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Occupy Cal Berkeley Protest Draws Thousands, As Two Years Of Occupation Come Home

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Facing some of the steepest budget cuts and tuition hikes in the country, thousands college students across California staged a mass walkout on Wednesday and set up camp to form the latest Occupy site. But unlike many others around the country, who have only started to get involved in the protests, California students are continuing a movement they've been pursuing for two years.

When activists at UC-Berkeley staged a walkout on Wednesday morning and marched to Sproul Hall, the site they plan to use for their official "Occupy Cal" protest, UC-Berkeley officials threatened to evict demonstrators. Police descended on the encampment at 3 p.m. Arrests and clashes with officers wielding batons began within an hour. Video of the incident shows police striking unarmed students repeatedly.

In all, at least 39 protesters were arrested on Wednesday at the Berkeley campus, the epicenter of the statewide college protests. Another 11 students were arrested at UCLA. Both sites saw more than 1,000 students demonstrate.

Morgan Marquis-Boire, who has protested with Occupy San Francisco since Sept. 17 and joined the Day of Action at Berkeley, said he felt like the students were genuinely shocked by how quickly police resorted to force.

"I think that both University leadership and local council were very keen to try to prevent any occupations," Marquis-Boire told HuffPost. "That's why they went to the force so quickly, to dissuade people from setting up tents."

California-based professors and lecturers -- who are angry that they saw a 10 percent pay cut last year, while university presidents earned $100,000 raises -- joined students in Wednesday's walkout. At least one professor was arrested.

The Nov. 9 walkout and launch of Occupy Cal continues two years of protest over budget cuts and tuition hikes. Although they are now joining the larger Occupy Wall Street movement, using its tactics of encampments, the "people's microphone" and the like, students activists started "occupying" campus buildings at the University of California in 2009. At least 250 students have been arrested since then.

The discontent stretches across both the University of California system and the California State University system, with students planning campus walkouts in conjunction with nearby occupations like Occupy Oakland and Occupy SF. Students at California public universities could see their tuition and fees increase by 81 percent over the next four years, bringing in-state tuition to over $22,000 a year. California State University students saw tuition increases imposed just a few weeks before classes began this semester, and after federal financial aid was settled.

University of California student President Vishalli Loomba told HuffPost that having seen the cuts to education over the past few years, she feels the state has stopped making it a priority.

"The sentiment among students has been one of frustration and confusion as to how our elected officials can be doing our state such an injustice," Loomba said. "Investing in the public higher education system of this state is investing in the future of this state, and I don't think anyone can argue with that."

Rather than resenting the recent occupations on the east coast and in the rest of the country, those active in the west coast protests told HuffPost it legitimizes what they've been doing.

"At a time when it seemed like there was very little push-back, that general belief that everyone has to kind of hang on to their own little boat through the economic crisis, all of a sudden there's a movement," Wendy Brown, a UC Berkeley professor, said.

On Nov. 20, 2009, Amanda Armstrong, a graduate student at UC Berekley, was detained by police when she and 40 other students occupied Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley, demanding that 38 dismissed janitors be rehired. During that confrontation, cops clashed with protesters, and Berkeley professor Ananya Roy frantically served as an intermediary.

At the time, demonstrators were physically preventing classes, Armstrong said. Unlike the occupations occurring now, previous efforts focused on locking and barricading campus buildings. But other than a week-long encampment around a hunger strike, Armstrong told HuffPost, they never held occupations out in the open as they are now doing across the country.

"Back in 2009, around here the slogan 'Occupy Everything' was kind of circulating," Armstrong said. "At the time, it was seen as controversial."

During one incident in March of 2010, 150 protesters were arrested for trying to occupy part of Interstate 80 in protest of the budget cuts and tuition hikes, displaying a banner that read "Occupy everything," while shutting down the roadway for an hour.

In a recent email to the UC community, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and some Vice Chancellors pre-emptively banned encampments from campuses. "In these challenging times, we simply cannot afford to spend our precious resources and, in particular, student tuition on costly and avoidable expenses associated with violence or vandalism," the email read.

For that reason, students involved told HuffPost that they kept the location of their intended occupation under wraps. The Sproul Plaza area, which is open 24 hours a day, does not allow tents, but protesters decided to violate those rules.

Wednesday's day of action garnered significant support from within the community, including nods from state legislators and labor unions. Local Occupy encampments joined students in the walkout. Loomba and External Affairs Vice President Joey Freeman of Associated Students of UC endorsed the walkout in an editorial.

For some in the community, it's a cultural shift they're fighting against. Brown said the California Master Plan, the state's mission statement for public education, "guaranteed a college education to any student who wanted it for free for half a century, and that's over. But we're not giving it up entirely without a fight."

Sean Semans, a senior at San Francisco State University who is involved with the protests, said he knows many students worry about being kicked out of school or being physically hurt through their participation in demonstrations, especially if past protests are any indication of future levels of violence.

"It's been a broken system for years," Semans said, "and the response has been to silence the people who want to try to voice their opinion about the system."

California students naturally latched onto the Occupy Wall Street movement, they told HuffPost, because several of members of the UC Board of Regents also serve on the boards of major banks.

"Our movement is not looked upon fondly by the Regents of the University of California, or the [University's] president," Brown explained. "We're fighting for the University, and we're being opposed most strenuously by the president of the University."

Loomba said it's critical that the students not stop after Wednesday's Day of Action.

"We as students have the power to change the conversation in Sacramento and make sure that we are holding our elected officials accountable," Loomba said.

Occupy Cal students now plan to strike with demonstrators across the UC system on Tuesday.

The Regents for the University of California plan to meet again on Nov. 16. The student governments are organizing buses to transport students to attend the meeting.

"Realistically we have enough people that we can prevent the Board of Regents from meeting," Semans told HuffPost. "I'm confident this time around that this is going to be a rude awakening."

WATCH Footage Of Police Clashing With Protesters At UC Berkeley:

CORRECTION: This article previously stated the Regents will meet on Nov. 23. It was corrected to state they will meet again on Nov. 16.

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