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Occupy Berkeley, Why So Quiet?

Berkeley, CA – Police tear-gassing crowds. Reports of protestors throwing bottles at cops. A local arm of a widespread movement garnering national attention. These aren’t new to the Bay Area, but back in the 1960’s it was Berkeley, not Oakland, where the action was.

Berkeley, CA – Police tear-gassing crowds. Reports of protestors throwing bottles at cops. A local arm of a widespread movement garnering national attention. These aren’t new to the Bay Area, but back in the 1960’s it was Berkeley, not Oakland, where the action was.

Occupy Oakland (and to a lesser extent Occupy San Francisco) have dominated the news this week, but Occupy Berkeley, which began October 8, has yet to make waves. City officials reportedly have said they have no immediate plans to break up the protest on the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Center Street, or the small campsite down the street at MLK Jr. Civic Center Park. With a crowd of around 30 people each night for its general assemblies, the movement is dwarfed by the thousands who gather at Occupy Oakland. In fact, when Berkeley students and protestors at other Occupy movements are asked about it, the response is generally ignorance — “There’s an Occupy Berkeley?”

So why is the city and college that ignited the mass protests of the '60s barely a blip on the radar now?

Aside from a handful of committed students, Cal has been largely uninvolved in Berkeley’s version of the national movement. Students had a variety of reasons for not attending the protests, ranging from too much schoolwork, to dissatisfaction with the movement’s disorganization.

“Unfortunately it’s not the '60s –- there is wide support, but the students are pre-occupied with midterms,” said Larry Silver, a Berkeley resident who has been attending the general assemblies since they began. Bo-Peter Laanen, one of the student organizers, offered his insights: “There’s nothing pressuring students. A lot of them don’t realize after they graduate there won’t be jobs for them.”

However, some students did express anxiety about finding jobs after graduation. But for them their concern only motivated them to work harder in school – not to protest the harsh economic times. Senior Bryce Thornberg mentioned the pressure at Berkeley to get a job that makes money. And Alex Taitague, a junior, expressed a desire to get his money’s worth out of Berkeley, “I’m already going to this school. I have to get the most out of the system before I can reform it.”

And for another segment of the Berkeley population, the political will is there, but personal circumstances prevent participation. Ruben Canedo, a 5th year undergrad, commented, “A lot of students, they’ve got to work two or three jobs to send money home for food and rent. Just because you don’t see their physical attendance, that doesn’t mean they’re not in support.”

The demands and pressures on students today are one key difference impacting scant student involvement in the Occupy movement versus the robust participation in protests during the '60s.

Peter Dale Scott, a professor at Berkeley from the 1960’s until the 1990’s and one of the first anti-war speakers on campus, commented that during that time, “a lot of students were thrown out of university for their activities, but it wouldn’t represent the same catastrophic loss that it would now.”

With the average undergraduate student budget (for residents) at $31,534, increasing rent prices in Berkeley, and harsh economic times causing students to need to send money back home – the economic pressures on students are significantly higher.

Jeffrey Lustig, a professor emeritus at Sacramento State and a UC Berkeley student during the 1960’s, who was significantly involved in the free speech movement, commented on the degree to which obligations facing students have changed: “I thought nothing about quitting school for a year and painting houses in SF and hitchhiking around the country. But the pressure on students these days is much more intense.”

In addition, many students see the campus as simply being a far less radical place than the stereotype of Berkeley suggests, partly because of fee increases, which have increased focus on making money post-college.

Sophomore Jenna Pinkham, who has been attending the protests, spoke to a student in her math class who declared: “Why would I want to occupy? I want to be one of the 1 percent.” Mireille Nassif, a senior, gave a similarly telling impression of her classmates. ”They come in to become corporate products rather than to be part of a local movement.”

Todd Gitlin, a current professor of Journalism and Sociology at Columbia who taught at Berkeley through the '80s and '90s, sees the current trend towards corporate culture as one that has been brewing for a while. He commented that as early as the 1990’s the atmosphere at Berkeley diverged from the tendency towards counterculture that was prevalent during the '60s, “The dominant tone was we’re lucky to be here, we are winners and we intend to remain winners. We don’t have time for diversion or hijinks.”

It’s possible that if the Occupy Berkeley movement develops a clearer set of goals and demands, it could gain more traction, as students did express frustration with its lack of obvious objectives. But ultimately, Occupy Berkeley’s meager showing is a concrete sign that Berkeley’s role as a bastion of liberal radicalism has fallen hard since its glory days during the '60s. Gitlin declared, “Berkeley’s held on to this reputation for decades long after it was obsolete.”

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