I’d like to briefly describe the political environment of Berkeley to you. By political environment I really mean the level and extent to which people are visibly politically aware.
Let’s start with your everyday chat to your everyday person. Talking to immediate neighbours in lectures the conversation will drift to politics with remarkable ease. I’m no expert in British politics let alone that of the U.S. or California, but everyone here seems to have an awareness of what’s going on in the political world around them. Not in an alienating or snobbish way, but just an intelligent, bright, well-informed way.
I don’t know what your friend circle in Edinburgh is like, but mine is almost entirely politically ignorant, so I’ve noticed this difference in a big way.
Then there’s the more visible political awareness. On campus there are what seems like hundreds of societies. Around 1/3 of these I would guess to be political in some way.
So, when walking to campus through Lower Sproul Plaza, expect to be bombarded by students with signs or flyers for events and meetings and picketings.
Around two weeks ago there was a huge student protest against recent budget cuts and fee increases in the UC system. This has been happening for a few years now but protests seem to have peaked in activity last year (after a 32% fee increase). Nonetheless masses of protesters this year marched through campus, even occupying one of the libraries for a while.
Needless to say these demonstrations have little effect on the UC regents, the people who control the purse-strings. But they are indicative of the level of political awareness, energy and activism on campus. The mood that made Berkeley the hub of the Liberal Left in the 1960s is still alive.
Then there are the crazies. These people stalk the streets or sit crosslegged on posts or roll on the pavement covered in paint, preaching their own gospel. This can be anything from an imminent apocalypse hitting Berkeley if we score ‘A’s, to dragons being the key to finding spiritual (and world) peace, to train of thought political ramblings. Some of them even make coherent sense.
On Monday, I saw the end of what must have been an interesting argument. There was a man in a green shirt and bowtie shouting down a man in a suit outside one of the campus buildings. There was quite a crowd, sitting and laughing and whistling and clapping on the benches outside. The man in green had an cluttered array of props at his feet and was shouting, ‘You are a white collar criminal, the only kind of white collar person there is! They’re all criminals! Robbing UC! Robbing you, the students!’
The white collar ‘criminal’ was speechless and defeated. He kept turning to leave, then faltering as he tried to think of something to say in his defense. He could come up with nothing better than ‘you’re a clown in a bowtie.’ The students were all whistling and applauding this ‘clown’ – he’d obviously won the argument.
This is what sums up a lot of life in Berkeley. Things often seem to be teetering on the edge of insanity and brilliance. They might occasionally tip wholly to one extreme but either way they’re always interesting.