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Race and Occupy Cal

December 30, 2011

by Cecil Brown

Students flood Sproul Plaza after marching to Berkeley High and Berkeley Community College on Nov. 15. Following the march, Occupy Oakland joined forces with the students and, during general assembly, voted to occupy the steps once again. – Photo: Brian Nguyen
God could not have sent us a more fitting setting for Occupy Cal at the University of California, Berkeley – the sun rising, yellow and warm. I was going devote today to observing and reporting on the social movement.

Before I headed out on my jaunt, I phoned Ruben Elias Sanchez, a student organizer I had met at the last Berkeley rally.

“Today, we are going to reconstruct the Occupation to focus on people of color,” he informed me. Being a person of color, I was down with that.

“We are going to talk about Prop 13, how it put a cap on the amount that corporations have to pay.” I’m down with that too. “We are going to talk about getting rid of Prop 209, the affirmative action ban.” Now, I’m really down with that.

At the entrance of Barrows Hall, I see African American Studies chair Charles Henry and three of his colleagues, Sam Mchombo, who teaches Swahili, Ula Taylor, who teaches American History, and Leigh Raiford, who teaches American Studies. Raiford told me that she was going to give a Teach Out. There were going to be more than 20 Teach Outs, including on with George Lakoff, professor of Cognitive Science, who was going to discuss framing public education and the Occupy Movement. At 8 p.m. that evening, Professor of Public Policy and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich would bring it all to a close with a speech honoring the annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture.

With the African American Studies delegation, I marched down into the plaza, which was packed to the gills with people. Everybody was in a great and zesty mood. It felt more like a rock concert than a political rally. I saw several people I knew. There was professor Linda Williams snapping pictures with her iPhone. There was the English Department chair Sam Otter in a suit, smiling. There were other distinct members of the faculty. My impression was that the powers that be wanted to be on the scene, because they agree with the message that the university is fumbling the ball.

We had arrived on the Sproul steps and at that moment, soothing and ebullient gospel music caressed our eardrums and lifted our emotions high to the blue sky. People were chanting to the music of the University Gospel Choir singing social justice songs.

The leader of the choir was Rev. Dr. Mark Wilson, UC adjunct professor. A stout, energetic, hefty individual, Wilson, with his cap turned backwards and wearing a Cal T-shirt, was energetic and effective. He waved his invisible baton to his choir, which consisted of Cal students.

“Another day’s journey, and I’m glad ‘bout it!” This traditional African American song fit perfectly with the optimistic mood. “I’m so happy to be alive,” the choir sings, and we sang with them, about 1,500 of us. Indeed, with the music and the sky and the packed Sproul Plaza, the song captured the moment in time – a true zeitgeist.

Then they sang a classic song from the Staples Singers, “Move Along.” The mood of the people was at its height when Rev. Wilson turned to the keyboard player, an Asian with a long pony tail, and gestured for him to bring the chords up higher. And higher. And higher than that.

“I’m going to stand. I can’t bow to racism, injustice,” he said, leading the choir and the rest of us in his deep tenor voice. “I’m going to stand!”

The reverend did several songs that kept our spirits high. The last one was by the famous gospel composer Hezekiah Walker, “I Need You to Survive and You Need Me.” He had the audience turn to the next person and say these words, “I need you to survive!”

The input of the Black gospel tradition, here administered by an African American, set the tone for a movement that is fueled by Black people and Black concerns, even though nobody mentions it.

Before he was finished, Wilson invited Carol Walker, assistant at the financial aid and scholarship office at the UC, to come up. Also African American, she sang a beautiful song.

If Occupy Cal had ended right after this performance, it would have all been worth it. Even though no one had mentioned race, it was obvious that Blacks had contributed a lot to the movement already.

Even though no one had mentioned race, it was obvious that Blacks had contributed a lot to the movement already.

I asked a few questions about the songs right after Wilson’s performance: “Most of them adapted well to the Occupation Movement. I started to change the word ‘racism’ to ‘capitalism’ to fit the theme. But then, I decided to leave it the way the Staples Sisters wrote it.”

Good choice.

Wilson, who is a Harvard graduate, said he wished that these students had been as enthusiastic 20 years ago when we were fighting Proposition 209 that banned African Americans from the campus.

“They didn’t come out 20 years ago,” he told me, “when Amos Brown and others were fighting against anti-affirmative action.”

At the end of the gospel performance, Yvette Felarce took the mic. A member of BAMN – By Any Means Necessary – she reminded the audience why the Prop 209 ban on affirmative action must be dismantled. The audience was happy to listen to her and gave her a roaring response of hands and cheers.

Gradually, the rally broke up into groups. The Teach Outs began to form on various parts of Sproul Plaza.

Seated on a bench near the plaza, Professor Raiford lead a discussion on what she suggested as “the possibility of decolonizing and reclaiming space and funding within the university.” Traditional disciplines – like English, Rhetoric, History – dominate the funding still. Funding for ethnic studies is still scarce or unavailable.

