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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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+23 # Roland 2014-10-05 20:29
The following is by Mr. Greg Lukianoff who is president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “In my 13 years defending student and faculty speech, I have learned that campus administrators are most likely to deem as "uncivil" speech that criticizes them or the university's sacred cows. Meanwhile, students who agree with the administration are likely to be complimented for speaking truth to power. …..students have been taught not to appreciate freedom of speech, but rather to expect freedom from speech. This unnerving development can be seen in the rash of episodes last spring when students and even faculty pushed to bar commencement speakers and other public figures with whom they disagree. It can also be seen in the push toward applying "trigger warnings" to literary works, including "The Great Gatsby," if they might cause emotional distress to certain readers.”
Full article
+1 # JPC33 2014-10-06 05:35
When you say, 'bar commencement speakers' who specifically do you mean?
0 # JPC33 2014-10-06 05:35
When you say, 'bar commencement speakers' who specifically do you mean?
+1 # Roland 2014-10-06 09:25
The list is long you can find some here -

Lukianoff's organization, known as FIRE, has done preliminary research into how many speakers have withdrawn their names, had invitations revoked or been the subject of protests for commencement speeches during the school year. There have been at least 145 instances since 1987, with almost 100 of those coming in the last five years.
+42 # curmudgeon 2014-10-05 23:17
As a fellow Bay Area resident of the time, son of an FBI Agent involved in the illegal snooping....(be ginnings of COINTELPRO- the infiltration) your 'spot on' description is critical to current understandoing of our world today - especially the existence in the US of The 99/1inequality of money and control.

As you point out, the success of the FSM bred the successful anti-war success and therin lies Pyrrhic victory.

Remember the campuses of those days, were not elite...many veterans were teaching, studying as result of GI Bill...most having come from the draft...perhaps the greatest levelling of US culture and society. You and yours enabled a great communication across claa, race, money, 'labeled' politucs to achieve your goals.

This frightened the oligarchy controlling banks, the military industrial complex, etc. These all were getting richer off the Viet Nam War anticipating the empire to come.

They rightfully saw the danger and acted accordingly. They pushed the Reagan figurehead to the presidency....

Piece by piece the structure of 'civil' society has been dismantled, slowly but surely,.

The assinations of RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, the breaking of unions, the ending of the draft, the elimination of the progressive tax structure, the 'dumbing down' of education, the planned elimination of the middle class.......the rich have succeeded beyond all expectations.

The successors of FSM and Ant-War took eyes off the prize.
+14 # A P 2014-10-06 07:20
Quoting curmudgeon:

Remember the campuses of those days, were not elite...many veterans were teaching, studying as result of GI Bill...most having come from the draft...perhaps the greatest levelling of US culture and society.

I have a nascent theory that a major reason there was a surge in worker/civil rights beginning in the 1950's through the 1960's was due to the fact the WW2 veterans would not be denied. Their grand/parents had lived through WW1 and the Depression. The WW2 vets killed other humans and saw their fellow GI's killed and maimed in the effort to create the US they were promised. The men and women at home worked and sacrificed to support what they hoped would truly be the war to end all wars, nukes and all.

The political and corporate leaders were well aware of the consequences of openly denying what the vets believed they were due... a replay of the Bonus Army or worse scared the oligarchs and plutocrats silly. The veterans were a proven force which would not have been opposed by either police or the career military had they decided a forceful removal of the con artists in power was required to get their due.

So the leaders "gave in" but only for a while. Once the veterans were placated and believed they had secured the American Dream forever, in the 1970's the 0.01% began incrementally taking away all the gains since before WW1, leaving citizens world wide with the tatters of a promise of peace and plenty for all.
+38 # Cdesignpdx 2014-10-05 23:34
UCB, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Mario Savio's work and words, please dismiss legal prof John Yoo, the author of the United States of America's (GW Bush's) dissertation that rationalized torture.
Yoo demeans you.
+36 # Patriot 2014-10-06 00:01
The most appalling public event of my 67-year life was that the Bush Administration established Free Speech Zones, and no one did anything to force him to retract them.

I wrote to Obama, shortly after his first election, to ask if Free Speech Zones still would be enforced. I never received a reply....

The Bush administration also proposed constructing detention camps in every one of our 50 states. I've written several people in Washington to ask if they still are being constructed. I've never received any answer to that question, either....

We now have Homeland (hateful word, far too close to Fatherland) Security, a thinly-disguise d intelligence agency, which controls the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, and thence re-entry into the country by those of us who travel abroad, and the Secret Service, which is supposed to be protecting the President and Vice President.

NSA (and only heaven knows who else) now reoutinely monitors our every electronic communication, with the blessing of our perverted Congress and the President, in the name of security....

And we now have what any other people would call outright bribery of elected officials via unlimited campaign contributions by a twisted, sick, extremely wealthy minority who have no interest in anything except their own increasing wealth and power.

Paul Revere, where are you?

Wake up, everyone!

He who would give up freedom for a little temporary security....des erves neither. Ben Franklin
+20 # futhark 2014-10-06 03:42
The United States of America, like all regions of planet Earth is, and always has been, a free speech zone. Since 1776, this status has been written into law. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

As a Berkeley alum, sometimes I have had to explain to libertarian and conservative friends and acquaintances that the Free Speech Movement is an ongoing development of the American Revolution and not something brought in my a bunch of left-wing lunatics. I was a freshman in high school in Arizona 50 years ago and my mother, ever a loyal Lyndon Johnson Democrat, explained to me that the trouble in Berkeley was due to Communist agitators. With the perspective of experience and years, I can say that she was very wrong in this assessment.
+2 # Nel 2014-10-06 06:11
We are all intimidated, more so politicians, hanging on to the material possessions we still have.
+8 # John Whiting 2014-10-06 03:22
Steve, I remember you well -- I was there with a portable tape recorder. It's a shame that you don't mention KPFA, which was covering all the major events as they happened, and without the right wing slant of the commercial media.
+4 # cordleycoit 2014-10-06 04:30
I remember free speech it is now an archaic concept. P/C speak has long replaced it with controlled emotion. Remember when Hillary and her buddies tried to sell KPFA to raise money for her last run at the White House. There was a scandal involving Adam Clayton Powell the third and that great politician Mayor Barry and his pack of jackals who stood to make millions selling kpfa to Clear Channel. Free speech a bad joke or a fenced in pen.
+19 # walt 2014-10-06 06:10
We haven't advanced very far in the pursuit of free speech, have we?

At the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL., those wanting to express their feelings about Republicans were given a fenced in pen-type area to do so with armored police and soldiers all around. The "land of the free" is really a myth.
+13 # 1wolff 2014-10-06 07:11
Thank you for writing. Your insights from the past were refreshing especially since the winds of change apparently were not unitary, but blew simultaneously from a number of directions.

Thank you for assisting in my formative years.

Hope you are feeling better and will continue to write.
+9 # Johnny 2014-10-06 08:58
No fragging today. Our oligarchs created a military of obedient robots to replace the unreliable force of citizen draftees. No longer facing the draft, citizens have become apathetic and indifferent to the continuing repression at home and Holocaust throughout the rest of the world that our all-mercenary military is fomenting.

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