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Storming Sather Gate: Two Student Groups Demand Visibility

November 1, 2016
by Glen Martin and Krissy Eliot
Protesters in front of Sather Gate

Recent demonstrations at Sather Gate by LGBTQIA+ students and students of color were covered with gleeful alacrity by the national press—largely because white students were seemingly prevented by the demonstrators from entering the campus. Right-leaning (and alt right) outlets denounced the actions with particular fervor, claiming they were neo-segregationist in intent and distressingly uncivil in tone. Some commentators lamented that the acronym for people who are other than heterosexual is becoming absurdly long, leading to confusion and muddled communication.

All that aside, videos of the demonstrations confirm the protests were decidedly genteel, at least when compared to the protests of Berkeley’s glory (or gory) years. There were no pitched battles with police or National Guard troops. No blood ran in the streets. No Molotov cocktails were pitched. Instead, ranks of chanting protestors blocked Sather Gate. Then they marched to the student store and the student union, demanding increased facilities for LGBTQIA+ and non-white student organizations. Some Cal students interviewed during the actions expressed mild pique at being discommoded, but said they supported the right to protest. And while a few people were clearly irritated by the blockade, most simply walked a few feet to the side, crossed Strawberry Creek, and went on their way.

“Words are everything. Words shape the world and culture and perceptions of what’s acceptable in society.” 

Much of the coverage presented the event as a demand for “safe spaces,” a trope that plays into a larger narrative that includes such notions as “trigger alerts” and “microaggressions.” One point of view is that this phenomenon is strangling free and open discourse on college campuses, forcing students and professors to adopt rigid orthodoxies of speech, action—even thought—lest someone experience deep emotional trauma; others, of course, don’t see things in such black and white terms.

“Words are everything. Words shape the world and culture and perceptions of what’s acceptable in society,” says Kiana Schmitt, rhetoric major and supporter of the movement. “And to be constantly subjected to these violent slurs, these messages saying that we don’t belong here, that we don’t deserve to be alive, essentially, is really mentally and emotionally straining and really invalidating.”

Such Orwellian doctrines may or not be developing on the nation’s universities. But the Sather Gate actions, emphasizes Jerry Javier, one of the event’s organizers, weren’t about some vague championing of political correctness. Rather, they were aimed at addressing long-standing inequities, specifically those affecting Cal’s LGBTQIA+ and racial minority communities.

Javier notes that the university’s two umbrella organizations for such students, the Queer Alliance Resource Center (QARC) and the bridges Multicultural Resource Center, previously maintained expansive offices on the upper floors of old Eshleman Hall prior to the building’s demolition in 2013. After making do with temporary offices at the Hearst Field Annex, the two organizations recently moved into quarters at the new Eshleman building. Greatly reduced quarters, that is. In the basement.

“And we’re sharing it with rats,” says Javier. “The student union stores supplies down there, and they’re drawing rats. In the old building, bridges had almost an entire floor, and QARC had a good portion of the third floor. Now bridges has 300 square feet, and QARC is down to a few cubicles. We have no signage. People can’t find us. We’re invisible.”

And that invisibility, says Javier, is more than an inconvenience. It tells students who already feel marginalized at Cal that the university places no value on their presence.

“LGBTQIA+ students and students of color come here looking for support and fellowship, and I can see in their eyes that they’re shocked and saddened by our offices,” says Javier. “The message they get is that they’re not important, that they belong in a basement, out of sight and out of mind. Many of them leave and never come back.”

Schmitt says increased visibility for groups such as QARC and bridges is important for people who have felt marginalized or threatened, because otherwise they may not know where to seek support after a negative experience. (In emails to California subsequent to her interview, Schmitt made clear that her views are her own and that she’s not a spokesperson for either group.)

“This conversation we’re having about space is a lot bigger than physical space, office space.”

Despite Berkeley’s progressive reputation, Schmitt observes, LGBTQIA+ students and students of color are often confronted by hate speech or worse.

As an example, she cites an individual who is often seen on campus railing about the “Straight Liberation Movement.”

By all appearances, says Schmitt, he seems homeless, and confronts students with “…phrases like ‘Stop being so fucking gay,’ and ‘Queer and trans people target straight people.’ I’ve had to walk through that before, and felt really unsafe in that moment.”

Carolyn Nguyen, the executive director of bridges, says commodious, clean, and well-lit spaces are essential for outreach work to underserved student communities.

“This conversation we’re having about space is a lot bigger than physical space, office space,” says Nguyen. “The University of California was founded for the benefit of white males, and to a very large degree, white males remain the primary beneficiaries. We’re simply demanding our proper due. A win for us isn’t a loss for everyone else. We just need to feel we’re a priority for the university.”

These messages largely were lost in the coverage of the Sather Gate actions. Rather, the press—particularly the right-wing and alt right press, including Fox News and Breitbart—emphasized the attempts by the protestors to discourage white students from breaching the blockade. Javier makes no apologies for those actions, but maintains the intent was to educate, not exclude.

“We aren’t advocating segregation,” he says. “That’s absurd. We’re inclusionary—we welcome any and all allies. We were simply showing everyone, however briefly, what LGBTQIA+ students and students of color experience every day at Berkeley—how it feels to be excluded, to be denied basic resources.”

Schmitt says that it wasn’t about excluding white people, but all people who weren’t planning to join the cause.

“We were not letting all students go past. It was not, ‘Oh, you’re white; we’re gonna target you. We’re anti–white people.’ It just so happened that a lot of the folks who were attempting to push through or were attempting to have a dialogue with us—albeit, not a nice dialogue—it just happened that most of those were white,” Schmitt says, noting that if any students of color were let by, they were joining the protest, not just passing through it.

Schmitt also says the demonstrators allowed disabled people through, perhaps at their own peril.

“Folks that weren’t able bodied, we did let those folks through,” Schmitt says. “We actually encountered one student who uses a wheelchair, and we let him through, and he ended up coming back and ramming his wheelchair into us because he was upset about, you know, the fact that we were blocking the Sather Gate.”

Na’ilah Nasir, the Vice Chancellor for Cal’s Division of Equity and Inclusion, said university administrators agree with QARC and bridges that their current spaces are inadequate, and is actively seeking solutions. Further, says Nasir, the university supports the students’ right to demonstrate.

“These students are justifiably frustrated, and they have every right to express that frustration,” Nasir says. “The University of California values free speech and the right to protest. It’s what we do, and I find the coverage of the [Sather Gate] actions, particularly by Fox News and similar outlets, deeply troubling. They showed a blatant disregard for the truth, to the point of disseminating hate messages.”

Nguyen said she appreciates the university’s verbal support, but more is needed.

“The university has been expressing ‘support’ for marginalized students since the 1960s,” she says. “It’s familiar rhetoric. But we need to move beyond rhetoric, and we need to do it now. If the university truly values us, they have to show it in tangible ways.”

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