Student protests shut down business as usual (VIDEO)

Inside the Bank of America
Photo by Yael Chanoff

By Yael Chanoff, Nena Farrell, and Shawn Gaynor

Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 15 and 16, marked galvanizing student-led protests that shut down a Bank of America branch at Davis and California streets in San Francisco, prompted walk-outs and marches through the streets of Berkeley, and fed the momentum initiated by the Occupy Oakland and Occupy San Francisco encampments.

And although Occupy Cal's mini tent city at the University of California at Berkeley was removed in a 4 a.m. raid on Nov. 17, the youth in this growing movement show no signs of slowing down.

In San Francisco on Nov. 16,  protesters from OccupySF joined with students from US campuses, city colleges, and California State University schools to launch a  peaceful day of action that included a march from the OccupySF encampment to the California State building, with sit-in stops at downtown offices of corporations associated with several wealthy UC Regents.

The days’ actions were the result of a last-minute change of plans. Students had been organizing for months for a day centered on the scheduled UC Regents meeting at the UCSF Mission Bay campus. The meeting was cancelled on November 14, citing potential violent disruptions. Organizers from the group Occupy Education decided instead to  march, rally, and occupy in San Francisco’s financial district.

“The 1% on the Board of Regents cancelled their meeting because we demanded they do the people’s business. So now we’re going to where they do Wall Street’s business,” an official statement from Occupy Education noted.

The march left from the encampment site, renamed Bradley Manning Plaza by some occupiers, around 1 p.m. About 500 students, OccupySF participants and supporters marched along the Embarcadero, chanting “Whose university? Our university!” and “No cuts, no fees, education must be free.”

Around 2:20, the march stopped at the Bank of America branch at California and Davis. There, about 200 entered the building. Protesters held doors open as employees pushed back. One woman speaking into a cell phone yelled “This is private property! Get away!”

The bank’s main room soon filled with protesters who stood on chairs, desks and other furniture, chanted slogans, and pounded on drums. Several gave speeches decrying UC Regents with large salaries and their involvement in fee hikes. Said organizer David Solnit, “If they occupy our education, we occupy their banks!”

The final arrests were made shortly before 7 p.m. Video by Rebecca Bowe

Organizers singled out Monica Lozano, UC Regent and member of the Bank of America board of directors, as one of the reasons for targeting the Bank of America. Fliers explaining the reason to target Lozano said, “We hear it every day. There’s no more money. No money to keep college affordable…make Wall Street corporations and the super-rich pay, including those who sit on our schools’ and universities’ boards.”

The protesters remained peaceful while inside the building. Some scrawled messages on file cabinets in white chalk.

Around 2:40, at the Davis Street bank entrance, protesters formed a circle in front of the door, in front of police who were guarding the door. OccupySF participant Amy O told the Guardian, “My arms were in peace signs and I had inserted myself in between a yelling police officer and an overly aggressive protester. Then more police came up from behind me. They pulled my hoodie and I was thrown to the ground…there was no warning and I fell hard on my elbow. My hands were up in the air.”

Craig Rouskey was involved in the same incident. He says he was shocked when, without warning, police “jumped into the crowd and started beating people over the head with batons.” Rouskey named “Officer Turvis” as the specific police officer involved in beating protesters with batons.

After this incident, which to stem from police efforts to clear the space in front of the door, about 100 protesters moved into the space and staged a sit-in outside the bank, while several hundred more looked on, blocking the street.

All other police-protester interaction was calm. Those inside the bank sat in, spoke out and played music for about an hour until police began to arrest. Then, as officers processed each arrestee individually, the process of removing them from the bank took over four hours. A total of 95 arrests were made.

The last relic of the sit-in to go was a tent protesters had pitched inside the bank. The tent is now being auctioned on Ebay, and the current bid is at $255.

Around 3 p.m., the march continued on Market to its final destination -- the State Building on Golden Gate and Larkin streets – while several dozen remained at the Bank of America branch to support those sitting in. The march ended with a speak-out in front of the building, where students and other supporters talked about how University budget cuts have affected them and their families. Several students said they would not be able to afford continued schooling if proposed UC budget cuts, which include an 89 percent increase over the next four years, move forward.

