Security Doors

by zunguzungu

Wheeler Hall is sort of surreal right now. The building is open, and although there’s a police car out front and there were a couple policemen standing in the stairwell of the second floor when I walked by, other parts of the building are as they normally are on a Sunday. The classrooms that the students occupied look normal, though one of them obviously has had the hinges removed and the other is completely empty, of everything, and mopped clean. I suppose I’ll be teaching in the room two doors down from it on Monday as usual. I’m sitting and typing in the English department lounge, on the third floor, and that’s the view from the window (the barricades are still piled all around the building).

Wheeler houses the English department on the third floor and faculty offices on the fourth floor, but the first and second floors (and the big auditorium) are regularly rented out to a variety of clubs and organizations. When I walked by the west-facing classrooms where the occupiers were holed up, in fact, there were several nicely-dressed undergraduates sitting outside, and I’ve seen more coming up the stairs onto the second floor since then. And then a few minutes later, as I was walking back down the third floor hallway, I started hearing a guitar and hymn music coming up the stairs from below. No doubt a church group is using the space for a Sunday morning service, and the cops came by to check up.

They don’t normally. I’ve “broken and entered” Wheeler hall a dozen times or more since I’ve been here at Berkeley; most grad students have their own trick for getting in when the building is closed, and since the building is so old, it really isn’t hard for a reasonably athletic person to do. We do this because we, the grad students, use the building regularly, as a study space, storage space for books, computer access, etc,[1] and because the building is sometimes (but unpredictably) locked up. The reason it is sometimes — but not always — closed, is that the University leaves it open for the clubs and organizations that pay to use it. If that church group wasn’t using it this morning, it would probably be locked up, for example. As a graduate student, this can be frustrating: if you’re working late, there’s a chance you’ll step out for a cup of coffee and discover when you get back that the building has been locked behind you, or you’ll show up on a Sunday and discover that the entire building is locked up. It happens rarely enough that you count on being able to use the building, but often enough that you get screwed and have to shimmy through the East side windows. And, for early risers like me, the building is usually open by eight in the morning, but if it isn’t (because it sometimes isn’t, a problem when you teach in the morning), it helps to know that one particular door (the northwest basement entrance) is often left open even when the building is officially locked, and there are certain of the front entrance doors that will sometimes open if you push them really hard.

The long and short of it is this: Wheeler Hall is an extremely insecure building. I imagine the protesters chose to occupy it for this reason, though as far as I know there were no actual English department folks involved. But the particular way that the building is insecure tells you a lot about the university and its priorities. Most buildings on campus are locked at night and on weekends, with the exceptions being the buildings that have staff in them. The logic of that is clear: if no one official is in the building, it should be locked up. Wheeler Hall, on the other hand, is never staffed on the weekends or at night. Instead, when the university can rent the building out to groups that are willing to pay to use it, they simply leave it open. This means that graduate students who want to use the building are usually able to do so.

In fact, as Natalia reminds me, the issue of graduate student access came up at a department meeting some years ago. Graduate students were getting tired of having to jimmy a window open every third weekend and complained to faculty, who agreed that it made sense for grad students to have keys. However, when faculty members inquired with campus police, they were told that, as Natalia paraphrases:

“1. It was a security risk to give out that many keys (we have approximately 150 grads at any given time).

2. The windows in Wheeler Hall stick, so if grads really needed to get into the building they always could.”

Why, do you ask, do the windows “stick” (by which they apparently mean, you can shove them open if you try)? Well, the building is old, and while the university has enough construction funds to be building gleaming new libraries and laboratories, they apparently lack the money to buy twenty locks for the first floor windows. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying the issue in putting it this way, but I really don’t think I am; if the university wanted to secure the building, they could. They haven’t.  

The reason this matters is that — as a faculty member was telling me last night (and I‘ve heard about before) — that the entire building used to be regularly vandalized, and at its worst, janitorial staff working late at were assaulted; in some cases, quite seriously. Once upon a time, I am told, the faculty would semi-regularly have their offices burglarized, their windows smashed, even come in to find graffiti in the hallways. I don’t know details, so I can’t confirm anything more than the plausibility of such things happening. But I’ve seen enough strange people wandering the halls of this place at strange hours, and the first floor bathroom is the most disgusting facility I’ve ever seen in my life, consistently, a regular stop for homeless people that want to take a sink shower or whatever.

There has been a long-running fight between the faculty and staff that regularly use the building and the administration over the issue of security, the faculty demand being that, since the university makes money renting the building out to various organizations and campus groups, they should spend some of that money on making the building secure. And the university yielded to faculty and staff pressure and elected (instead of hiring a security guard or night porter), to install heavy security doors outside of each stairwell, that would automatically close at night but be accessible to people with the right Berkeley ID.[2] This is what they look like, closed and open, from the third floor stairwell:

The irony of irony, it seems, is that it was these very security doors which kept the police from breaking into the second floor where the occupiers were bunkered down on Friday. I was told that this was the case, but I was also able to see that these doors on the second floor certainly do look like they’ve been smashed open. From left, you have a third floor fire door (so you can see how they normally look) and the two second floor fire doors that show signs of having been forced open (the middle one is super bent, while the right one is more slightly bent):

[1] I have a study carrel in the building that I share with another grad student (who I heard — but haven’t confirmed — was beaten by the police on Friday).


[2] I’m told that, in point of fact, these doors will open if any magnetic strip is wiped in front of them. That may be true; I’ve tried and not managed to do it myself.