Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Free Speech Movement

As far as I can tell, I have never done a post here on the Free Speech Movement and Mario Savio at UC Berkeley, though I know I have posted extensively on the topic elsewhere, including at Glenn's Place.

William Timberman, who used to hang out frequently over at Glenn's, took his leave from there some time back after a particularly ugly and unfortunate series of insults from some of the other posters that were both uncalled for and offensive on their face. WT was at Berkeley when the Free Speech Movement was roiling and shutting down the campus, and he had many insights about what was going on to share, and while not there, I wasn't that far away when it was happening and I could not simply ignore the student uprising.

The events of the fall and winter of 1964 in and around Sproul Hall and elsewhere on campus were electrifying, and they were, I believe, the trigger for the student revolts all through the remainder of the 1960's.

The Free Speech Movement was a Liberationist movement, modeled in some ways on the Civil Rights Movement, and it would become the nucleus of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. At issue was the University's prohibition of (unauthorized) 'political activity' on or near campus. It was a patent infringement of First Amendment rights, one of many that were commonplace at the time (to put it mildly), and the spontaneous student uprising caused by the University Administration's decision to enforce its ban on (unauthorized) 'political activity' on Bancroft Avenue outside Sather Gate (students marching through pictured above) led to nationwide student protest and turmoil climaxing -- but not ending -- with the Kent State (Ohio) shootings in 1970.

The First Amendment and Free Speech was of course central to the protests at Berkeley, but the firebrand speeches of Mario Savio caught the attention of the crowds at the campus and the media and were a sensation then as they still are. The First Amendment dispute was merely one of many Liberationist issues that would eventually be raised during the Berkeley protests. Mario's most famous speech, the one given to the crowd on the steps of Sproul Hall just before they occupied the building on December 2, 1964, is a masterpiece of Liberationist polemic.

"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. 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."

It's still an inspiration for many who fight for Liberation.

After much tumult, many arrests, and the periodic shut down of the University, the University yielded to many of the demands of the students, though not all. Not that, by that point, the Genie of student protest could be put back in the bottle.

Liberationist protest became a central focus of the 1960's times of troubles. The Free Speech Movement was a model of how to do it.

Communitarianism, characterized and characatured by the Hippies, soon became another thread in the protest movements of the era. But while the Liberationists tended to be confrontational with Authority, the Communitarians tended to withdraw from confrontation or to try to mediate confrontation with Peace, Love, and Flowers.

Not to forget substances. As the old song goes:

APC, Alcohol
Cigarettes, shoe polish, cough syrup, peyote
Equinol, dexamil, camposine, Chemadrine,
Thorazine, trilophon, dexadrine, benzedrine, methedrine
S-E-X and Y-O-U, Wow!

From the American Tribal Love Rock Musical, HAIR, 1967.

An iconic event that combined Liberationist and Communitarian approaches to protest was the "Levitate the Pentagon" March on October 21, 1967.

But it was all a very long time ago.

Nevertheless, the twin currents of liberation activism and communal withdrawal continue to move through American society and politics. The current effort to expand marriage rights to same sex couples is a Liberationist case in point.

Communitarian efforts are by no means absent, but they are far lower key than current Liberationist activism. And there is, I believe, a reason for it, quite apart from the inherent modesty of Communitarianism itself.

It goes back to the Free Speech Movement and the campus upheavals it inspired. Liberationism was deeply threatening to the entire power structure of the mid- and later-1960's, and that power structure fought back hard. Ultimately, however, success in curbing Liberationism would be found in controlling it through co-option, which was the genius of early and later Reaganism. Ronald Reagan was inaugurated governor of California in January 1967, something that is largely forgotten. He came into office on a vow to bring the student rebellion to a halt, and to ensure it never happened again. His initial approach to the rebellion was to release the hounds in a manner of speaking, but soon enough, he was adopting a lot of Liberationist rhetoric, but using it to press for liberation from nasty government regulation of economic interests, and freedom for his particular brand of Conservative politics. It was brilliant. Americans are still under the spell of that kind of Liberation.

On the other hand, Communitarianism largely vanished from widespread public view with the commercialization and subsequent fading away of the Hippies and after some really terrible incidents that seemed to come out of the communes and the community movements that once were proliferating. The Tate-La Bianca murders, for example. Yet the spirit of Communitarianism is strongly bonded with much of what passes for Liberal and Progressive politics -- in the Environmental movement especially, but by no means limited to it.

There is a very strong irony in that the Free Speech Movement originated as a protest of the suppression of students' political speech by the University; last week, the Supreme Court passed a law by essentially declaring that Corporate political speech had been suppressed for lo, these many years (over a century), and their Liberation from this unconscionable suppression was the highest good the court could conceive. It required no Movement, no masses protesting. All it required was a simple majority of Radical ideologues on the Supreme Court, five Men In Black. And the Liberation was done.


  1. Thanks, Ché.

    Excellent article. Will respond more fully later.

    Savio should be considered an American hero, but he gets no mention. Most don't know who is, or that he was hounded by the FBI.

    He walked the walk and risked everything.

    Thanks for the reminder!!

    (I might borrow your subject for my own blog, trying to tie it into Aristotle's idea of slaves being needed for "free men" to do great things, etc. etc. etc. For this weekend. I don't think we've moved as far from that twisted class attitude as some might think.)

  2. Mario is a People's Hero, but he was and remains very threatening. Many of those who have taken up his cudgel have been marginalized or silenced, sometimes with extreme prejudice.

    It's much more dangerous now to do what he did, but there is no doubt of his bravery and that of the others who led and stayed with the FSM.

    And what he said about throwing your self on the gears of the Machine to bring it to a halt is as true now as ever. Problem is, in America, hardly anyone is willing to take that risk. Not even the TeaBaggers will go that far.

    As far as class goes, remember who these people were: they were the elite, and the elite of the elite. Mario was working class, but most of the student protesters were upper middle class and better, and they never left their class unless it was to move up. Their education at Berkeley was tuition free, as all public college and university education in California was at the time. And this led to immense resentment (exploited by the authorities and especially by Reagan) among the working classes. Here were these malcontents attending the most prestigious public university in the country, free, on the taxpayer's dime, and they dared to rise in protest over something so "trivial." How DARE they? Californians of all classes were livid, and it was especially acute among the working classes.

    Lots of things to consider, especially as Our Generous Corporate Overlords step in to some of the voids left by the hollowing out of the public sector since Reagan.

    It started in California. The way things are going, it may end here, too.

  3. Will try to find the link to it, but NPR did a story on California university problems on Wednesday. Interviewed some kids and talked about some of their struggles, a coupla teachers and the head honcho.

    . . .

    Class. Should be a point of solidarity for the left. But it seems to have lost its power . . . and as you point out, it didn't always hold even in the left's heyday.

    . . .

    Anyway, thanks for your posts. Rereading William Barrett's classic 1958 intro to Existentialism, Irrational Man. Must be the sixth time. Has me thinking about all kinds of root causes and such. Will respond later with with thoughts.

    Hope all is well.