I wandered up the path from Sproul and found Michael Cohen, lecturer in American and African-American studies, under a tree, pacing the green grass as he expounded on the connection to the “prison industrial complex” and the “current crisis.”

The prison complex in California spends more money on keeping young Blacks locked up in San Quentin – where, as it turns out, Professor Cohen teaches a class – than it does on Cal students. He traced the history of this back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Ronald Reagan was elected governor and then to the presidency. According to Cohen, there has been a policy by the state to keep Blacks out of the classroom by putting them into prison.

The prison complex in California spends more money on keeping young Blacks locked up in San Quentin than it does on Cal students. There has been a policy by the state to keep Blacks out of the classroom by putting them into prison.

As I left to check my car – ticket maids are particularly sneaky in Berkeley – I was accompanied by Zackery Manditch-Prottas, a white graduate student in the African American Studies Department, who engaged me in an insightful commentary on the current state of hip-hop.

Next, I visited the American Studies group lead by Kathy Moran, the associate director, who sat with a small group of students. This group, like almost all of them, had no Black students.

This, of course, was very disappointing. When I asked Moran why were there so few African American students or African American professors, she said, turning the palms of her hands upside down, no money.

I went looking for Professor George Lakoff’s Teach Out. A few days ago, I ran into him on campus walking with the aid of a cane. He had had back surgery and was recovering nicely. I walked with him to the elevator in Wheeler Hall.

“The problem with the Occupy movement,” he explained with a smile, “is that they don’t know how to frame their arguments.”

At around 3 p.m., the rally reunited into a march, exiting Telegraph at Bancroft, and headed west to Berkeley High School. After picking up an additional girth of students, it headed to the banks in downtown Berkeley.

As night fell, the students began to gather en masse around 8 p.m. to hear the long anticipated speech from Robert Reich.

For all of the anticipation, Reich’s speech was very short, about 15 minutes. In the first five minutes, he summarized what he took to be the students’ attitude towards the Occupy movement.

“Some of you are here because you have a problem with the banks, but some of you are here because you have a problem with the university. But you are all here for a good reason. I am so proud to be a faculty member of the best university in the world.” Big, thunderous applause.

“When I was a boy,” he said, getting into something very personal – his height. “As a kid I was short,” he joked. He said kids use to bully him, and the audience sighed loudly. “The solution I had to prevent the bullies from beating me up was to hang out with the guys bigger than they were. One of these guys was named Mike. His full name was Michael Schwerner. Then in 1964, the summer of the Freedom Riders, he went down to Mississippi to help sign up minorities. He was caught by white Southern men and murdered.”

Reich didn’t mention that one of the other men was a Black man. When he finished the anecdote he waited for applause. Few of the thousands of young Berkeley students knew that he was making reference to one of the most historic events in American history. Killed by members of the KKK, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman disappeared June 21, 1964.

A few minutes before, he had congratulated them on being students at that best university in the world and now it was like watching Jay Leno. “Who were Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman?” Answer: “They ran an ice cream company?”

Few of the thousands of young Berkeley students knew that Reich was making reference to one of the most historic events in American history. Killed by members of the KKK, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman disappeared June 21, 1964.

Then Reich was gone, swallowed up by a crowd of admirers. Thousands of students milled around, not knowing quite what to do. Then somebody put on some music from the ‘60s.

A young woman named Amanda told me that she had come all the way from Australia to study hip-hop but ran, unexpectedly, into the Occupation Movement instead. After she left, I ended up having a conversation with Dylan, a young white boy about 20. He said he had been to all of the Occupy movements in California: San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Oakland. He said the race relations were improving.

The main reason, he said, is that most white kids have no contact with Black people. Their parents saw to that, I suggested, and he agreed. Like the generation represented by Reich, they blew smoke up their children’s behind about being the best and going to the best schools, but they sheltered them from the real world, where there are lots of poor people and Black people.

By working in Occupy Oakland, he said he had met so many Black people he liked. He had to learn all kinds of stuff, about how to get food and how to stay warm and how to – well, basically – survive.

I turned and looked at Dylan. He had the most gentle eyes.

Wow, I’m thinking, maybe he is right: Things are looking up for young white people. Maybe they will use the Occupy to soul search, and maybe they will pull themselves out of the trance their parents have put them in.

Things are looking up for young white people. Maybe they will use the Occupy to soul search, and maybe they will pull themselves out of the trance their parents have put them in.

I said goodnight to Dylan finally and walked past the crowd, headed back to my car and drove home. It was about 10 p.m. and it had been a long day.

Cecil Brown, a visiting professor in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley and a teacher in UC Berkeley’s Center for New Media, is a filmmaker and novelist. Visit his blogs, Stagolee’s Blog, where this story first appeared, and CecilBrown.net. He can be reached at stagolee@mac.com.

 

2 thoughts on “Race and Occupy Cal

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