The recent death of Nelson Mandela prompted me to post the following essay written several years ago and then subsequently revised and expanded. It’s a personal reminiscence of my experience in the Free Speech Movement (or FSM) at Berkeley in the 1960’s, but it veers towards our present moment and, perhaps, beyond. I hope you find it of interest.
In October 2004, I flew from New York to San Francisco to present a paper at a conference on textiles at the Oakland Marriott. It had been many years, decades in fact, since I was in the Bay area, where I had lived in the ‘60’s, going to graduate school at University of California. I was hoping to find time to go to Berkeley to see the campus again.
On the second day, Friday October 8th, the afternoon conference sessions were not of interest to me and BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, was conveniently just across the street. It was sunny and warm, and sitting for hours in a dark hotel conference room being bored was not an attractive proposition. So I split.
When I got to Berkeley, nothing looked familiar, as, of course, in forty years everything had changed. A number of students and professorial-looking men and women were walking up the hill towards the center of campus so I joined them. As I went along, I recalled there were very few women professors in my time as a student there and fewer African Americans. Looking around, this was another change.
My idea was to walk through campus to the central plaza by the administration building, Sproul Hall, and on to Telegraph Avenue for lunch, and then maybe some browsing in bookstores. But before I reached the square I ran into a large crowd, a rally of some kind. I couldn’t see the speaker through the crowd, but heard a familiar voice over the PA. Moving closer in, I saw it was Howard Dean. This was a month before the presidential election that would put George Bush in office for a second term and Dr. Dean, who had appeared to be a strong presidential candidate for the Democrats early on in the race, was now campaigning for the recently “swift-boated” John Kerry.
As I approached through the crowd, I saw Dean was standing on a platform built behind and above a police car. He was saying, “Forty years ago today, over a thousand students occupied this plaza to protest the arrest of a fellow student for distributing civil rights leaflets here. They surrounded the police car he was in, and one by one climbed onto the car’s roof to protest the University ban of political activity on campus. They stayed over thirty hours until it was agreed by the University’s administration not to press charges.”
Dean went on to say that this iconic moment, of what came to be called the Free Speech Movement or FSM, was the beginning of the student movement in America. From Berkeley it went to UCLA, then Harvard, on to Chicago, Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere. Eventually, it became the antiwar movement and, too late for too many, helped bring peace to Vietnam. For a freshman named Bill Clinton, at Georgetown University, all this would symbolize the best of democracy. For George Bush, a freshman at Yale, it would be the opposite. These events have far reaching results up to this day. “And now, “ Dean said, “you have the power to stand up as they did in this very spot forty years ago for a democratic America which allows ordinary people to reclaim their government. You have the power. Use it.”
I was stunned. The timing required to bring me there, right at that moment to hear those words, seemed more than a striking coincidence. Honestly, I had not thought about FSM for years, but now I did again, in earnest.
In October, 1964, I was twenty-one, and had just started an MA in Comparative Literature at Berkeley. I was a nervous, first year grad student, recently arrived from a small state college in the Northwest. I had made a few friends already, as there was a commonality of spirit around. We were looking for “something.” Berkeley, in the early sixties, was for many of us a place of hope.
We had come from various backgrounds, but many of us were upper middle class white kids. We were educated, knew about Hiroshima, the Holocaust, McCarthyism, Racism, Anti-Semitism, etc. We had come from families who had raised us with some degree of social conscience. Our parents had fought against fascism and imperialism. One of my own parent’s friends had fought in the Spanish Civil War, and then against Hitler, and later married a Holocaust survivor. I had grown up and gone to school with children of emigrant holocaust survivors. We inherited a hope that these horrors at least had left a determination to build something radically better for many people, and some among us had lived that dream, too, fighting for civil rights during the summer in the South.
On October 1st, 1964, I was crossing campus in the late afternoon, after finishing work at my student job in the language lab, and walked into a crowd in Sproul Plaza. From the edge of the circle I could see a young man sitting in a police car, surrounded by hundreds of people. There was another student on top of the car, speaking. There were policemen everywhere.
