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Occupy-Style Protests Hit California Universities…Sort Of

Students irate about a planned tuition hike at the University of California are deploying tactics reminiscent of 2011’s Occupy movement to express their displeasure, occupying buildings and walking out of class.

However, with the Thanksgiving holiday looming, the protesters biggest enemy appears to be apathy rather than autocratic administrators.

On Monday afternoon, over a thousand students at UC campuses across the state walked out of class to march in protest against the UC board of regents’ decision to hike tuition by about 28 percent over the next five years. The hike, if implemented in full, will take the combined cost of attendance at the University of California over $30,000 for the first time.

The walkout is a continuation of a nascent protest movement that has resurrected tactics reminiscent of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. At UC Berkeley, the state’s flagship campus and a longtime center for left-wing activism, a handful of students have launched a new group they have dubbed “The Open UC.” Over 200 of them have taken part in an occupation of the school’s Wheeler Hall, while other building takeovers have occurred at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz.

However, at the college which gave rise to the 60s Free Speech Movement, activists are finding it harder to keep students outraged long-term. Ultimately, their greatest enemy may not be The Man in the form of the University of California regents, but rather their fellow students’ inclination to prioritize their academics and personal lives over radical action.

At Berkeley, the commitment to occupying Wheeler Hall at Berkeley is looking shaky, as students fear the occupation could collapse during the Thanksgiving holiday. Having no students in the hall at all would be better than a pathetic showing, one movement leader told The Daily Californian.

“For the strength of the movement, I don’t want it to peter out,” said sophomore Jake Soiffer. “I would probably lean toward pausing and then coming back with a bang on Monday. I really want to come back with a bang.”

Another issue hindering protesters is a flaw similar to the one that helped doom the Occupy movement three years ago: The lack of a clear mission. The Occupy movement famously began without any demands in particular and largely flared out without ever moving beyond generic anger at “the one percent.”

While it seems the tuition increase should provide an easy target for protesters, movement organizers have diluted it with a host of other stated goals. According to the Californian, Wheeler Hall’s occupiers have disseminated statements trying to expand the protest to include issues like transgender rights and racism, while Open UC’s own website has emphasized its opposition to the “privatization” of the University. Soiffer said he fears the promotion of niche causes could drive away potential supporters, but thus far that hasn’t stopped it from happening.

The expectation that the protests will simply “peter out” likely explains why university administrators and police have taken almost no action against protesters, even though behavior like occupying buildings is against school rules.

In contrast to a 2009 occupation of Wheeler Hall that led to dozens of arrests, or the occasional use of force against 2011 Occupiers, administrators and police at Berkeley and other campuses have taken essentially no action against protesters, depriving them of the friction and conflict that helps to inspire further radical action. Their laissez-faire attitude is so strong, in fact, that some protesters have complained about not being taken seriously.

“We’re here trying to stand for something,” Berkeley junior Madaly Alcala told the Daily Californian. “So it would be nice to be taken as serious students and adults in this movement.”

Ultimately, the best hope for protesters is not likely to lie with the UC administration, but rather with political action from Gov. Jerry Brown or the California legislature, both of which have expressed hostility to the tuition increase.

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