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Protests rooted in imagery and opportunity

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DECEMBER 09, 2011

While many of the Occupy protests have focused on fighting the negative effects of socioeconomic inequality, to define the Occupy movement in a sentence, or an article, would be contradictory to its purpose.

What the movement has been is a movement of real images, images that captured raw emotion of fear, anger and hope. The images swiftly spread, showing not only the world, but also ourselves, that not everything is alright with American society.

A woman in Portland, Oregon screaming as pepper spray blasted her in the face. An Iraq War veteran hurriedly being carried away from a line of riot police in Oakland, Calif., his head streaming blood. On Nov. 9, students at UC Berkeley, arms linked, pushing and yelling as police swiftly and repeatedly thrust batons into their ribs and abdomens.

Students at UC Davis, seated on the ground, being pepper sprayed in the face, at close proximity, as a crowd looks on in awe.

In this movement, images speak more than any article, speech or sign, and one of the most powerful images is something students see everyday as they cross Upper Sproul Plaza.

The brown banner sags as it hangs across the front of Sproul Hall, over the steps where countless mic checks, dance parties and philosophical conversations have occurred over the past month.

“Welcome to the Open University.”

In this image, there is no anger, no police, no blood. But its significance is no less.

On one level, it reminds us that demonstrators’ struggles across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, are not unlike the ones we’ve faced for years as tuition rises and the quality of education falters.

More importantly, the imagery speaks to the potential of UC Berkeley to once again be at the helm of a nation-wide social movement.

The Nov. 9 protests inspired activists across the country, including the thousands that flooded Upper Sproul the night of Nov. 15, from curious freshmen to professor of public policy and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

And while over the last few weeks Occupy Cal seems to have lost some of its fervor, some organizers indicated that the General Assembly — the Occupy movement’s signature decision-making institution — and protests would resume in the spring, after finals. Others are trying to keep momentum going.
But the banner still hangs, a symbol of the Occupy movement’s inherent connection to the university’s own struggles.

Occupy Cal organizers have created an unprecedented opportunity for the campus to play a leading role in one of the most important social movements of our lifetime.

The struggles will continue. And if anything could breathe new life into a movement criticized for its lack of direction or organization, its rejection of hierarchy or any conventional methods of getting things done, it would be the young minds that populate the world’s premier public university.

Contact Mihir Zaveri at 


DECEMBER 09, 2011