Recently the Chancellor of the University had ordered student activists to stop setting up tables and handing out political materials in front of campus on Telegraph Avenue. There had been a lot of reaction to this already. Activists, handing out civil rights pamphlets, had been banned from campus but were allowed to set up tables in front of the campus gates. Now that had been interdicted as well, once the University discovered it actually owned that part of the street.
A former student, Jack Weinberg, had refused to abide by this ruling and had been arrested. Now he was detained in the police car, surrounded by a large and growing mass of seated students. Someone told me Weinberg had been sitting at the CORE table Congress of Racial Equality) handing out information about the racially discriminatory hiring practices of one of Oakland’s big newspapers when he was approached by the police and eventually arrested inside the campus gates. Apparently the owner of the newspaper was a big contributor or Regent to the University and had told the Administration to do something about this bad publicity.
Large crowds make me nervous. Add a police presence to that, and the sense of potential violence, and nervousness becomes outright fear. But like many people, I was also alarmed by the behavior of the University administration. My personal focus at the time was on my education, to build a stable professional life after a period of personal distress and confusion. Political activism was not what drew me to Berkeley, but it had become a logical and natural part of student life there. I respected others who were working towards overdue social change, particularly in civil rights. The right to undertake these activities here seemed unassailable. So that evening, as I watched the demonstrators and listened, I began to feel something important was happening, something that could not be dismissed or easily ignored.
I hung around the edges of the demonstration, then went home and tried to study. I lived close enough to campus, just a few blocks away, to hear the loudspeakers in the distance. I was too distracted to study well, so I returned again for awhile, then went home and slept uneasily.
Thirty-two hours after it began, the demonstration ended peacefully. Weinberg was released; the crowd dispersed. The University had backed down and promised no action against the activists. There was a shared sense of peace and moral victory, for a short while, and my life returned to normal.
Two months later, December 2nd, was a cool and damp early winter evening. I was walking home after a lecture on Keats when I saw another crowd in Sproul Plaza. This time there were four or five thousand people. I had walked by many smaller demonstrations since the October sit-in on my way to graduate seminars on recondite topics, such as medieval French or Mallarmé. But I had often stopped to listen to the speakers in the plaza. Sometimes it was members of the faculty, but more often one of the student leaders. Now I learned that the University Administration had voided their original agreement and had now suspended some of the student leaders of the October sit-in. Faculty and students were responding to this with increasing vehemence.
Mario Savio, a student from Queens, had emerged as an eloquent spokesman for Freedom of Speech, but now he had been suspended. This New Yorker, turned civil rights activist, was an inspired young man. That evening, Mario was leading the demonstrations and next to him was the folk singer Joan Baez. Folk music was an integral part of our culture then and many terrific singers performed frequently on campus. Seeing Joan Baez there was not surprising.
Savio was explaining the central issues to the crowd. The student leaders had proposed to the University that the First Amendment be the only restriction to political activity on campus. This request had been denied. Savio’s speech in response is now famous, with the text readily available in print and on-line. But as I write down his words here, more than forty years later, what is not captured in the text comes back to me: his sincerity, that sense of integrity behind his words; the resonant intensity he evoked in his audience; and, for me, the excitement, fear and inner confusion as I began to understand that a decision had to be made about what I would do next, as I stood there in the cool, damp air of the evening:
We have an autocracy which runs this university. It’s managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received—from a well-meaning liberal—was the following: He said, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?” That’s the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw material that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!
And then the famous lines:
There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.
It would be false to give the impression that what followed, for me, came out of any great singularity of purpose or noble self-sacrifice. The motives behind my subsequent actions were as mixed for me as they probably were for many others who took the same decision. And I was very frightened, perhaps more so than some there who were buoyed by the social or group aspect of all this. I was not part of that. With one exception, I did not walk into Sproul Hall with people I knew. Really, I knew nobody.
But nevertheless, beside the fear and the aloneness, was an underlying sense that something of real importance was actually at stake here. So, soon after Savio’s speech, I joined the 1200 or so students and others, who walked into the Administration Building, singing We Shall Overcome, “with love in our hearts” (Baez’s words to us as we started in). At least I was trying to feel something like that.
