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What Does It Mean to Be Anti-Establishment at Berkeley Today?

For some, the opposite of what it meant 50 years ago.
The Campanile at the University of California-Berkeley. (Photo: John-Morgan/Flickr)

The Campanile at the University of California-Berkeley. (Photo: John-Morgan/Flickr)

They are the largest student organization at the University of California-Berkeley. Their website bills them as “the preeminent anti-establishment force at UC Berkeley and proud of it.” No small claim at Berkeley, a place with a history of activism and where this club has grown into its role as chief antagonist. National news covered one of their biggest stunts a few years ago. The club grows by the year and takes advantage of the ever-changing demographics of the student body. The organization? The Berkeley College Republicans.

Despite student skepticism and the common caricatures of Republicans, Brendan Pinder, president of BCR, says the club is thriving because of ideological diversity. There are plenty of politically liberal organizations on campus, but, according to Pinder, students view all of those clubs as extremely progressive, and so BCR membership actually encompasses a wide swath of the political spectrum. The campus community is generally receptive and tolerant, Pinder says, but his political views are sometimes enough to turn people away from even having a dialogue. Still, the club is stable and popular, and he thinks membership can continue to grow, especially if the GOP relaxes its stance on social issues, an area where most Millennials identify as liberal.

Ex-president Shawn Lewis wrote that he was drawn to Berkeley because of its rich history of activism. It might seem strange that a Republican would want to come to California in the first place, but Pinder and Lewis both stress that political engagement at Berkeley isn’t a unilateral process. Pinder told me that he felt trepidation about wading into Berkeley at first, but the size and breadth of the Republican community surprised him. Growing the club is not necessarily a matter of converting leftist students into conservatives. Instead, BCR recruits by trying to talk with curious students and demystifying stigmas surrounding the party. BCR admits that the national GOP has flawed platforms, but the club feels an active responsibility to change those and modernize the party.

Protests aren’t ubiquitous anymore, but they still happen. Dissent is quieter, but co-ops, seminars, and plenty of other student organizations remain politically motivated and active. Students are less likely to riot now, but there is widespread embrace of environmentalism and LGBTQIA rights.

However, the BCR has had its issues. You might remember their greatest hit, the satirical Affirmative Action Bake Sale. Faculty and students largely condemned it, but the club sold out their supply of cupcakes and the bake sale was never shut down, unlike similar events at other colleges. That the bake sale was somewhat successful seems to reveal a less ideologically-entrenched campus. In Lewis’ op-ed, he lamented university policy that condemned the free speech he saw the bake sale as representing, for the “comfort” of the campus and its inhabitants.

THERE IS A PRIVATELY owned on-campus cafe named after the Free Speech Movement, a fact which tour guides make a point of showing off. They tout it as a symbol of Berkeley students’ fiery character, a “know your roots” ideal to aspire to. The titular movement began in response to administrative shutdowns of on-campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War or in support of the civil rights movement. In 1969, Ronald Reagan (then the California governor) called in the National Guard to disperse rioting students, who were protesting a university-sponsored construction project, from People’s Park. During the course of the riot, 13 students were shot and hospitalized, while a police officer was stabbed and one student died four days later from gunshot wounds. Protesters were successful and the park remains an undeveloped monument to that dangerous time.

The university-approved presence of a cafe glorifying that legacy wouldn’t seem like co-optation of the narrative if things had truly changed. In late 2011, UCPD officers in formation beat Occupy Cal protesters. Administrators are currently facing a lawsuit for their roles in the violence. Ironically, the chancellor’s office is in California Hall, which borders the FSM cafe directly. The beatings incited anger but there was never a second wave of organized resistance. Finals week came around shortly after, and most student support dissolved. I can’t point from a position of authority and shake my head at those students because I was one of those students. However, the dissolution of the movement, the lack of real organized resistance, and mixed opinions on the legitimacy of the protest show the changing political climate at Berkeley.

Nostalgia can be hazy and reductive, and making comparisons across different eras and political climates is difficult, but today’s Berkeley is less politically volatile. The National Guard will not be necessary. Former Secretary of Homeland Security and deportation advocate Janet Napolitano is the current president of the UC system. Her appointment was controversial, but it signals a priority shift at the top level. This isn’t Clark Kerr’s UC anymore.

WHEN CAMPUS WORKERS AND graduate student instructors decided to strike last November, this letter from a math professor to his students went viral. It has been viewed over 100,000 times. It was lauded and featured at the Daily Cal and the Cal Alumni Association. In the letter, Alexander Coward urges his students not to strike in solidarity because their education is too important to be denied “because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for.”

This letter wouldn’t have been praised in 1964 Berkeley, but 2014 Berkeley is a world away. The student body has far more international students than 50 years ago, which creates a more vibrant and diverse but politically diffuse campus. Admissions selectivity and the increasing popularity of science and engineering both create a competitive academic environment that is not conducive to activism and the risk of arrest. Protests aren’t ubiquitous anymore, but they still happen. Dissent is quieter, but co-ops, seminars, and plenty of other student organizations remain politically motivated and active. Students are less likely to riot now, but there is widespread embrace of environmentalism and LGBTQIA rights. Berkeley isn’t the “communist place” Bill O’Reilly labeled it as, but it’s still a big, significant, and complicated place with its own American niche.