Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Nelson Mandela and the death of UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall

UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall was built in 1965. It served for decades as the home of student government on the campus, and a dizzying spectrum of student organizations. Last year the building was cleared of student groups, and of the offices of the students' newspaper, the Daily Cal. Hardhat-wearing crews are cleaning it out this spring. Eshleman Hall will be demolished in summer to make way for a new and seismically-safer Lower Sproul Plaza.

Passing by on Sunday I was struck by the sad-sack state the building is in at this stage of its decommissioning: empty, windowless, closed to all comers by an ugly corral of concrete road-barriers and cyclone fencing. Not that Eshleman was ever the most striking building on campus ... but still.

I spent a fair bit of time in Eshleman Hall myself. From 1984-86 an office suite on the sixth floor served as headquarters for the Campaign Against Apartheid, one of the key student organizations then agitating for full divestment of the university portfolio from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.

613 Eshleman Hall is where CAA and friends made press calls, monitored police radio, raised funds, set up meetings with labor and community groups, and conspired late into the night. We held loooooooooong meetings in the sixth floor lobby, though they weren't as long as the nightly meetings of sit-in participants during the six weeks of April-May 1985 when students, faculty, and community members occupied Sproul Plaza (renamed Biko Plaza in honor of the eponymous South African Black Consciousness martyr) ... a sit-in instigated and sustained by CAA. Those meetings, held from just after dinner until at least three quarters of participants were pulling their hair out, seemed to run on interminably.

The walls of the sixth floor? That's where inspired parties wrote and painted graffiti, natch. The favorite that sticks with me more than a quarter century later:
Who's guarding the van?
R-- W-- came up with that one, if memory serves. It was true, there were those among us who were prone to inflating the Campaign Against Apartheid's role in revolutionary history. R-- was doing his best to keep us honest.

On the other hand, consider this:

Several years after the university's Regents were forced by protest and the tide of history to divest the UC portfolio of companies with investments in South Africa, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Mandela stopped in Oakland in 1990 as part of his post-prison, pre-presidential world tour, and spoke before a crowd of nearly 60,000 at the Oakland Coliseum. In the course of thanking solidarity organizations for working to end South African apartheid and his own 27-year imprisonment, Mandela acknowledged the Campaign Against Apartheid by name -- yes, our little homegrown campus organization -- as a notable contributor in the struggle to which he and his compatriots had dedicated their lives.

I'll never forget the validation that brief mention conferred on our hard work and sleepless nights. Mandela -- who represented the actual vanguard of anti-apartheid struggle -- was telling us that what we'd done had mattered, had substantively contributed to a liberation struggle on the other side of the world.

And we organized it out of 613 Eshleman Hall.

It would be pretty cool if Eshleman were demolished using this stutter-step methodology, reported by Reuters last month:

But in the more likely event that the building is brought down in a single, booming detonation, I hope to be there to bid it farewell.

Correction (15 Jan 2014): In this post I mis-stated (because I misremembered) that Nelson Mandela referred to the UC Berkeley student organization Campaign Against Apartheid specifically, by name. Mandela spoke of the divestment movement on the campus, but did not name CAA. For a full transcript of Mandela's speech in Oakland, see What Nelson Mandela actually said in Oakland on 30 June 1990.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Eshelman Hall demolition: all but history
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
A petulant landlord's agitprop: politics, art, or irony?
When authorities equate disobedience with violence

Thanks to United Nations Photo for the image of Nelson Mandela addressing the U.N. Special Committee Against Apartheid on 22 June 1990, about a week before he spoke at the Oakland Coliseum.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this bit of history relating to the Anti-Apartheid Movement at UC Berkeley. I was involved at your sister school: UCLA a few years earlier, 1979-1983.