I remember it was peaceful, orderly and the atmosphere was calm. Many of these young people were very courageous, very certain, even cheerful. I was not, but I drew some confidence from their numbers, and from how they were, to balance my reluctance. Even if they were strangers, they were all right. This was a taste of what years later we would come to call, with Lech Walesa, solidarity.
By the time we had all filed in, we filled four floors of the building. Row after row of men and women sat on the marble floors of Sproul Hall. I was on the second floor, across from the tables holding the registration card files. People came in and out of the building. Some brought in sandwiches, fruit and coffee, and some news of what was happening outside. By 7:00 p.m. the building was closed and the food came in via ropes through the windows. Crowds were gathering around the building outside.
Hours passed. All I had to read was the collected works of Keats and I read it cover to cover. It was pretty hard to concentrate on the longer poems because I was so nervous, but I read the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” several times, and recall that these words helped me:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I hoped what we were trying to stand for would be that, some truth. As the hours passed I wondered if the administration would come to its senses as they had in the previous sit-in. It was somehow incredible they would not finally agree to abide by the First Amendment. This was one of the great universities of our time. Surely, in the end, it would come down to an acknowledgement of lawful rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Did they really have a choice not to finally negotiate with the student leaders? How naïve I was.
Around midnight, some officials arrived with the University Chancellor, Edward W. Strong, and a bullhorn. Floor by floor he ordered us all to leave the University premises now or else the building would be locked and we would be prevented from leaving. We would be arrested, he said, and charged with a felony. Leaving was now out of the question. I was angry, disgusted by this bullying. And so I was one of the 800, give or take a few, who remained. And yet I doubt—had I actually known what was coming—that I would have had the guts to stay.
Soon it went around that the doors were locked. The student leaders kept us informed of what was happening as they themselves found out. It was said that we would be charged with a felony because we had seized State property, and that it was possible we would end up in prison, having, for the rest of our lives, a police record. It would be hard to ever get a good job, they said. I felt sick as I listened.
At 3 a.m. the police arrived. It was rumored Governor Brown had called out the State Patrol. In fact, around 400 policemen, including the California Highway Patrol, had been assembled for about an hour already outside the building. Someone said the State Troopers were bad news. We were in for it. I had no idea of the difference between a trooper and an ordinary cop. I had spent my childhood in Australia and had never been involved with the law. My hazy idea of a policeman up close was a congenial fellow wearing a shiny blue helmet standing under a street lamp. I was in for a big surprise. These blokes were no “Bobbies.”
We were instructed on what to do when we were arrested, which was simply to adopt an attitude of passive resistance. The leaders said to go limp, and let them remove you. When the police arrived they were wearing helmets and heavy boots, and they had guns and nightsticks. They looked as if they were from outer space.
Their first move was truly astonishing to me. They taped large sheets of newspaper over all the windows. Although thousands waited outside, now nobody could see in. Next, the Press was ordered out or threatened with arrest. Then the building was sealed. Someone told us to memorize the police badge numbers so we could later report brutality. But these guys were pros and they removed their badges before the arrests began. Later, cameras were confiscated, film destroyed. Whatever happened, there would be no formal record. They could do what they wanted with us.
I was still sitting in the hall by the student catalogue card files. In those days we were each a name on a punch card. There was a large American flag on a pole at the corner of the file table, probably signifying this was a U.S. state university. Savio, and the other student leaders, were using this table as a sort of podium. There had been a steady presence of folk singers on the table too. Now, again, someone was playing guitar, singing very softly, We Shall Overcome. We joined her and quietly sang along, which helped with the nerves while we waited. The policemen stood around in rows and watched the singer, sitting by the flag, singing, playing her guitar. There was a momentary lull and just the sound of singing. But you could have cut the air with a nightstick.
Suddenly one of the policemen jumped up on the file table to get to the PA system. He grabbed at the flag as he jumped, and the singer, startled, fell back and took hold of the flag to stop her fall. Caught between the cop and the singer, the American flag ripped in two. The singer went down holding up one section of the torn flag, while the patrolman stood on the catalogue file holding the rest. Frozen for the moment, we looked on in dead silence as the symbolism sank in. The policeman looked confused. Then all bedlam broke loose and the arrests began.
