Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

Has Berkeley Mellowed?

Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

Has Berkeley Mellowed?

Article excerpt

One sunny weekend in 1969, Berkeley's students, faculty and residents banded together to turn a pile of mud into what's now come to be known as People's Park. It was a moment of town-gown solidarity celebrated with music, dancing, and community spirit and resulting in a park and community garden to be shared by all.

Unfortunately, none of them owned the lot--it belonged to the University of California, which was on the verge of building some new dormitories there. The university called the park-builders "trespassers" and fenced in the lot. When the protesters wouldn't leave, riots broke out there and back on campus.

The university brought in the police, tear gas, billy clubs, and eventually the National Guard to restore peace. The image of jackbooted young men touring the campus carrying guns was seared on the minds of many members of the Berkeley community as a moment of lost innocence. The cause of the park became a rallying cry for generations of Berkeley denizens, and the incident was one of the foremost in Berkeley's history as the leader of student protest around the world.

While the civil strife has long since receded, the two sides have engaged in skirmishes over the park ever since. In what was known as the "Occupation and Liberation of the West End," in 1979, students and other activists ripped up an asphalt strip to keep the university from charging for parking. Riots broke out in 1989 when university officials again suggested putting dorms on the site of the now-historic park.

These days, the sides have reached a compromise--the university has agreed to preserve the park as open space for the community to enjoy and will pay the city to maintain it while a committee of students, residents, and others will oversee it. The park's 31st birthday was recently celebrated with a typical performance--a dance by a group of nudists.

Since the 1960s, when student protests swept the country, Berkeley has been considered the nation's most well known hotbed of political activism. For the past 30 years, students and faculty at this left-leaning campus have led the nation in demonstrating for free speech, for civil rights, against nuclear weapons, and the use of animals in laboratories.

But times have changed since the 1960s--male students are no longer in danger of being drafted into an unpopular war, black students do not have to be escorted to Southern colleges by national guardsmen, and the country is in the midst of the longest period of economic and political stability it has ever experienced.

"The '60s were a time of turmoil and chaos, nationwide," said Rob McFadden, a sophomore at Berkeley. "Right now there isn't any focal point. There is activism by a small minority of people. But most of the campus doesn't care. As a whole, Berkeley is not that passionate and most people aren't that politically active."

As the campus embarks on a new millennium and is faced with all new challenges, some wonder that Berkeley may be losing its activist edge.

Portrait Of a Student Activist

Erin Williams spent 100 hours locked in a cage and starved herself to protest the use of animals in experiments on campus. She and friend Tatianna Becker staged the performance in April on Sproul Plaza, one of the main thoroughfares on campus, to educate the public about the more than 40,000 rabbits, rats, monkeys, and other animals being used for research at Berkeley.

"The response was overwhelmingly positive," said Williams, 24, who graduated this summer. "Hundreds of people came up to talk to me and support us. Many of them weren't even aware of the experiments going on and they thanked me for drawing attention to it."

But after a year of efforts to raise consciousness about experimentation, she only has 20 active members in her group, the Berkeley Organization for Animal Advocacy. She admits it was a lot harder than she thought it would be. …

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