U.C. Berkeley Students Protest Vote to End Affirmative Action


Students at the University
of California, Berkeley waged an arduous campaign
against Proposition 209–walking precincts,
phone-banking, and rallying–for months prior to
the November 1996 election. When Prop 209–to end
affirmative action in the state—passed, on
top of the passage of Prop 187 against immigrant
rights, it felt like yet another defeat. This
time around, however, our commitment to mobilize
became stronger.

On Election Day 1996, a
diverse group of over 60 organizers and leaders
crammed into Casa Joaquin Murrieta, the
independent Xicano co-op housing facility near
the Berkeley campus. They included students from
Casa, MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de
Aztldn) and Students Against 209. After
generating a plan of action, we painted banners
and posters, wrote lists of supplies, and typed
demands and press releases.

The next day, as thousands
gathered Sproul Plaza to rally in opposition to
Prop 209. When the rally ended, protesters took
to the streets, stopping traffic, blocking
intersections, and leading the police to believe
they were going onto the freeway. But there was
no such intention; the plan was to take over the
Campanile Clock Tower on campus.

Eight protesters entered
the tower during regular business hours and took
the elevator to the top. Maria Brenes, Eva
Camarena, Jennie Luna, Maritza Madrigal, and Jose
Palafox chained themselves to a pillar with help
from three other students, Solis Aguilera, Jesds
Barraza, and Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, who stayed
with them.

When the marchers outside
announced the occupation to the crowd, it became
clear why the Campanile tower was the perfect
place for this protest. The tower, which had long
symbolized the university to the world, had
become an elitist and exclusionist ivory tower.
The occupation to protest Prop 209 was thus an
act of resistance and reclamation.

The demands of the
occupation included: non-compliance by the UC
with Prop 209; democratization of the UC Regents
(who are appointed by the governor and, at
present, do not include a single educator, only
businesspeople like Prop 209 sponsor Ward
Connerly); a College of Ethnic Studies (instead
of it being a subordinate part of Letters and
Science); Ethnic Studies for transfer students
and California high schools; a commitment by the
UC to diversity through outreach; and a live
television broadcast of student protest against
209 (which had been largely ignored by the mass

The Campanile occupation
was not only a political protest but a spiritual
act as well. The tower stands on Ohlone Native
land and stored within it are the bones of many
indigenous people, kept there for research. The
chained protesters had made a commitment to fast
during the occupation in order to purify their
bodies and strengthen their spirits. As Xicanos
and Xicanas, they wanted to make the point that
the University only wants indigenous people when
they are dead– not alive. Thus the protesters
were demanding respect for the land, its people,
and the many broken and violated treaties. They
were demanding that the physical and cultural
genocide end, beginning with rejection of
Proposition 209.

To everyone’s surprise the
police did not move to arrest anybody
immediately. As one Xicano officer told a
protester, they wanted to wait until much later,
when people had left, avoiding arrests that could
provoke more demonstrations.

During the night, the
chained protesters began to share their stories.
Others who climbed to the top (the elevators had
been shut down) rang the tower bells. Those in
the tower and hundreds who remained outdoors
overnight would join in chanting, drumming, and
singing. Across the cold night air their voices
would go from chants of the struggle against
apartheid in South Africa, to Native traditional
drum songs, to songs of the farm worker and other
labor movements.

At approximately 5:30 AM,
police moved to end the peaceful occupation. With
no official warning to disperse and wearing no
badges, they started moving protesters to the
side, so they could get to the protestors.
Students hung on as long as they could and
chanted "No violence!" as police used
pain-hold tactics and what most considered
excessive force. After breaking two pairs of
glasses and a wheelchair, leaving its occupant
fallen on the ground, and scratching a young
woman’s eye when she lost her balance and tried
to hold on to an officer, police cleared the way
to enter the tower. As they reached the top,
protesters drummed, singing "Through my
people speaks the spirit, the spirit never

After we read our demands,
the officers gave us one last opportunity to
leave, then broke the chains. The arrest totaled
23 for trespassing (students inside) and unlawful
assembly (those outside the tower) All charges
were later dropped except one (for resisting
arrest, because she had accidentally fallen
against an officer’s baton and ended up with a
black eye.)

The same day, protests
continued with students disrupting classes,
demanding air time on the campus radio station,
tearing up the Daily Californian (a campus
paper which had endorsed 209), negotiating
meetings with the Vice Chancellors, and
strategizing for the next steps. U.C. Berkeley
students, in solidarity with others at UC Santa
Cruz, Stanford, San Francisco State University
and others, had ignited a fire that continues to
burn. Now the real work begins: maintaining the
activist spirit, dealing with bureaucracy,
negotiating with UC officials, mobilizing high
school youth, and continuing to fight for
what’s right. Viva la Causa!