At first the cops were polite. This did not last. I heard one say aloud to the others to pull us down the stairs more slowly so it would hurt more. As people were arrested they went limp as instructed. We were non-violent. The arrestees were pulled along the floor by their ankles. I was number 300 something. I, too, was dragged down the marble steps to the first floor. At first my head cracked on the stairs. I had to choose quickly, Keats or head? No pockets. I put my arms overhead for protection. Goodbye Truth and Beauty, and goodbye wristwatch, which I had forgotten about, until it smashed on the stairs. By 4:00 p.m., twelve hours after the flag had ripped in two, the building was emptied.
First we were taken to Sproul Hall basement to be processed and searched. Then we were put into buses with rows of metal seats and no windows. I wondered, what kind of buses were these anyway? What were they usually used for, because surely this didn’t happen everyday? They must have been prison transports. We could not see where were we going and not being able to see out made me feel ill. I was exhausted anyway. And I was probably dehydrated. I had had nothing to eat or drink for hours.
Finally we arrive at a prison somewhere. I am put into a large room with maybe thirty others, men and women together. There is one toilet visible to the whole room. Some people stand in a circle, backs to the toilet, to give some privacy for others. But a cop breaks it up and orders them to sit down. I am ashamed to use the toilet but finally I have to. People don’t watch, just the cops. They say they are watching to see if we throw any drugs concealed on our body down the toilet. I don’t know how we could have anything hidden on our bodies as we have already been embarrassingly thoroughly searched.
There is no toilet paper. I feel ill and humiliated. My arms hurt and have turned black and blue from brutality. I return to my place to sit down again. I put my head down on my knees. There is no room to lie down. I am shaking with exhaustion and frayed nerves. Hours go by and then we are taken back to the dark buses. It’s a good thing I haven’t eaten or drunk anything the last twenty hours or I would throw up from motion sickness. Never before or since, have I been as terrified as I was then. Nobody knew what was going to happen to us and nobody was talking.
In fact, we were being transported to a high school auditorium or gymnasium. We were unloaded and separated by gender. Then we were given baloney sandwiches, water and soda, and now had separate bathrooms where we could wash. We were given thin blankets and had enough room to lie down on the floor. Even though it was very cold I passed out and slept.
Sometime later we were awakened and moved again into the windowless buses. We were told we were being taken to the state prison, Santa Rita. We would be charged and we were advised not to say anything. Then we heard that the campus was on strike, the faculty outraged, and that the ACLU would give us gratis legal representation when we were tried. But nobody knew how we would get out of prison. I had nobody close who would raise bail for me. They said it would be $100.00 per person. That was a lot for a student back then, one third of a semester’s tuition fee.
Hours passed again, crammed into a prison cell with other exhausted, smelly students. Eventually, I was charged. I cannot even remember now with what. One by one they took our mug shots. But by now we had heard that faculty and student supporters had raised bail, $80,000.00. It was over. We were taken back to the buses, which took us only as far as the prison gates. It was 2:00 a.m., December 5th, 1964. I had no idea where I was. But wherever it was we were free to go home now, somehow. We didn’t have a dime. But in a short while a faculty-student carpool began to arrive. I saw a friend, who came up and hugged me. “God,” he said, “you look terrible. Let’s go.”
The following days are a blur for me. I think I was in shock because I remember almost nothing of them. No matter. The events of the following days and years are well recorded and there is a great deal of published material now available about it.
Eventually, we were all tried and most were found guilty of trespassing and resisting arrest. We were required to attend the lengthy proceedings in the Berkeley municipal building by the judge on the case, Rupert Crittendon.
