or even given a disapproving look. In fact, the school didn’t bother to send campus police. The authorities knew it would be thoroughly uneventful and they were right.
My point isn’t to criticize the 200 people who attended the Earth Day rally or the organizers of this action; I commend those who spoke out to make the world a better place. But, this is UC Berkeley. Where was everyone else? Why is it that 60 years after the Freedom of Speech Movement, we can’t rally more than 200 people to fight for the future of our planet? Why is it that when we’re being faced with injustices like racism, fascism, worker abuse, animal abuse, income inequality, loss of reproductive rights and environmental destruction, one of the most progressive student bodies in the world barely rises up?
Earlier this month, I organized an event called “Dogs & Desserts.” It was a fun, free event with dogs and desserts, so exactly what it sounds like. It was on the same day of the week and at around the same time as the Earth Day protest the semester before. Over 400 people attended.
Where were these people on Earth Day? Where were they during all of the protests I’ve organized in Sproul Plaza?
Is their lack of turnout at protests and rallies because the problems of today aren’t as relevant to students as the problems of the 60s and 70s? Are they less urgent? Less serious? Less worthy of taking personal risks? Or is it the student body that’s different today? The attitudes of our generation? Are we so focused on padding our resumes and maximizing our GPAs that we have no time and energy to speak out against the social problems that could doom our futures before they even begin?
Look, I know that the Berkeley student body is deeply aware of the crises we face and desperately wants to make a difference, but it feels like Cal is losing its activist edge and I think it’s partly because our generation is too afraid of offending anyone. As an animal rights activist, I’ve disrupted high profile events, from professional football and basketball games to rodeos and county fairs, and I have found that my greatest critics are usually other young activists. They’re the ones telling me I should sit down and write an email or hand out fliers. They’re the ones saying that even though I’m getting the issue talked about in the Washington Post and the LA Times, I’m making our cause look bad by being too loud. They’re the ones criticizing me for using the very tactics that won women the right to vote and gay people the right to marry.
Let me be blunt – our generation is too afraid to make noise, but if we don’t raise the volume, we won’t drive change. Considering the problems facing our world, this campus is way too quiet. Rise up, Berkeley, and get noisy.