By Rita Cuckovich
I went to the Occupy Cal protests last Wednesday from 9:30pm until 11:30pm. My housemate had sent a mass email to my Coop, urging us all to get down to Sproul Plaza right away. He said that the Occupy movement on campus needed more people around so that the police would think twice before arresting people.
When I showed up, things were relatively quiet. A large group of students were on the steps of Sproul Hall. They were doing mic checks and cheers. Most of the people seemed enthusiastic but civil. At one point, someone yelled “Fuck the Police” a couple of times and the crowd dutifully repeated that which made me sad. Some musicians set up and began playing. One guy was handing out green strips of cloth meant to be worn as armbands for solidarity. I saw another guy ask him about them and request one but he also asked to be informed about the movement more generally. I was impressed that he stopped to educate himself before just reflexively asking for the arm band.
There was a rumor that the police were coming at 10pm to tear down the tents and arrest everyone. I sat on the top of the steps off to the right because the vast majority of the crowd was on the left, nearer to the tents, standing in a huddle and chanting. I wanted to be somewhere less hectic so I could work on homework. Grad school is all about multi-tasking.
The police showed up around 10:15pm. I didn’t notice them coming because there were two groups. The second group came from behind me and marched in lockstep up the steps and went near me. As they passed, the first officer screamed at me, “Get out of the way”. They were in full riot gear with big puffy black clothes, black helmets, and black batons. One person got hurt and was carried out. I didn’t see the person get hurt. People started yelling at the police. An ambulence came a few minutes later. I heard a bottle break and I was worried that things might turn ugly. I wondered if you could be blinded by rubber bullets. I tried not to look in the direction of the police but somehow not looking seemed worse so I gave that up.
The protesters locked arms when it became clear that the police wanted to take down the tents and the police broke through and took the tents and threw them out. A few people chased the officers who were carrying the tents down the street, yelling that they were stealing our tents.
There was a mic check and then there was an announcement that we should meet back tomorrow morning at 10am and again at 6pm. A small blond woman came up to me and asked if I knew the phone number for the pro-bono lawyers who were helping the movement. I got out a paper to write it down but she said that if I was arrested, the police would take everything from me. She pulled out a sharpie and wrote the number on my arm. That made me feel simultaneously better and yet also worse.
I tried to remain steadfast when the police made announcements with bullhorns that we should get off the steps. I got off the steps to have a break from the tension and I noticed that the police presence had caused more people to get on the steps than before and that also there were tons of spectators a little ways away taking pictures and videos. The gawkers almost outnumbered the protesters who numbered about two or three hundred I would guess. I went back to the steps and stayed a while longer. After about two hours, I went home.
I felt bad leaving but it was cold and I hadn’t really prepared for that. This was my first protest with police around in riot gear. I didn’t want to be arrested because I had class in the morning. I tried to cut myself some slack and not feel too bad. I thought of this as practice for the next time. Hopefully next time I will be less nervous and I will prepare better so I can stay longer.
I took a class on Nonviolence in undergrad here at Berkeley. I must say that the protest was scary. I got that from class but I think I understand that better now. I just kept thinking that I felt like I was doing something wrong but at the same time I felt like I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It is a powerful feeling when you worry that you are going to be shot with rubber bullets or arrested. You can’t really learn that feeling in class.
Rita Cuckovich is a first year graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.