Cal Day protest reflects barriers experienced by Black students

By June 4, 2015 Blog, News No Comments
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As seen in the Daily Cal:


Blake Simons and Gabrielle Shuman, Black Student Union at UC Berkeley

Nearly three months ago, the Black Student Union, or BSU, presented Chancellor Nicholas Dirks with 10 demands aimed at making institutional changes to improve the condition of Black students on campus. Ten weeks later and nearing the end of the academic year, Dirks has only agreed to three of the demands — one of which the university already had in progress, and the other two of which have no commitment to implementation in the near future. This response was a very frustrating one to receive, as it was only issued after Dirks was all but forced by fellow administrators to follow­ up from his first response, which simply outlined the campus status quo and dismissed all but one of the demands.

Frustrated and disappointed with Dirks’ lack of action, we decided to take our concerns to the public in a new way. On Saturday, UC Berkeley’s annual Cal Day, BSU members and our allies held a demonstration on Mario Savio Steps and shut down Sather Gate for about two hours. We shut down the gate to draw attention to our demands and highlight our struggles on campus in the larger context of the Black Lives Matter movement and struggle for Black humanity in America. In addition to helping our demands retain momentum in the public sphere, this action (just as all of our actions) provided a space in which the Black people participating could feel a sense of community across different identities, united through a common mission. Local community members also came to speak out at the action, such as Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant. In addition to discussing struggles shared by Black students at universities across the globe, community members discussed the effect of various forms of state­ sanctioned violence on our lives, be it police brutality, poverty, the war on drugs, miseducation in the Eurocentric public school system, mental health struggles, violence against queer and trans folks or any of the multitude of battles Black folks in America must fight at a disproportionately high rate. Today and every day, we denounce all forms of state-sanctioned violence against oppressed peoples.

Choosing Cal Day was of particular significance to us, as it is a day in which tens of thousands of people come to campus to celebrate school spirit and what it means to be a UC Berkeley Golden Bear. As Black students at UC Berkeley, we are embedded in a racially hostile and academically unsupportive environment, and we felt that Cal Day was a perfect platform with which to express this. How can we be proud Golden Bears at an institution that devalues Blackness and Black lives while simultaneously profiting off of them via avenues such as Cal Athletics? (In 2014, the campus made more than $29 million in revenue from intercollegiate athletics , the year after the NCAA and SF Gate exposed that Black male athletes at UC Berkeley have a 40 percent graduation rate.) The barrier we formed at Sather Gate was representative of the barriers to our education and well-being that we are forced to exist within every day at this campus. Too often, Black students are featured on UC Berkeley brochures in an attempt to highlight the importance of diversity to the campus, yet behind closed doors, we face endless bureaucracy and excuses as to why our priorities need to be delayed. The small inconvenience the barrier posed to Cal Day participants is nowhere near comparable to the effects state-sanctioned violence has had on Black people in the education system and in America. Today and every day, we fight back against the painful reality within which Black folks exist in this country.

Dirks, we urge you to sign on and agree to our demands and to be on the right side of history. You recently wrote an op­-ed in which you discussed Ferguson, Missouri, and the Black Lives Matter movement. If Black lives truly matter to you, then the Black educational experiences at your institution of work need to matter as well. If Black folks matter to you, you will aid us in reversing the anti­-black infrastructure that this university finds in its foundation. We do not wish to be a spectacle on your diversity flyers if our educational experiences are not going to be valued here. We ask you to please not engage in the blatant hypocrisy of naming a building after Martin Luther King Jr., when other buildings are permitted to remain named after racist colonizers or slave masters — for example, Barrows Hall and LeConte Hall. If you truly want to begin acting as an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement, you will replace rhetoric with action and sign on to the Black Student Union’s demands.

We will continue to fight collectively for our humanity on and off of this campus. As Assata Shakur said, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

We hope you join us on the right side of history, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

In struggle and revolution —

Blake Simons and Gabrielle Shuman, Black Student Union