Friday, March 9, 2012

Mario Savio Explains It All For You

Thanks to Michael Cavlan RN over at FDL for posting this full version of Mario Savio's December 2, 1964 "Gears of the Machine" speech that he gave on the steps of Sproul Hall just before several thousand hundred students occupied the building thus catalyzing the student (and counterculture) rebellions of the 1960's.

I've posted many times that this was a radicalizing event in my life -- I was 16 at the time and in high school. Three years later, I would be involved in this:

Here's Todd Gitlin's narrative of those events:

Here, protestors wait to close down the Oakland Induction Center where young draftees arrive for their physicals and are taken into the Army. They hold wooden shields and wear helmets. It is an October Friday in 1967 and no one anticipates a peaceful outcome.

At some point in that year anti-war activists across the country agreed to turn protest into resistance. Fred Halstead says in Out Now!, his detailed history of the anti-war movement, “it was a time to move opposition to the war and the draft from moral protest to a show of power.” The draft of young men into the armed forces was a particularly odious feature of the Vietnam conflict. Beginning with the war’s expansion in 1965, President Johnson doubled the number of young men to be drafted each month from 17,000 to 35,000. Because college students still held draft deferments, the vast majority of hapless draftees were lower class males and much more likely to be black, Mexican-American or Puerto Rican. In 1965 there were 25,000 soldiers in Vietnam. By the end of 1967 there were more than 480,000 soldiers in Vietnam. And 15,000 of them had been killed.

In May of 1965 some 40 Berkeley students staged the first public burning of draft cards in front of the local draft board, at the time a handy half-block from the UC campus. A “liberal” Democratic Congress responded to the burning of draft cards by making the act a felony punishable by five years in prison. Draft card burnings continued, though, and by 1967 a group called The Resistance was organizing ever-larger protests against the draft. Leaders decided to mount a weeklong protest October 16-21 that would end with a march on the Pentagon. Ground zero for draft resistance was the Oakland Armed Forces Examining Station, aka, the Oakland Induction Center.


What followed on Bloody Tuesday was a riot. Direct action collided with police brutality and the result was an hour of mayhem as members of the Resistance, who had expected to block Center entrances and be arrested, were instead beaten bloody. Organizers held a rally Thursday on the Berkeley campus and vowed to return to Oakland on Friday. “We’re going to give the cops one hell of a run for their money,” shouted Stop the Draft Week organizer Morgan Spector. And they did. More than 10,000 protestors showed up early Friday morning, prepared with shields and helmets to engage the police. As cops poured out again into the streets, activists ran a virtual Chinese fire drill around the city’s central core, occupying intersections until police arrived, then vanishing down alleys to return to the Center where they blocked entrances until police returned. Battles ensued as police officers fought hand-to-hand to arrest protestors who, aided by comrades that attacked police from behind, would break free and run. Barricades were built from parked cars, rolled into intersections and tipped over. A bus was seized, emptied of cheering passengers, and rolled into the street to block access by police.

Protest had become insurrection.

Yes, well. The rest, as they say, is history. And to clarify, this insurrection in Oakland lasted all week, and there were Stop the Draft events held all over the nation that week as well, culminating in the Levitation of the Pentagon on October 21, 1967.

In Oakland, the history of insurrection has a long and noble lineage, so every time I run into someone who wants to mindlessly denounce the current insurrection in Oakland -- which continues apace, despite all the hoo-and-haw over various tactical and strategic errors (to put it gently) -- even if it is Todd Gitlin -- my generally tolerant demeanor tends to get bent out of shape and I tend to respond with a bit of bite.

The point is not that I favor violent insurrection and resistance because I don't. The only ones who would actually engage in such a thing in this country are the rightists and fascists in any case. They've been doing so on a limited scale for decades. For some odd reason, though, the "anarchists" and what's pitifully left of the Left are blamed for whatever insurrectionist tendencies there are and are strictly advised by their Elders (of which I am now one, thankyouverymuch) to declare adherence and strictly follow passive nonviolence principles as outlined by "Gahndi" and King. Now isn't that interesting? It should be. It should be interesting and instructive about the true nature of Power and Control in this country.

What I find interesting is that the nonviolence advocate who had the greatest influence on me is never mentioned: Cesar Chavez. It's the strangest thing. It's as if he and the United Farm Workers he led never existed, and their struggle never happened at all. He and his work have been all but erased from the historical record, and I truly wonder why.

Every now and again, I get together with some of the abuelos from the farmworker huelga days, and they shake their heads sadly at how far we have come yet how very far there still is to go. The struggle continues, yet it has become so highly ritualized and enervated that measurable progress is almost impossible to find, while there is plenty of backsliding to be found in the fields everywhere throughout The Other California, where those many farm fields still are (well, at least the ones that haven't been buried under suburban sprawl.)

One of the ways the Overclass got a handle on the farmworkers' movement and made it much less effective was to essentially buy off some of its leaders and younger workers by providing them with a way out of the fields and a comfortable living if they wanted it. Many farm labor activists wound up teaching on college campuses, others became civil servants, ironically in some cases charged with enforcing farm labor law but without the tools to do so. The less they felt trapped in the fields, the less the farmworkers felt they had little hope for improvement besides the UFW. The Overclass used many other tactics, including murder, to get their way, but from the public's perception, the farmworkers were the ones who got their way, not the growers. Little do they know.

Similar tactics were used to disarm and ultimately disable the anti-war movements of my day. As with the farmworkers, Power did concede the minimum it had to -- such as, for example, instituting a draft lottery, then ending the draft, then removing troops from the ground in Vietnam, and finally withdrawing from Indochina altogether. Many of those firebrands and movement leaders -- those who weren't murdered -- wound up teaching on college campuses where some of them still are. Others found civil servant positions which by now they have retired comfortably from, and we all know what happened with Jerry Rubin: he became a capitalist pig.

Mario Savio himself taught physics and philosophy at Sonoma State until his untimely death in 1996.

Who am I to talk, I went into The Theater and ultimately into government service myself.

What I began to understand about all this is that what appears to be radical and insurrectionary at any given time probably isn't. Mario's speech on the steps of Sproul Hall still resonates -- at least it does to me, but then I can (vaguely!) remember what he's going on about. Yes, the issues were critically important in those days, and yes, the insurrection at UC Berkeley in the fall and winter of 1964-65 made a huge difference and catalyzed movements and rebellions all over the country and parts of the world some of which were brutally and bloodily suppressed.

But underlying it all was a demand for dignity and respect, justice and community. And most of all for Peace.

While the issues Occupy is wrestling with are different, and the Occupy rebellion/revolution itself is very different -- the underlying demands aren't. We once again have an out of touch and wildly out of control power structure that ignores or dismisses the Public Interest in pursuit of private interest goals. Mario is complaining because the University is being run like a corporation and to serve corporate needs, not the Public Interest at all, and in his view and that of many students at Cal and elsewhere, that was simply wrong on principle. That was not what the University was for and that was not the purpose of higher education in California, but there it was: Cal served its government and corporate "sponsors" not the People.

And so it is today, even worse than it was in 1964. And now it is wildly more expensive for students at Cal and in the rest of the public higher education system in California than it was almost 50 years ago.

The abuses are far greater and the costs are far heavier. And sometimes the solutions seem farther away than ever.

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