The Occupy Wall Street movement, and its cousins that have emerged in cities across the country, arrived on the UC Berkeley campus last fall in the form of “Occupy Cal.” Students set up small camping tents outside Sproul Hall in front of Savio Steps, named for the famed free speech activist, Mario Savio. Police, in a scene involving protester-police conflict and violence, ultimately removed the tents stirring controversy across campus.
In the wake of the tent removals, College of Environmental Design students led by students from the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning hung a large sign reading “OCCUPY PUBLIC SPACE” in full view off Wurster Hall’s 10th floor. To draw attention to the role of design in social change, they also created a unique intervention intended to provoke and amuse.
Since tents in front of Sproul Hall were banned, the students filled two tents with helium balloons, floating them on long lines, along with an enormous sign reading “OUR SPACE”. Marching down from Wurster Hall in an exuberant procession, they tethered the hovering tents and sign high in front of the Sproul Hall doors. I too was out there in the cold with our students, their floating tents, and their comic signs such as “Frank Lloyd Fight!” We had an animated conversation about social justice and the future of public universities like Cal.
Back at Wurster Hall, some of the students, enrolled in a graduate seminar on public space taught by Professor of Architecture Margaret Crawford, were eager to engage in a discussion about the role of public space in social protest and change. We immediately decided to organize a panel discussion, creating a locus for more serious, academic dialogue.
So, on December 1st, students packed the new Wurster Gallery to hear faculty members Ananya Roy (City & Regional Planning), Walter Hood (Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning), and Margaret Crawford (Architecture) and MLA graduate students Rob Tidmore and Chris Torres debate questions of design activism, the meanings of public space, and the serious social, political and economic issues raised by the Occupy movement. It was an electric evening of tough questions and rapid-fire exchanges among panelists and participants.
The challenges that our university and college face are rooted in the political and economic dynamics driving the Occupy movement. The entire campus community understands this. Today’s students and faculty all know that activism is a vital and cherished part of this university’s heritage, but knowledge about the strategies and tactics that actually build movements must be learned anew. We must always begin with the substantive issues, and thus along with other Cal Deans, I have worked to organize a series of campus-wide forums to explore issues of social inequality and opportunity, taxation and citizenship, the economics of higher education, and the public character of public universities. Student and faculty organizations in turn are rapidly beginning to map out strategies for mobilization and identifying political pathways for change.
The creative and powerful intervention designed by CED students went viral, astounding people all across campus. I realized anew how proud I am to be part of the College of Environmental Design and to have the chance to help CED build on its historical legacy of activism, and fight for a more just future.
PS: You can see local news coverage of the CED student intervention online.
Photos: Alex Schuknecht, Cary Bass, Darryl Jones