The day after my 19th birthday, I bolted off the BART in downtown SF and grabbed a taxi. The driver was Turkish and asked if I was Russian. I can still recall how I didn’t want small talk.
I hurried to the press conference held by five major civil rights groups. My Daily Cal editor had told me to cover the story. I skipped class to be there. It was the first time I saw saw the university descend. Swoop in to diffuse a threat. The university not only produced the superheros of white privilege, but it also created the the villains of white fragility. All the major news outlets covered the case. I felt lame being there from the college newspaper, but the other reporters respected The Daily Cal. They had also gotten used to seeing me covering the UC Regents meeting. I would get stuck covering more than my share of boring meetings.
The university was getting sued for Prop 209. The case of Jesus Rios and five other plaintiffs, who should have been in my entering class, would eventually get kicked out or what lawyers say, “dismissed.” Yet that was the first time I saw such a press conference where people would stand up and speak up against the system I was part and parcel. Julie Su, who is now California’s Labor Commissioner, was one of the attorneys who represented the students. The lawsuit alleged discrimination based on the use of test scores and advanced placement tests in admissions practices. The lawsuit was a precursor to Grutter v. Bollinger from Michigan.
Two months later, I really hated Cal. This is how I remember it. Not the fresh sprawling lawns of California. The chokeholds. The university lawyers. The press office. The system. The students had been protesting the defunding of ethnic studies. The Third World Liberation Front of the 1960’s had been resurrected. It was April 1999.
When I was moving into Berkeley the fall of 1998, one of the sales clerk for a small furniture store looked at my driver’s license and said, “These kids were born during the Reagan administration, they won’t know anything about Berkeley.” She treated me like I wasn’t there.
I remember being called by the newspaper to cover a story that day in April 1999 and telling them I was busy. I had Arabic class in the evening and had also just had my pupils dilated for an eye exam. I couldn’t see very well, but enough to walk to campus and try to go to my class. Barrows Hall was the building that housed Ethnic Studies and was the one that was being occupied. I argued with the people at the front that I had to go inside for my class. They said no on was allowed in. I saw my Arabic professor, and he said class was cancelled. I left.
The next day after I could see clearly I rushed up the six flights of Eschelman Hall to the top floor and scanned the archives of the Daily Cal. I poured over the old editions. What was this history of the sixties that everyone was so obsessed with? What the hell had happened here? My only brush in with what had happened before was my 10th grade U.S history teacher in Orlando was a Berkeley grad. She had her eyes pepper sprayed at Cal, and her eyes and nerves around the eyes were permanently damaged. She never told us. I heard about it from others. She was the generation of Cal that marched against the Vietnam War. The generation that ended the war.
The students didn’t let up. It snowballed after five faculty members also joined the protesters in solidarity.
I called Chancellor Berdahl’s press office for comment following the arrests in April 1999.
“Hi, this is Nadia Ahmad from the Daily Cal. I was calling regarding the arrests on campus last night.”
“Yes, we know who you are. We have no comment at this time.” Click.
I thought, “Screw that. They won’t even take my call. I’ll just report the protestors’ side.”
By noon the crowds had swelled to over a thousand. And as the student protestors were released from prison, they would arrive by bus on the north side of campus and come meet up in front of California Hall.
Prop 209 is the system which can allow a foot on the Minnesota man’s neck until he dies. And the mayor has to investigate before terminating their positions.