Transcript: Robert Reich’s speech at Occupy Cal

(Derek Remsburg/File)
Derek Remsburg/Staff
(Derek Remsburg/File)

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.

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  • julieinjax

    The people of the United States of America have been conned, largely by those in power disguising their true intentions by pairing them with religious “righteousness.” While the Pavlovian-trained among us salivate at the notion of heaven via trickle-down economics, our children’s futures are being stolen. Material resources on this planet may be finite, and ignorantly, we have allowed their control to be manipulated by the few, who, in their shortsightedness, don’t care whom they harm in pursuit of “more.” But if anything is infinite in this world it is the human imagination. Coupled with a Divine Spirit/impulse to aid one another, to pursue justice and peace in every form, and to alleviate suffering for our fellow humans, I believe the human spirit will win out. Thank you, Robert Reich, for sharing your powerful ideas. 

  • Anonymous

    The United States of Azzholes is crumbling from within and I say it is high time.  Any nation that can justify the dumping of millions of tons of jellied jet fuel on a country’s innocent populace and burning them to death and follow that with millions of tons of defoliants to starve to death those who did not get burned to death and then respond to a mere handful of azzholes being burned to death by jet fuel (how ironic) on 9/11 by invading and destroying yet another innocent nation that was absolutely no threat to anyone, deserves to be utterly and completely destroyed.  It is my fervent desire that all you azzholes in the United States of Azzholes run totally amok, and you will, and kill one another, kill the police, kill the army, kill everybody and that all vestiges of your barbaric society, all your cities, every structure big or small be burned , blown up or bulldozed, covered with topsoil and seeded with grass to create a big dog park where people of Mexico and Canada can take their doges to sh1t and p1ss on what was once the United States of Azzholes. You cretins disgust me.  P1ss on all of you, p1ss on that stupid looking eagle you all pray to and p1ss on your stars and stripes.

    • Stan De San Diego

      Shall we assume you will be moving to Cuba, North Korea, or Zimbabwe some time soon to enjoy your communist worker’s paradise?

      • Anonymous

        Shall we assume you’re going to get another brain cell to keep the only one you have company?

        Shall we assume that one day you’re going to learn to say something that actually makes sense instead of shrieking “Communist!” every time someone speaks out against your sh1t hole of a country?

        Why would I move? I live in Canada, the most respected nation in the world according to  the survey at  We have universal healthcare, a healthy economy, freedom, a healthy environment, low crime rate and our politicians don’t talk total stupidity like Newt Gingrich with his proposal to put young children to work in schools as janitors and fire the adult janitors.

        My country didn’t destroy another country with a war based on deliberate lies.  None of my country’s leaders are wanted by Amnesty International for war crimes, your presidunce Bush is.

        In my country people don’t get locked up forever without a trial.  In your country they do and they are subjected to torture and abuse.

        How does the fact that your country is a sh1thole make me a communist? Got any other stupid things you want to say?

        • Stan De San Diego

          Looks like you lost the argument. As far as Canada being “respected”, that’s nice. While I have no problem with the brave and dedicated members of the Canadian armed forces who have stood besides our own troops in armed conflicts over the last century (and who I encountered and worked with on occasion), Canada has its share of freedom-hating left-wingers as well – witness their totalitarian criminalization of speech they don’t approve of. As far as your nonsensical blather about “war crimes”, Amnesty International has no legal standing whatsoever, nor does anyone in the real world give a flying f_ck what they think.

          • Anonymous

            I’ve lost nothing.  The facts I stated are irrefutable facts… America burned millions of Vietnamese alive and starved millions more by defoliating their land.  When a mere handful of you barbarians were burned to death in the WTC you responded by making up a bunch of lies about Iraq, lies that you all knew were lies, and then destroying Iraq and killing a couple hundred thousand more innocents and allowing al Qaida into a country it had been barred from. Azzholes!

