Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of the 15th annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture, delivered by Robert Reich, a UC Berkeley public policy professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor. The speech was extemporaneous and was delivered to a crowd of thousands outside Sporul Plaza on Nov. 15 .
Robert Reich: I’ll be short
Forty-seven years ago, as you know, we were graced with the eloquence and the power of Mario Savio’s words, from these steps. And they were words that echoed and ricocheted across America. Words about the importance and centrality of freedom of speech and assembly and freedom of expression and social justice. And those words continue to live on — in fact, the sentiments and words that Mario Savio expressed 47 years ago are as relevant if not more relevant today than they were then.
Because today, unlike then, we have a few Supreme Court decisions: Citizens United against the federal elections commission.
(The crowd boos)
Did you just boo? The Supreme Court of the United States? There are few Supreme Court decisions that have said that essentially, money is speech and corporations are people.
When you think that money speaks and corporations are people, then it becomes extraordinarily important to protect the First Amendment rights of ordinary Americans, of regular citizens, of students, of everybody else who doesn’t have the money and who is not a corporation.
By the way, I will believe that corporations are people when Georgia and Texas execute them.
Now the First Amendment, the right to speak that is not always convenient — it is not always inexpensive; it is sometimes messy.
And because it is sometimes inconvenient and sometimes expensive and sometimes messy — just like democracy — there is a temptation sometimes to want to contain it, to limit it. But it is more important than it has ever been that we all go out of our way, every one of us: leaders, politicians, those of us who have authority and those of us who do not have authority.
It becomes doubly important that we honor the First Amendment and that we are willing and make ourselves willing to pay the price of freedom of speech and also indirectly or — because freedom of speech is so related to democracy — directly the price of a democratic system of government.
Now in 1964, the issues that Berkeley students wanted to speak up about, the issues that actually underlay this Free Speech Movement, were issues having to do fundamentally with civil rights. The struggle for civil rights. The struggle for voting rights. Also the gathering storm of the Vietnam War and war in Southeast Asia.
And also the grinding poverty that America was then experiencing in our cities and also in rural America. Well, as you all know, although we have made some progress, many of these kinds of issues, issues of fundamental social justice, are still very much with us.
For that reason, it is doubly important that our democracy give people the opportunity to speak up about what must be done. Enable our democracy to function as it should function, not with money, not simply with privilege but with the ability of people to join together and make their voices heard.
Now the issues today that Berkeley students want to speak up about — and now I don’t want to be presumptuous. You have different issues. Some of you are extraordinarily dedicated and concerned about rising fees and tuitions, so high in fact and coming so readily and so quickly that they are making higher education unaffordable, unavailable to so many young people who are otherwise qualified. And that is a valid and deeply valid and important concern.
Some of you are concerned also about the increasing concentration of wealth and income in our society, an increasing concentration that has meant, for example, that the 400 richest Americans now own more of America than the bottom 150 million Americans.
(The crowd boos)
But fundamentally — and let me try to connect some of these dots — fundamentally, the problem with concentrated income wealth and fundamentally with an education system that is no longer available to so many young people and even a K-12 system that is letting so many people down — the fundamental problem is that we are losing equal opportunity in America. We are losing the moral foundation stone on which this country and our democracy are built.
(The crowd cheers)
Now, there are some people out there who say we can not afford education any longer, we cannot afford, as a nation, to provide social services to the poor. We cannot, some people say, any longer, afford as a nation to provide the safety nets for the poor and the infirm or for the people who fall down for no fault of their own. But how can that be true if we are now richer than we have ever been before?
(The crowd cheers)
How can that be true that we cannot afford to do all sorts of things that we need to do for our people when we are the richest nation — and continue to be — the richest nation in the world? And again, let me connect the dots, because over the past three decades, this economy has doubled in size, but most Americans have not seen much gain. If you adjust for inflation, what you see is the median wage has barely risen. Where did all the money and resources go?
(The crowd laughs)
They went to the top. And, look it. Let’s be clear about this. We are not vilifying people because they are rich. The problem here is that when so much income and wealth go to the top, political power also goes to the top. Particularly when, as I indicated to you, there are no longer any controls on the amount of money spent on politics. And I don’t want to hit on David and Charles Koch.
All right, I will.
I mean, they are emblematic of the problem. It is not wealth, per se — it is the irresponsible use of the wealth to undermine our democratic system. And today, unlike the time in which Mario Cuomo. Mario Cuomo? Mario Savio. I know Mario Cuomo.
Unlike the time Mario Savio was here and talking — then, the typical CEO in America was earning 30 times what the average worker was earning. Today, the typical CEO in America is earning more than 300 times what the average worker is earning.
(The crowd jeers)
But you see, again, the problem has to do with what that does to our democracy. It undermines our democracy. When all that money can come down from the wealthy, from the corporations, when there are no limits to the amount of money that can infect and undermine and corrupt our democracy, then what do we have left? What do we have left?
(Several people yell, “Tents!”)
I want to tell you something. And that is how proud I am to be a member of this wonderful community. Not only is the University of California, Berkeley, the best system and institution of public education in the world, but more importantly, it has for years, for decades dedicated itself to the principles of free expression, of social justice and of democracy, and implicitly we understand the connections between all of those points.
You must also — and in fact I’m sure you do — feel in your gut that the Occupy movement — the Occupy Cal, the Occupy Oakland, occupations are going on all over this country — are ways in which people are beginning to respond to the crisis of our democracy. And I am so proud of you here today. Your dedication to these principles, your willingness to be patient, your willingness to spend hours in general assemblies, your willingness to put up with what you have put up with is already making a huge difference.
You are already succeeding. Some of you may feel a little bit — what are we doing here? What exactly is our goal? I urge you, I urge you to be patient with yourselves, because with regard to every social movement of the last half-century or more, it started with a sense of moral outrage. Things were wrong, and the actual coalescence of that moral outrage into specific demands for specific changes came later. The moral outrage was the beginning, the sense of injustice. The days of apathy are over, folks.
Once this has begun, it cannot be stopped and will not be stopped.
And one final point. The summer before Mario Savio was here, on these steps, he was down in Mississippi registering voters — that was Freedom Summer of 1964. If you can permit me a personal note: because I was always short for my age — I was always very short; in fact, when I was a little boy I was even shorter — I was always getting beat up.
It is OK. There are always bullies, but you know what I did? I learned at an early age that the way to stop getting beat up was to make alliances with bigger guys who were older than I and also bigger than I was and they protected me. They were my own protection racket. And one of the boys, during the summers that I spent up in the mountains with my grandmother, one of the boys who was a protector of me, older than me, his name was Mickey. And I grew very fond of Mickey.
And then that same summer of 1964, that same freedom summer, Mickey — his full name was Michael Schwerner — Michael and two other civil rights workers were down in Mississippi exactly the same time Mario Savio was there. They were brutally tortured and murdered by racists who felt that they — my friend, my protector and his two colleagues — were a threat to the status quo in Mississippi.
But when I heard that Mickey Schwerner had been brutally murdered, himself had been murdered by even bigger bullies, I sensed that something fundamental had to change. Not only in American society, but also in me. And all of you, right now, understand intuitively that if we allowed America to continue in the direction it was going on, with the wealth and the income and the power and the political potential for corruption and all that represents, that the bullies would be in charge.
And you know and you understand how important it is to fight the bullies, to protect the powerless, to make sure that the people without a voice have a voice. And for that reason — if there were no other reasons, and there are many others — for that reason, I want to thank each and every one of you for what you are doing. Thank you.