BERKELEY — The University of California, Berkeley has long been synonymous with student protests. Though most notable for 1960s demonstrations supporting the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements, as well as opposition to the Vietnam War, Berkeley students took to the streets as early as the 1930s against the U.S. decision to end its disarmament policy in an apparent march toward war.
This year is proving to be no different.
Armed with flags and posters, hundreds of students have been protesting the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Much like the 1960s, there have been vehement speeches and poignant chants, with students expressing their anger over events since Oc. 7 when Hamas militants carried out a surprise attack on Israel.
Though both sides of the conflict have been represented at vigils and demonstrations, the protests to date have been largely in support of the Palestinians, with community members joining hundreds of students.
“Showing up physically is an important part of being in solidarity,” said third-year applied math student Lycia Yousfi, wearing a keffiyeh, which has become a symbol of solidarity. “Someone at the protest the other day said solidarity is a verb. It’s not enough to just feel bad. When we see injustice we should be lending our power to the cause not lending our pity to the cause.”
Bears for Palestine
The events on the Berkeley campus have been happening at universities across California and the nation, with both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel marches and protests taking place. Earlier this month, the University of California president and the 10 UC chancellors issued a statement condemning both antisemitism and Islamophobia.
At Berkeley, major campus demonstrations in support of Palestinians have been led by Bears for Palestine, a group formed in 2001. The protests often have a master of ceremonies from the group, as well as multiple speakers. Volunteers scattered through the crowd pass out informational papers and lead protests with megaphones.
As it was in the 1960s, the protests are largely centered on Sproul Plaza.
“Right on those steps, that we are right next to, Malcolm X was there. So many amazing speakers have stood on those Sproul steps. It resembles change and that people are listening,” said Rubey, a Jewish fourth-year film student who declined to give a last name.
Goal of Protests Is to Make People Pay Attention
Many students emphasize Berkeley’s reputation and long history of protesting social injustice, feeling as though they are standing on the shoulders of giants.
“A lot of things have started here, such as the free speech movement. A lot of things come out of the bay and specifically out of this campus,” said Yousfi, referring to the 1964-65 student protests, which proved to be pivotal in the 1960s civil liberties movement and the ban on campus political activity in place at that time.
During a few demonstrations last month, protesters blocked the entrance to Sather Gate, causing students to cross through the creek below to make it to class.
“I think there is a narrative that sort of polices protests. … That protests need to be peaceful and undisruptive. But those rarely yield results,” said third-year media studies student Tati, who declined to give her last name. “It’s unfortunate that making someone take a longer route to work or shaming them from buying their daily Starbucks is what it takes for people to realize they should care about other people, but that just seems to be the way people function.”
Other protesters shared the same sentiment — their goal is to make the protests so visible that they can’t be ignored. This included walking through the middle of Berkeley’s streets as the demonstrators made their way from the Sproul Hall steps to Berkeley City Hall, where they continued to demand an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
They are gaining attention, causing people to pause, take photos, or simply listen to the thunderous group as they march through campus. Participants join in chants, such as “Intifada, intifada, long live the intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
“There are helicopters. There is news. There are police. That just shows that voices are being heard. So if it starts within huge institutions like Berkeley, it just keeps the conversation alive,” said Rubey.
Bears for Israel
Smaller-scale demonstrations in support of Israel have been conducted by Bears for Israel. A vigil on Oct. 8 honored and mourned those who died in the Hamas attack the previous day. During the vigil, participants gathered around a candle outline of the Star of David.
“I have been deeply connected to this campus for more than 50 years and rarely, if ever, have I been more concerned about our ability to abide by and sustain our foundational Principles of Community.” — UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ
Occasionally, pro-Israel counter-protesters will gather in response to pro-Palestine demonstrations.
“It can be tense on campus. The closest moment is if I’m in a protest and there are counter-protesters near me, but it doesn’t matter,” Yousfi said.
On Oct. 25, amidst opposing protests, a suspect attempted to grab someone’s backpack and flag, ultimately taking her water bottle. The suspect proceeded to walk around the crowd and hit the victim with the water bottle, though she wasn’t injured, according to Berkeley WarnMe.
In an email to the student body, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ stated, “I have been deeply connected to this campus for more than 50 years and rarely, if ever, have I been more concerned about our ability to abide by and sustain our foundational Principles of Community.”
The chancellor went on to condemn both antisemitism and Islamophobia, addressing the increased number of reports made. “Our commitment to free speech at Berkeley is long-lived and unwavering … inability to censor protected expression does not mean it is condoned.”
Tensions Arise in Classrooms Over Free Speech
These tensions have drifted into the classroom. A Berkeley law professor, Steven Davidoff Solomon, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students.” That, as you might expect, created strife in the department. In response, 200 alumni signed an open letter to Erwin Chemerinsky, the law school’s dean, demanding he address the article and uphold free speech.
Chemerinsky issued a statement via email emphasizing the campus’s commitment to free speech, even speech others find harmful or offensive. Later, he published his own op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, discussing the antisemitism he has faced since the Israel-Hamas war began and comments made by students that he believed supported Hamas.
Rubey shared her experience: “We had a walkout that was scheduled at 12:30, and my class ended at one. My professor is pro-Israel. We had talked about taking days off for Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShanah; she knows I am a Jew. When we got up and I got up to stand for Palestine, it was the most insane tension and it was really kind of scary. My heart dropped.”
During the next class meeting, the professor screened an extremely graphic film on the Holocaust. Several students had to leave during the film and others began to cry.
Cease-Fire Goal Is Realized
“Cease fire is the immediate action that needs to happen,” Yousfi told me, “Then we can go from there. Right now I just want the amount of people dead to be the end of it. I don’t want people to keep dying.”
On Wednesday, Israel and Hamas agreed to a four-day cease-fire in the war in Gaza. During that time, dozens of hostages held by Hamas militants as well as Palestinians imprisoned by Israel will be released. And, badly needed aid will be brought to those suffering in war-torn Gaza.
There are hopes here in Berkeley and around the world that this will grow into a serious effort to end this savage conflict.
About the Author
GV Wire reporter/researcher Anya Ellis is a student at UC Berkeley.