            Regarding “totalitarian  criminalization of speech they don’t approve of” give an example, a citation or some facts to back up that opinion, as I have with my opinion about the United States of A–holes, or you lose.

            I never claimed Amnesty International has any legal standing but it does have influence and people all around the world support them on their stand on war criminal George W. Bush.  It matters not one whit whether you like that, don’t like that or think they’re not part of the real world, which in your ignorance of reality you probably define as being limited to the United States of A– holes, it’s still a fact.

          • Matt

            Both of you are outrageous. Redjujube, how dare you imply that the victims of 9/11 deserved to die. Shame on you. So much for being “civilized.”

          • Anonymous

            My implication pales in comparison to the United States of A–holes’ declaration that millions of innocent Vietnamese deserved to die.  How dare the United States of A–holes even start that war by telling the lie that a Chinese ship of war had fired upon an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin and that immediate escalation of troop and equipment levels were necessary. How dare the US of A–holes lie themselves into a war every time its braindead, yellow-bellied troops complain they are bored with firing at inanimate targets and yern to blow up and burn some real human flesh just because they think it’s fun! FVCK YOU!!!!!  Where do you get off implying American lives are more valuable than Iraqi or Vietnamese lives!!!  FVCK YOU!!! you worthless piece of uncivilized, barbaric sh1t !!!!!!!!!!

  • Helen Shane

    Reich says it for me.  Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Stifling of free speech is the first weapon of fascism.  Occupy Sebastopol Ca. in Sonoma County has come to an agreement with the town. They can keep a 24 hour presence in our town plaza, but cannot camp there. This was put forth by the General Assembly of Occupy Sebastopol, and supported by many citizens, then ratified by our City Council.  The GA understood that the message was important, not camping.  We are very proud of our City and Occupy Sebastopol.

  • Lucia

    How do we know he is sincere?  In terms of wealth he is probably in the top 1% or close to it.  he strikes me as an insider who is likely drawing quite a high salary from the UC (one of the reasons why tuition is going up is salaries for tenured professors and overpaid administrators).

    • Alina

      While he is probably making a lot of money I dont think we should blame him for that or that it makes him anymore sincere. Everybody wants to be successful and make a lot of money so we shouldnt blame him for actually achieving that. We should instead be admiring him because even though he is not one of the people suffering financially, he has still taken the time to speak up for Berkeley students. When you think about it..he didnt have to be there. He’s not struggling with paying his tuition…so the fact that he came and spoke on behalf of people that arent doing as well means a lot to me.

  • Stan De San Diego

    The fact that Robert Reich thinks the United States is a “democracy” as opposed to the constitutional republic that  the Founding Fathers intended, is clear proof that even those  with power and influence on the Left are clearly ignorant of our history or form of government.

    • I am aware that the founders were elitists.They also intended the continuation of slavery, the treating of black slaves as 3/5 people to be “represented” by the votes of the white south, the existence of an undemocratic Senate and Electoral College, etc.Madison, probably the most important framer of the Constitution explained his republican theory in Federalist #10. It is an explicitly anti-democratic document that calls for creating a system deliberately so that only the wealthy can consistently win power, and it states as an explicit belief that (1) Class is the most fundamental division in society   and that(2) Class is the direct result of innate differences in ability. It is open for all to see that this latter point is bullshitNow, may I present you with a bit of Jefferson?
      The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind one another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water.  Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government . . . I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;” that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”

      • Stan De San Diego

        Your ignorance shows on many fronts. The founders had a legitimate fear of “mob rule” which was and is used to deny the rights of minorities. In addition, the 3/5 rule was enacted to minimize the political power of PRO-SLAVERY states. As to be expected, lefties repeat stuff without ever fully understanding what they are talking about.

        • matt

          The 3/5ths “rule” was not a rule but a compromise. I doubt the Southern politicians voted in favor of the compromise to minimize their own power.

  • Anonymous
  • mymoonster

    Great! Thank you. I’ve been searching the Internet for a transcript. Wonderful speech.