UC Berkeley police arrested 79 pro-Palestinian activists Tuesday afternoon, capping a day of protests against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and University of California investment in Israel.
The arrests came after activists occupied the foyer of Benjamin Ide Wheeler Hall on campus, demanding to meet with UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl and the UC Board of Regents about divestment.
Police escorted some of the protesters from the foyer and dragged others as activists, seated in a tight circle, chanted “Shame on Police” and “Viva! Viva! Intifadah!”
Dozens of other protesters, barred from the building by UC Berkeley police, banged on the doors and chanted supportive slogans.
“We don’t negotiate under these circumstances,” said UC Berkeley Assistant Chancellor John Cummins, who noted that the Regents, rather than UC Berkeley, will have to make any decision on divestment.
“I think UC should have negotiated with us,” responded Chris Cantor of Students for Justice in Palestine, the primary organizer of the day’s events. “They purposely shut down all avenues of communication.”
“If they were serious about us meeting with the Regents, why don’t they set up a meeting?,” added Gregory Hoadley of SJP.
Activists estimate that UC has invested about $7 billion in companies, like General Electric and Nokia, that do substantial business in Israel. They say they are building a student movement on UC campuses throughout the state to advocate for divestment.
Regent John Davies, reached by the Planet Tuesday night, said he had no position on UC investment in Israel. Attempts to reach other Regents were unsuccessful.
Protesters also called on the administration to issue a statement of solidarity with Bethlehem University, a UC Berkeley sister school that protesters claim is under siege by Israeli forces.
“At the least, they could have made a statement,” said Hoadley.
Cummins said the university is unaware of the sister school situation and will look into it further.
Captain Bill Cooper, spokesman for the UC Berkeley Police, said all 79 protesters were charged with trespassing, six with resisting arrest and one with assaulting an officer. UC Berkeley police released 78 of the protesters after issuing citations, Cooper said. The remaining protester was 23-year-old Roberto Hernandez, a student suspected of assault, he was turned over to the Berkeley Police Department.
Activists moved the protest to the city jail after the Wheeler Hall arrests were complete and posted $5,000 bail for Hernandez, according to Captain Bobby Miller of the Berkeley Police Department.
Cummins said the district attorney will decide whether to prosecute the activists, but that UC Berkeley would encourage authorities to look at the matter closely.
“We would hope that if there is a violation of the law, they would take it seriously,” said Cummins.
Last year, police arrested 32 pro-Palestinian protesters, including 19 students, who occupied Wheeler Hall and made similar demands. UC Berkeley officials said none faced prosecution.
Cummins said, no matter what the district attorney decides, the university may suspend the students involved. About three-quarters of the arrested protesters were students, according to Cooper.
The Wheeler Hall occupation, which began around 1 p.m., followed a noon rally on UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza that drew a crowd of about 600.
The protest was part of a national “day of action” that included pro-Palestinian events at San Francisco State University, Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota and Columbia University in New York City, according to wire reports.
The event commemorated the April 9, 1948 massacre, by Israeli paramilitaries, of Palestinian townspeople in the village of Deir Yassin. This year, the Deir Yassin anniversary coincided with Yom HaShoa, the Jewish day of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust.
Jewish students huddled under a tent on Sproul Plaza, a hundred feet from the pro-Palestinian rally, and read the names of Holocaust victims to mark the occasion.
Randy Barnes, a UC Berkeley senior and leader of Israel Action Committee, a campus group, noted that the Deir Yassin massacre took place over the course of three days, from April 9 to April 11, and argued that Students for Justice in Palestine should have postponed their day of protest to respect the victims of the Holocaust.
“This is a moral outrage,” said Barnes.
Jewish student leaders said they were particularly upset that pro-Palestinian activists compared the current conflict in Israel with the Holocaust.
“Using the Holocaust to compare to what is happening now is trivializing our history,” said Devora Liss, a UC Berkeley sophomore who grew up in Jerusalem.
But pro-Palestinian activists, who held a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Holocaust and other massacres at the start of the noon rally, said it is important to take a stand against all forms of “ethnic cleansing.”
“That was ethnic cleansing,” said Suemyra Shah of SJP, referring to the Holocaust, “and what is happening today is clearly ethnic cleansing.”
But some members of the Jewish community found not only the timing but the volatile nature of the protest unsettling.
“I as well as many other members of the Jewish community support the rights of any group to articulate their concerns, but it is incumbent upon them to do so in a way the contributes to the peace of our community,” said Adam Weisberg, executive director of the Hillel Center.
Though there were no reports of anti-Semitic rhetoric being espoused by the protesters, Weisberg thought some might walk away angry enough to lash out.
“I was concerned that the SJP’s rhetoric was such that some people might feel so angry at the target of that rhetoric — which is Israel — and walk away from it and act on those they feel are supportive of Israel,” Weisberg said. “And doing so would add to the already unsettling environment for Jewish students and members of the Jewish community.”
The Tuesday protest and war of words came just a day after Chancellor Berdahl called for a peaceful debate between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists on campus.
UC Berkeley issued a statement Tuesday evening noting that Berdahl was pleased with the “civil” events on Sproul Plaza, but “disappointed” by the Wheeler Hall occupation.