Berkeley's most recent Day of Rage wasn't over troop deployments, the war in Afghanistan, sending support to Haiti or Chile or even the healthcare issue. It was over greenbacks: a tuition hike at what still is the biggest bargain in higher education. Like a 10th-generation Xerox, this protest had as much in common with the 1960s Berkeley brand of activism as a glass of water does with a pint of Guinness.
According to press reports, the 2010 Berkeley protest started at an open-air dance party and quickly escalated into violence and a "sit in" at Durant Hall. It is reported that the dancing continued through the action. I went to school at another campus known for its political activism -- the University of Wisconsin, Madison -- and we had a different name for this activity: Friday night. Besides the alcohol, which as everyone knows has a calming effect, the revolt concerned a fee increase that would push Berkeley's tuition over $10,000 a year for California residents. It was a free education until Reagan decided to end the party in the 1980s. So what do you get for $10K and change?
According to U.S. News and World Report, Berkeley ranks 21st in its annual national university ratings, keeping company with places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago. However, if you want to attend any of the other universities in the top 20, you'll spend an average of $37,851 a year (resident or non, it doesn't matter -- the rest are all private institutions). What else can you get for the price of a Berkeley education? There's always the University of Missouri (rank 102), the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (106), or Illinois State University at Normal (tier three).
These universities double tuition for non-residents, like Californians, who can get one of the best educations in the country at Wal-Mart prices because they live in the Golden State. If anything, the non-residents should have been the ones throwing food, sticks and vinegar-soaked red bandannas (meant to look like blood) during the protest; they're the ones who have been paying an additional $22,670 on top of the $10,000 resident tuition!
Berkeley's tradition of protest was established in the late 1960s, with a series of riots that involved thousands of students and resulted in a police response with fun stuff like tear gas and shotguns. The Berkeley brand of swift, responsive activism was powered by events like the Vietnam War movement (1969 and 1972) and the anti-Gaullist movement (Young Socialists, 1968). It was an action in response to international issues that were measured in blood, not student loan balances. Yesterday's protesters would probably have waged a letter campaign over being charged any tuition (there wasn't one then -- remember) and saved the sticks and vinegar for something a little more important.
Between the Twittering, the news coverage and personal blogging, it's clear that the protesters did indeed walk away from their action with one thing: stories to tell. With a televised protest under their collective belts, the "me" generation has completed their Berkeley experience. They've raised high the Molotov cocktails and pried the torch of anarchy from the not-so-cold and not-so-dead hands of the Boomers.
I just hope Starbucks doesn't decide to raise the price of lattes at its Berkeley Shattuck Avenue store; the cash-strapped campus just can't afford to clean up another yet violent outburst!