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A new generation trained at the school of protest in Berkeley

Photo: Fabien Deglise Le Devoir The encampment has doubled in size over the past week near the famous Sproul Hall, an emblematic building which has accompanied several protest movements in the history of the University of Berkeley.

Fabien Deglise in San Francisco

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  • United States

It was Mark Twain who wrote it in 1865 in The Famous Jumping Frog of Calaveras County: “No event is unique and lonely, it is simply a repetition of something that happened before, perhaps often. »

On the steps and lawn of Sproul Hall, an emblematic building with neoclassical architecture at the University of Berkeley in California, a new generation of students has now rhymed with another past for several weeks, amid tents and messages supporting Palestinian rights and calling for an end to Israel's war against the Gaza Strip. In connection with a movement that has spread across the country, but also with the spirit of the place.

It was here that between 1964 and 1965, the clique of Mario Savio, Hal Draper and Steve Weissman laid the seed of May '68 with their Free Speech Movement reclaiming their right to exercise political activities on campus, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered, in May 1967, a landmark speech calling for a “radical revolution of values” in the midst of the Vietnam War and the country's existential crisis over civil rights, where anger also arose. is expressed against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s or against economic inequality, fueled by the Occupy Wall Street movement at the end of 2011.

“Particular sensitivity to injustices”

“The university has a strong history of student struggles, which it prides itself on in its promotional materials,” notes Matt, a master's student in music, while contemplating an encampment that has grown in recent years. days. This burst of mobilization was fueled, according to him, by the violent images coming from the campus of Columbia University in New York or the University of California in Los Angeles, further south, where the police intervened this week to dismantle the barricades and expel the students from the premises they occupied.

“We have the weight of a heritage and a particular sensitivity to injustices,” he adds . This explains why we are outside in a climate that is not far removed from that of the protests of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.”

Thursday after -noon, the atmosphere was good-natured at the famous Sproul Hall square, with on one side the tents, deserted by the majority of their occupants at this time of the day, and on the other side graduates being taken in photo, ceremonial stoles around the neck, in front of the gate to the adjacent park. All under the discreet gaze of a handful of security agents.

“Until now, we have avoided violence, but it remains latent,” says Kisae, a Berkeley alumna who came to add her voice to the chorus of anti-war protests with her daughter, Zarha, 5. , drawing with chalk on the asphalt of the square. “I wanted to show him that it’s important to stand up for human rights, no matter what life you have. Faced with what is happening in the world, we have a role to play and a duty to be concerned about the fate of others. »

“If things are going well here, it’s probably because the University is used to this kind of thing,” adds the woman who graduated from Berkeley barely 10 years ago while smiling. Behind her, a banner details the movement's demands: their university's condemnation and call for an end to the war in Gaza, the disclosure of financial assets of the University of California — of which Berkeley is a part — linked to the conflict and their rejection, the immediate severance of ties with Israeli universities and the creation of a permanent program of Palestinian studies.

The new generation of students thus dreams of reconnecting with several successes from their predecessors, who in the 1980s had hard-won a major divestment of more than $3 billion from companies doing business with the South African apartheid regime. The anticolonial spirit and fuel of civil rights demonstrations gave birth to the Department of Ethnic Studies at Berkeley in 1969.

«A long experience »

In interview with Le Devoir, Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof remained silent on his university's response to students, only calling it a conflict “different” from those of the past because of “the way it divides the university community.”

Last February, a pro-Palestinian protest formed to denounce the presence on campus of an Israeli lecturer turned sour, forcing the school to postpone the visit and repair some broken windows. Berkeley has since lived under political pressure from the Republican-led House Education Commission and administrative pressure from the U.S. Department of Education, which placed it in the group of six American universities making the subject of an investigation into anti-Semitism. However, nothing to justify, as elsewhere in the country, a police intervention on the campus, assures the university management.

“We have a long experience in matters of protest non-violent policy and our attitude towards today's demonstrations is in line with long-standing practice, continues Mr. Mogulof. Preventative intervention by law enforcement is not permitted. It is only justified if absolutely necessary to protect the physical safety of members of our community. » Which did not seem to be the case on Thursday.

A slowdown after the exams ?

But above all, the school seems to be playing for time, with just a few days remaining before the end of the spring semester, on May 10, which could deal a blow to the fervor of the moment. Final exams begin Monday.

“With the school year ending and students returning home, there is good reason to believe that this particular wave of protests, with its encampments, will slow down,” predicts political scientist Omar Wasow, speaking from the institution’s Department of Political Science north of Sproul Hall. “But at the same time, it’s also likely that enough people have been mobilized by this wave of activism that it will spark new waves of protest off campus. »

“With hindsight, we see that student mobilization was tenacious on economic inequalities, on immigrant rights, on climate change, on racial injustice during the Black Lives Matter movement,” notes Irene Bloemraad, director of graduate studies. in sociology at Berkeley. And the American elections next November could fuel it further. »

In a residential neighborhood near Berkeley, Peter Goodman, an editor specializing in Asian literature, was delighted Thursday to see his city's famous university also living to the rhythm of the protest. “It’s a place of learning and awareness of social issues,” said the man who was closely involved in protests against the Vietnam War and for civil rights when he studied English literature at Cornell, in the 1960s.

“What it’s going to become and what it’s going to look like worries me a little bit more,” he said. Young people today live in an ultra-connected world that amplifies and reinforces opinions without the possibility of hearing different points of view, other than comments charged with emotion and anger. In this environment, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain open to the fact that there are always two sides to a story, and above all to make the necessary compromises, particularly in a diverse society like ours,” he said. he concluded.

This report was financed thanks to the Transat-Le Devoir~60 International Journalism Fund ~i>.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116