Destiny Iwuoma, a first-year student at UC Berkeley with a double major in Legal Studies and African American Studies and a minor in Education who has also participated in Occupy Cal, was proud of the day’s participants. “I think the people inside the Bank of American are pretty brave,” he said.

Occupy protests around the Bay Area are working in tandem and relying on each other, Iwuoma said. “Buses from Occupy Cal left to support OccupySF. Occupy Oakland and SF came to support Occupy Cal. We’re supporting each other.”

A day earlier, the East Bay city of Berkeley was besieged with student protests. A day packed with rallies, marches, speakers, and a general assembly that drew thousands at the end of the day to UC Berkeley marked the Nov. 15 student strike and Day of Action called in response to a police crackdown less than a week earlier. 

Hundreds filled Sproul Plaza for a 2 p.m. rally. Honest Cheung, one of the 39 Berkeley students to be arrested after the first attempt to set up tents, condemned the campus police's excessive use of force against student protesters.

"When they increase our debt, they increase their profit! And that is why they use violence," Cheung said. “What kind of democracy do we live in when peaceful protestors are met with violence?"

Students moved to an intersection off campus to hear Robert Slaughter, a black student from St Mary's College, describe how he beaten by police and arrested with 38 others, but was the only one charged with a felony and held on $15,000 bail.

A mass of students then marched down Bancroft Street, stopping traffic on Shattuck Avenue. They circled the streets around Berkeley High and made stops in front of Berkeley High and the Berkeley Civic Center, chanting, "Who's university? Our university!" "Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!" "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out."
At the high school, they chanted, "UC Berkeley, Berkeley High, hella hella Occupy," and "Education is a right, Berkeley High is hella tight."

By 4:30, the crowd had returned as a huge mass to Sproul Plaza. Protesters from Occupy Oakland arrived soon after, en masse, waving around a tent on a stick to announce their presence. After that, they had people sit down to form the General Assembly. After many mic checks and early announcements, they handed out agendas and announced the details of an afternoon shooting that occurred at Haas School of Business.

Someone stood and announced that a lawsuit would be filed against campus police for targeting protesters with excessive force Nov. 9. Occupy Cal plans to hold general assemblies at Sproul Plaza each night at 6 p.m. (Their Twitter feed is here)

The crowd continued to swell, and perhaps ten thousand people crammed into the plaza for the general assembly. They voted to re-establish the occupation of the plaza, and to demand an end to the wave of tuition hikes and funding cuts that have put higher education beyond the reach of many Californians.

“I believe words have the power to create change,” Said Jeanie Shoumacer, 47, an undergrad student who'd brought her 5-year-old son along for the civics lesson. “We must not let this end,” she urged the crowd, speaking from the steps of Sproul Hall. “We cannot give up.”

Berkeley's Free Speech Movement began at Sproul Plaza. Signs of free speech activist Mario Savio had been set up with a sign reading, “This is Our History.” Speakers were flanked by banners that read, “Free education for all,” and “Defend public education.”

Morgan Crawford, a Berkeley student, had participated in the protests a week prior. “I was beaten last week,” he said. “I could hardly walk. I'm back here to speak in favor of re-establishing the encampment. Our voices will be heard, and when the police return to beat us into submission, stand strong, and stand together.”

Senior Andrea Barrera was one of the meeting facilitators. “We stand in solidarity with all the people in the world who are struggling with the system that we are working so hard to defeat,” she said.

The general assembly was run on a model of participatory democracy. Issues were presented, debated in small groups, and then voted on by everyone present. Friendly amendments were recorded, votes tallied, and proposals passed under a system that required an 80 percent super-majority to go forward. Though chaotic at times, Occupy activists were able to address and pass several resolutions in just over an hour – a display of efficiency.

“We don't just organize,” Barrera said. “We communize. We work together.”