Berkeley High students stage a 'die-in" observing a 4.5 minute silence at the Campanile on the UC Berkeley campus on Dec. 10, 2014. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Hundreds of Berkeley High students staged a ‘die-in,” observing a 4.5 minute silence while lying at the foot of the Campanile on the UC Berkeley campus as part of a protest action on Dec. 10, 2014. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Until yesterday, UC Berkeley junior Franchesca Cavagnaro had never been to a protest. While walking on the Cal campus Wednesday afternoon, she came across a crowd, many hundreds-strong, of demonstrators gathered on the steps of Sproul Hall. She liked what she saw and knew she wanted to be part of it. She joined the group as they marched to the Campanile.

Despite the location, the protesters were not Cal students. They were all Berkeley High students who, as part of an event, carefully organized by the school’s Black Student Union, had walked off their downtown campus at 2:30 p.m., skipping the last class of the day, in order to make their voices heard in the uproar over the recent police-related deaths of young black men.

Berkeley High students hold their hands up and observe a moment’s silence outside Berkeley’s Old City Hall on Dec. 10, 2014. Photo: Don Kidd

Led by the union’s president, Kadijah Means, the students first congregated outside Old City Hall on MLK Jr. Way, where a handful of participants took the megaphone to make short speeches. One speaker spoke of the concerns about racial segregation at Berkeley High today, with some of the programs drawing a majority non-black demographic.

“But I don’t see segregation today, looking out at you,” he said, to which a cheer went up in the diverse crowd.

Another male student, who described himself as half white half black, talked of racism existing “even here in Berkeley,” but added, “Our generation is the change!”

One speaker urged the protesters to demonstrate peacefully, to not cause damage as they walked to the Cal campus: “Be respectful,” he said.

But it was Means who ran the show, and she did so with aplomb. She thanked the BHS teachers and students from other schools who attended the protest, she led the students in chants of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” and she called for a moment’s silence to remember Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other African-Americans who died.

BHS students march through Berkeley on their way to the UC Berkeley campus on Dec. 10, 2014. Photo: Ryan Martin

Dan Plonsey, a math teacher at Berkeley High, said he was excited to see the students protesting and impressed with how seriously they were taking it.

“They made connections in the speeches,” he said, adding that it was a meaningful event, not least as his child was among the demonstrators.

After marching through downtown, the group, who were upbeat but determined and engaged, started heading through town to the UC Berkeley campus. Berkeley Police estimated their number to be around 500, though by the time the protest was in full swing, the group appeared to this reporter at least to be much larger.

The demo was happening about three blocks from the home of socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell who decided to join the students. They’re “pointing the way to the future,” he posted on Twitter, and marched alongside them.

Once at Cal, the protesters first gathered on the steps of Sproul Hall, like so many Cal students have done before them. They acknowledged that heritage, joining together to chant: “You’re the ones who showed us how — UC Berkeley join us now!” (Hear them in the Vine video below, posted by the Cal Black Student Union on Twitter.)

BHS students chant, “You’re the ones who showed us how — UC Berkeley join us now!” on the Cal campus. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Cavagnaro was one of several Cal students who took up the call.

“I saw them and I wanted to be part of what they were doing,” she said.

A transfer student from a rural area of California, Cavagnaro, who is white, said she had experienced “very little diversity” until recently.

“Before I moved to Oakland I couldn’t define white privilege,” she said. “I didn’t know shit about anything.” She said she had been “consumed with anger” and disappointed since hearing about the Garner case, and was glad to have been a part of the BHS demonstration.

Next, the protesters made their way to the Campanile (as shown in the video above, by Peanuthead760, shared with Berkeleyside by Pamela Zelnik, who described the protest as “dignified” and “moving”).

In the final, and most powerful part of the protest, students surrounded the base of the towering structure where they followed Means’ instructions and lay on the ground. After all the passion and noise, a blanket of silence descended on the prone bodies. The goal? To stay quiet for four and a half minutes, which, said Means, represented the four and a half hours Michael Brown lay dead on the street after he was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri.

Earlier on Wednesday, a small group of UC Berkeley Law students had also held a die-in in front of Boalt Hall — it lasted for 15½ minutes: 11 minutes for the number of times that Eric Garner said “I can’t breathe,” plus 4½ minutes for Brown.

And, later Wednesday night, about 150 protesters held a demonstration that started on the Cal campus, for the fifth night in a row. The protesters, orchestrated by the By All Means Necessary activist group, shut down a Berkeley Forum talk being given by Peter Thiel, and marched through Berkeley to Oakland. The protest was peaceful while in Berkeley, and no arrests or damage was reported there, according to BPD.

BHS students in their hundreds lying on the ground under the UC Berkeley Campanile. Photo: Tracey Taylor

After about three minutes of the Berkeley High die-in, a handful of young black men standing to the side broke in on the silence by talking loudly, directing insults at the protesters. Don’t tell us what to do, they said, and “our people are the victims.” An observer called to them to show respect and to keep quiet, and a volatile exchange threatened to bring the group action to a premature end. But one group of BHS students who were prostrate shouted over the argument. “We love you,” they repeated several times. Many others called out “Peace” from their prone positions and held two fingers up in the sign of peace. The argument fizzled out, and Means calmly called for one more minute of silence to conclude the demonstration.

Tsion McYats, a 10th grader at Berkeley High, who is from Ethiopia and who has attended many schools, said she had been to many of the protests in recent weeks in Oakland and Berkeley. She thought this one was “spectacular.” She said it was touching to see so many students of different colors joined in one direction.

“This school has soul and this is an amazing group of kids,” she said.

As Berkeley High students lay prone on the ground around the Cal Campanile, a young protester showed support. Photo: Svea Boyda-Vikander ‏

Berkeleyside chronicled the whole BHS protest on Twitter. See the live coverage.

Catch up on Berkeleyside’s coverage of recent protests.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...