Shortly before sentencing, Judge Crittendon asked us all to submit letters addressed to him with statements about our reasons for participating in the sit-in. I kept no copy of my letter, but recently discovered, to my surprise, that all the letters have been archived. Although Judge Crittendon had not included them in the trial records, they had been preserved by one of our lawyers, Malcolm Burnstein. These are the true record of FSM. Very recently they were transcribed and put online by the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Here is my letter:
Dear Judge Crittendon,
If there is anything concrete that we learn during our years of formal education, it is the value of communication in human affairs on all levels, from marital to international relationships. And if there is anything else we learn that is irrefutable, it is that good and open communication is one of the most difficult of all things to achieve. Implicit in this are the disastrous results of situations where the parties involved are unable to communicate, or unwilling to communicate. It seems to be yet an unfortunately common assumption that if one of the parties involved has power then it becomes unnecessary for them to try to communicate; their ends can be achieved by force. It seems that a great deal of human misery comes from this misuse of power, whether it takes the form of sophisticated edicts, or the primitive use of weapons.
The great states of the world appear to be learning what the enlightened individuals have propounded since time immemorial: they are still midway between attempting honest articulation and merely using their fists when change is desired. Lately in our century, hope for the acceleration of this universal civilization has sprung up with the creation of countless great institutions dedicated to the education of the general public.
I’m not naive enough to think that because an institution is devoted to learning that it is going to be exclusively pure, but I am apparently naive enough to believe that a university should embrace in its day-to-day affairs the basic rudiments of civility. And it is the height of incivility to hand down an edict to intelligent people, and then to refuse to discuss the consequences of such with these people. It is adding insult to injury when the particular edict interdicts the freedom of speech of the students on a university campus. To this day I see this as the main issue.
The students primarily involved made every effort to communicate in a civilized fashion, and the University, because of its intrinsic ability to abuse power, found it unnecessary to make any attempt at all to communicate intelligently in response.
Hence I participated in the sit-in as a bid for communication: on the first level, for communication, or at least dialogue, between the administration and the students; on the second for communication as a value or principle. I did this with the hope that all would be resolved within the framework of the University. I was sad and frightened when I heard that the State had also been involved, and it seems, involved only as an extension of the University’s abuse of power in the hope of further avoiding communication. I am still sad and frightened about the amount of useless spending and unfortunate disrepute that has accrued around the situation.
And I surely don’t wish people to be harmed by my own use of power as a protester. Yet this has happened, and I regret it. On the other hand I think that the University in its various parts has been brought closer together, and that communication is practiced on more levels than before. I’m sure this could not have been achieved, under the circumstances, any other way.
July 11, 1965
For reasons that remain obscure to me, as a result of this letter, I was one of a handful of students who were found not guilty. Practically, this meant I didn’t have to pay a fine of $400.00, which would have been extremely hard for me to do, in any case. At the time, I was relieved and overjoyed, even flattered.
But more recently I have read that Judge Crittendon had hoped to see contrition in these letters. According to one published source, he did not include the letters in the case records precisely because they were not contrite enough. If he let me off because he thought I repented of my participation, then I am sorry. As I read my letter again, it seems to me perhaps the ending is weak, and maybe he interpreted as a sign of contrition my regret that “people [were] harmed.” I was twenty-two, and, as I point out twice, frightened, so perhaps I appeared wobbly to him.
In the weeks following the arrests, FSM was gradually replaced by VDC, the Vietnam Day Committee. Later that year, in May, 35,000 people attended an antiwar rally on campus. It was, I believe, the first major protest against the Vietnam War. This could only have happened as a result of the restitution of freedom of speech on the Berkeley campus by President Kerr. The protest lasted over thirty hours and helped launch the antiwar movement nationwide. Among many others, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Senator William Fulbright spoke out that day against the war.
This was, I believe, one of the positive results of our action for free speech. But there was an equally negative one. Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California in 1966 on a campaign to “clean up the mess in Berkeley.” As Governor he also became head of the Board of Regents of the University and his first action was to fire President Kerr for being too soft on us.
At this time, the Assistant District Attorney in Oakland was Edwin Meese. In October, there was another huge march in Berkeley and Oakland against the war. The Berkeley protest went fine, but in Oakland, Meese called out hundreds of police to stop the demonstrators. It had also been Edwin Meese that had erroneously, on the night of the Sproul Hall sit-in, informed then Governor Brown that the students had forcibly broken into a University office. According to a published report, it was this false information that convinced Brown to authorize our arrests. Meese also ordered the FBI to open files on all the student leaders. What the future held for Reagan and Meese is now, of course, history.
