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Weissman writes: "Fifty years ago this coming December 2, a wonderfully charismatic Mario Savio made one of the most powerful speeches in the history of American protest."

Mario Savio at a victory rally at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964. (photo: AP)
Mario Savio at a victory rally at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964. (photo: AP)

Berkeley 101: Breaking the Limits of Free Speech

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

05 October 14


ifty years ago this coming December 2, a wonderfully charismatic Mario Savio made one of the most powerful speeches in the history of American protest.

“There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part,” he told his fellow students on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. “You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

Mario’s existential cry of anguish led into the sweet song of Joan Baez and a deeply felt rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” after which some 2,000 of us in the Free Speech Movement (FSM) began a massive sit-in of the university’s administration building, Sproul Hall. But Mario’s eloquence and Joan’s call to “muster up as much love as you possibly can, and as little hatred and as little violence, and as little ‘angries’ as you can,” blurred an equally telling dynamic that was already in play.

Toward the end of the week before, the FSM’s Graduate Coordinating Committee took a fateful step that few participants remember. The administration had just announced disciplinary measures against Mario and three others, and we knew that the Sproul Hall sit-in would draw large numbers of student activists. We had, after all, been fighting since mid-September to secure the same free speech rights on campus that we enjoyed beyond the confines of the university.

We also knew that the authorities would likely call in outside police, which would only swell our ranks and spur the outrage of the generally career-oriented and cautious graduate students and teaching assistants whom we represented.

Most, though by no means all, of the GCC’s leaders came from the Left, and we jokingly called ourselves “the Soviet of Graduate Student Deputies.” But, whatever our individual politics, we had systematically organized a base in dozens of university departments and had a firmly grounded, day-to-day understanding of what our less-involved fellow grads were thinking. Much to the anger of Mario and a majority of the FSM steering committee, we had even forced the aborting of an earlier sit-in because we knew our troops were not yet ready. Now, with the administration’s disciplinary moves and the prospect of “cops on campus,” we felt the time was right.

Seeing all this about to unfold, a jam-packed meeting of the GCC unanimously passed a bare-bones resolution asking our base throughout the university to call their students and teaching assistants out on strike the following week “if conditions warrant.” As chair of the group, I probably put together those weasel words. I don’t really remember. But the phrase took on life when California’s liberal Democratic governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, father of the current incumbent, ordered in the police, who dragged over 800 students out of Sproul Hall, often with blatant brutality.

The strike succeeded far beyond anything we could have expected, and in the following few days the graduate students led the way in convincing hesitant faculty members to listen to our simple First Amendment arguments and vote against the administration. That was how we won a famous victory for free speech. But what did it mean in the real world?

Critics will tell you that that the biggest outcome was the election of the extremely conservative Ronald Reagan as governor and then as president. They have a point, though I would blame Reagan’s victories more on the failures of half-a-loaf liberalism with its support of an imperial foreign policy and its commitment to the Cold War. You can’t beat the Right by framing the political debate in “almost, but not quite” the same terms as they do, a blunder that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are now making with their sure-to-fail crusade against Islamic State.

One of our biggest successes was that we did not take our fight to court or listen to the high priests of First Amendment thinking, especially in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which refused to support our demands. We saw free speech as a fundamental human right that we had every right to seize for ourselves with our own direct action. Use it or lose it.

We similarly refused to let red-baiting dissuade, divert, or divide us. Like the rest of the New Left, we practiced a dogged anti-anti-communism, an apostasy that Cold War liberals never understood and never forgave.

Our thinking had little to do with the Soviet Union or the small Leninist vanguards that irritatingly claimed to act in the name of “the masses.” As young as we were, we had seen how anti-communists had smeared Martin Luther King to slow down integration, red-baited then-senator Claude Pepper to quash universal health care, investigated “Communist influence” to smash unions, and hyped the Red Menace to sell tanks, planes, and U.S. intervention everywhere from Guatemala to Vietnam.

This was not a game we were willing to play. Instead we made Bettina Aptheker, the daughter of a highly visible American Communist, one of our most visible leaders, loudly proclaiming that free speech has to be for everyone, including Communists.

Closely related, our victory opened the campus to become a staging ground for a growing anti-war movement. While most FSM leaders saw ourselves protecting the right to use the campus to organize civil disobedience against racist businesses in Oakland, San Francisco, and other nearby communities, Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war Eisenhower and Kennedy had started in Southeast Asia forced us to change our priorities. We would now use the campus to organize teach-ins, stop troop trains, march on the Oakland Army Terminal, and disrupt the draft.

This same opening took place all over the country, as college administrators everywhere dropped their speech restrictions and in loco parentis rules in an effort to preclude having their own student revolts. I’m proud to say that I helped spread the fear, going to work for the Students for a Democratic Society and traveling to campuses large and small to tell the Berkeley story and build support for the SDS anti-war March on Washington.

Also part of the picture, Berkeley marked the transition from the Gandhian nonviolence of Dr. King and Joan Baez to a more strategic, less religious or philosophic use of nonviolent direct action. I’ve written about this at length, especially about how Professor Gene Sharp and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Col. Robert Helvey turned what we had practiced into a weapon that Washington used in its “color revolutions” from Venezuela to Iran to the borderlands of the former Soviet Union. Hopefully, if my chronically poor health ever permits, I will write more about how we can use it against “Big Money.”

In the meantime, one quick caveat. Free speech is an end in itself, for which progressives everywhere should fight. But it can never be a sufficient strategy for radical social change. Telling truth to power, petitioning for redress of grievances, and protesting injustice will not significantly change the balance of power between the 99% and the fraction of 1% that increasingly rules the roost. Changing that will take something more and different, and it will never be done by those who keep telling us how impossible a job it would be.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

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