Friday, February 14, 2014

The Altar Boy is Radicalized at Berkeley -- Mario Savio and More About "Subversives"

Mario Savio, Free Speech Movement, UC Berkeley, 1965

Now that I've gotten to the chapters about the student rebellion at UC Berkeley and more particularly about Mario Savio, I'm learning plenty of stuff I didn't know or didn't think about if I did know.

Images of the early Free Speech Movement protests at Berkeley and of those involved (particularly Mario, but not just of him) are burned into my brain. They form a huge part of what I considered positive in my adolescence. "Who" these people were and the underlying motivations for "why" they were doing what they were doing hardly mattered. What mattered was that they were doing it, fearlessly, determinedly, and at considerable risk to themselves and and their futures. Bravery was only the most obvious of their attributes.

While I was riveted by Mario Savio's eloquence and charisma -- and oh, yes, I had a sheepskin lined suede jacket like his, and I think in other ways I strongly identified with him -- I knew nothing, really, about him, except that he was considered "working class" among the students and administrators who came from money (I knew too many of those people), and thus he was subject to relentless denunciation and ridicule by those opposed to the FSM protests.

After the glare of the media spotlight faded from him and the student movement went on to other issues and other campuses, I didn't try to follow Mario's further adventures. I knew that he was a reluctant hero, if you will, and was deviled by doubt during the Free Speech Movement years, but beyond that, not much. It wasn't until much later that I learned he'd gone on to become part of the initial faculty at Sonoma State University in the 1980s, and died of heart failure in 1996. Resquiat in Pacem.

Until I got into the biographical chapters about him in "Subversives," I didn't know that he had been an altar boy in Queens, or that he was considered a "troubled genius" in school and had a terrible stammer when speaking -- unless he was on stage or in front of a crowd, at which time he could become extraordinarily eloquent and persuasive. I didn't know that his mother wanted him to become a priest -- and he seriously considered it -- but he chose physics and the sciences in his initial college days in New York, only to switch to philosophy studies when he transferred to UC Berkeley in 1963.

I didn't know that he was initially enthusiastic about the Kennedy presidency, but he became disillusioned as Kennedy seemed incapable of following through on his campaign rhetoric and promises. Where have we heard that before?

I didn't even know that he had gone South for the Freedom Summer, and that his experiences with the Freedom Riders and with CORE and SNCC at Berkeley had profoundly shaped his perspective about the absurd and arbitrary restrictions placed on student political advocacy and activity on the University campus.

While Mario's iconic speech about "the gears of the machine" he gave on the steps of Sproul Hall on December 2, 1964, will likely resonate forever, the issues he was speaking about are not really well known at all, and they're not particularly easy to explain or examine from the distance of almost 50 years.

I remember what I was feeling about it back then, but the issue of the prohibition of on-campus political activity -- which is what the Free Speech Movement was opposing -- seems somewhat arcane and even petty from a distance.

It was actually a pretty much universal rule to prohibit on-campus political activity throughout California's public education system at the time, especially so at the University. The premise was that California's students would receive a mandatory and "free" public education through high school, and qualified students would be eligible for tuition free higher education at any public institution of higher learning in the state -- any that they could get into, as access was highly competitive and restricted. But part of the bargain that made this possible was that the public education system, particularly the University, had to stay out of politics... thus the prohibition on political advocacy on the Berkeley campus that became the fuse that lit the fire of the Free Speech Movement.

Up to a point, this prohibition was tolerated because the University didn't interfere with tabling and political speechifying "outside the gate," Sather Gate. Well, that is they didn't until they discovered that the sidewalk outside the gate actually belonged to the University, not the City of Berkeley as they had assumed. The campus administration and police started enforcing the rule on the sidewalk as well on the campus proper, and this seemingly arbitrary act triggered the protest. Students moved their tables onto the campus in front of Sproul Hall, the administration building, and defied the administration and police orders to desist.

And when Jack Weinberg, a graduate student, refused to desist or identify himself to police, he was taken into custody and hustled into a waiting police car on Sproul Plaza. This arrest by campus police precipitated a sit-down action by hundreds and then thousands of students, and the Free Speech Movement was launched. Nothing would ever be the same again.

Mario quickly emerged as the spokesman for the Movement, though it was obvious even then that he was uncomfortable in the role that had been thrust upon him. Nevertheless, he was a passionate and very articulate spokesman.

His passion derived from his experience, an experience I knew very little about until I started reading "Subversives." I have a much greater regard for him now than I did nearly 50 years ago, and I hardly thought that was possible. But learning about his past, and what he believed in, and what he had done prior to the Free Speech Movement only makes me admire him the more.

I'm no hero-worshiper, as anyone who knows me knows. There are many individuals, however, for whom I maintain great admiration and respect. Mario Savio has always been one of them, but now my admiration and respect for him has increased substantially.

The more I learn... I'm grateful I can still learn...

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