Arguably, a linear progression can be traced from that night, early in December, 1964, all the way to the decision of the United States Supreme Court, in November of 2000, placing George W. Bush—and not Al Gore—in the White House. I wonder if Howard Dean would agree?
On a personal note, my time in Berkeley came to an abrupt end in May of 1969. I had, after spending time abroad, returned to Berkeley and finished my MA. A week or so after my orals, which qualified me to continue with my PhD, I went out in the early evening to buy something at a local grocery store up the street. On my way out an armed policeman stopped me at the bottom of the stairs of my building and informed me of a curfew in Berkeley. He ordered me to return to my apartment.
That same night, a few blocks away, a student protestor named James Rector was fatally shot by the police in the struggle over the “People’s Park.” It was said later by the Oakland Sheriff that the police shooting had been directed from “higher up.” Ed Meese was in charge of that operation. As I returned upstairs to my apartment that night, I knew my Berkeley finished.
I had written the above—as much as anything for myself—several months after my visit to Oakland in 2004. The manuscript had mostly stayed in a file, but every now and then I would take it out and tweak it. I had just about written a more or less satisfactory first draft when an odd thing happened.
In June 2008, I was in France working on a writing and translating project. After completing my research, I went to visit a couple of friends, whom I had not seen for a while, and who had recently begun renovating a house near where I was traveling. They mentioned at some point they had met some interesting people already and we (I was traveling with Paul, my husband) would meet them next evening over dinner. Then they mentioned a name, and asked if perhaps he was one of the people I had known at Berkeley during the 60’s. It took me by surprise. The name of Steve Weissman was very familiar to me. He had been prominent among the student leaders of FSM.
The next day I had the pleasure of several hours of fascinating and very frank conversation with Steve. In addition to piecing together some of the history of the movement from the student leaders’ point of view, and finding out how things had gone for some of the people involved, I had the opportunity to ask him a question about non-violence that had come up for me as I was writing about my FSM experience. I had read, for example, that Joan Baez had left Sproul Hall before the arrests started and wondered why. I asked and Steve told me that had been planned. He also added that Baez, through her mentor Ira Sandperl, had insisted on a policy of non-violence as a condition of her participation. Steve, who took Sandperl’s call, could not guarantee non-violence, as there were too many factions involved for him to be able to speak for all of them. Nonetheless, Sandperl interpreted this as favoring non-violence sufficiently for Baez to go ahead. All this surprised me greatly. I had always taken it for granted that non-violence, or passive resistance, was one of the basic premises of the entire movement. To the contrary, Steve explained, that was simply how it worked out; it was not official policy. And yet, as we entered the building, Baez standing and singing on the steps of Sproul Hall was an integral part of the occupation, even if she did leave afterwards (about which my husband wryly pointed out that perhaps she should have been singing, “You Shall Overcome”).
Steve also told us he had left the building before the arrests, sliding down a rope out of one of the windows, by a prior arrangement. He was needed in planning the next stages of the political action, the teaching assistant’s strike that finally brought the University to its knees. Fair enough, I said.
Steve Weissman continues his activist work now mostly through writing. His ideological sophistication was apparent as we talked into the night and then the next morning over coffee. But as we left the next day, beginning our trip back to the States, I couldn’t help but wonder why he and his colleagues had not gone on from being student leaders to becoming national leaders. He and the others, informed by that experience at a crucial stage in their own development, and contributing so much so early, had a great deal to offer. Too soon instead, we got Richard Nixon, and then again, too soon, Ronald Reagan and Edwin Meese. Yet, as someone pointed out to me, in the U.S., political activists and politicians are a different species. Only in Eastern Europe have we seen the likes of Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel become national leaders, or in South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
Our country today finds itself in a strange place in serious times. As we await our next president, a young African American, our country’s youth—who until recently had seemed so quiescent—are once again active. In many ways, in the last years, the “worst” have presided, at a huge cost to so many everywhere, while the “best” have been shunted away. I wish I had asked Steve Weissman if he thought young people had seen far too much. Are they frightened? Or are they too sophisticated to try again, seeing how it went with us? But now, there are other questions to ask. And FSM seems to hold some of the answers.
New York Times, Sunday, November 20, 2011
Today Robert Haas, former Poet Laureate, professor of poetry at UC Berkeley, wrote:
Life, I found myself thinking as a line of Alameda County deputy sheriffs in Darth Vadar riot gear formed a cordon in front of me on a recent night on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, is full of strange contingencies.
The particular contingency here is the Occupy movement. Two days ago in New York thousands of people marched to Foley Square and across the Brooklyn Bridge after the Mayor closed Zuccotti Park with a police raid at 2:00 in the morning, November 16. There have been hundreds of similar demonstrations all over the country, including Berkeley, California. Haas says that in Berkeley the Occupiers had chosen to gather in front of Sproul Hall. He continues:
It is also the place where students, almost 50 years ago touched off the Free Speech movement, which transformed the life of American universities by guaranteeing students freedom of speech and self-governance. The steps are named for Mario Savio, the eloquent graduate student who was the symbolic face of the movement. There is even a free Speech Movement cafe on campus where some of Mr. Savio’s words are prominently displayed: “There is a time … “
Haas had heard earlier that day students had been beaten viciously when the police moved in to remove the Occupy tents. He could not believe it and went, with his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, to see for himself. And they went to protect the students, if necessary. Ms. Hillman began to talk to the deputies about the importance of non-violence when one of the deputies reached out, shoved her in the chest and knocked her down. As he went to her aid, Robert Haas was hit in the ribs with a truncheon. He describes the police action against the assembled students as follows:
It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. … If the students turned away they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines. None of the officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward.
The profound irony of these events is breathtaking. On one hand here we hear the FSM had “guaranteed students freedom of speech” and on the other, a former poet laureate of the United States (spokesman par excellence) is beaten on the Berkeley campus for remonstrating with the deputies for pushing his wife to the ground and beating the students—the very ground named after the spokesman for the Free Speech Movement, before the Mario Savio steps!
How is it that the police have once again become so brutally aggressive? Who sanctions it? A video of a police officer pepper spraying students sitting in passive resistance on the campus of UC Davis has gone viral online. Linda Katehi, the Chancellor of the University, apologized, but refused to resign as requested by many.
Today thousands gathered again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the abuse of power by the military. Hilary Clinton said the United States recognizes as friends only those who respect freedom of speech and democratic process. Let’s try to get this straight. What do people in China or Egypt or Iran or Syria think when they see police beating, tear gassing, pepper spraying, and shooting rubber bullets at students and faculty practicing their rights to freedom of speech?
The Occupy movement has gained momentum because the “operation of the machine has become so odious … you’ve got to make it stop.” In this instance it is not only the University of California but the Government of the United States that has broken down. In pursuing political agendas motivated by greed and corruption, it has paralyzed itself through weakness, ineffectiveness and an apparent lack of principled conviction. Meanwhile, millions cannot find work, millions lose their homes, millions live in poverty, and tens of thousands are homeless. And still we live in the richest country in the world.
So, if assembling for protest is now punishable by brutality, as seen at UC Berkeley, Davis and elsewhere, what exactly are folk supposed to do? Set themselves on fire like Mohamed Bouazizi—a vegetable seller in a provincial town in Tunisia—to protest poverty and government repression? And yet, in Tunisia that was the first moment of the Arab Spring. This is over dramatized, I know. But it is worth noting that peaceful regime change subsequently took place in Tunisia. They recently held their first democratic election. So why here, in the US, do we keep going over the same old ground? Is it not possible to establish some basic principles, live by them and move on? Apparently not, at least as long as one bunch has nightsticks and guns and are told to use them if certain powerful people disagree with what others stand for, especially when it comes to ideas of justice, truth or equality. And this is the law?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
No, this is the law—one fundamental to our democracy, and yet clearly in the balance today. We are all in danger when the police beat students with impunity on the very piece of ground dedicated to the principle of free speech.