The Free Speech Movement lives on

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Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from “Fifty Years of Free Speech” an original book by The Daily Californian reexamining the movement through its archives from 1964. The book is available here.

There is an interpretation of quantum mechanics that holds that there are many parallel universes in which all possibilities are played out. Every moment fractures into a million outcomes; each opportunity for change or decision becomes a new reality. The path not taken is still a path, and some version of us did indeed take that road.

If this is true, there is some universe in which the cause of free speech failed on the UC Berkeley campus in 1964.

In one universe, perhaps the leadership of the movement gave up when they were suspended or jailed. In another, no one listened when Mario Savio climbed to the top of a police car to speak because they were too frightened of the consequences. In another, the National Guard or Berkeley Police Department made a grave mistake at UC Berkeley in 1964 instead of Kent State in 1970, opening fire on university students engaged in protest. There are worlds where the dark whispering accusations of communism found their targets, and chastened students were silenced by the fear of being blackballed.

That we live in the universe where peaceable protest and nonviolent resistance has never truly failed is a miraculous and unlikely thing. This book has been an effort to honor the confluence of decisions that brought this world into being.

It is difficult to even imagine those other worlds because of the legacy of the Free Speech Movement. The large-scale-yet-peaceful disruptions caused by the demonstrations staged at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley not only defined the character of the Bay Area to the world during an already turbulent decade; they also redefined the experience of the U.S. college student. By successfully demolishing the wall of separation that President Clark Kerr insisted should exist between academia and direct action for social justice, the participants in the FSM recreated from scratch the image of the university-educated citizen of the United States. Berkeley might have been the most radical example, but every college student was affected. No education is possible without an elevation of conscience, but it has taken the last half century for that truth to take hold.

This legacy of protest and action affects not only the activities of students who assemble peaceably in the spirit of expression — it has also affected education itself. The social changes of the 1960s also lead to a more diverse classroom in every sense of the word. The same zeitgeist that insisted on progress for student demonstrators helped desegregate those students, enriched their education by drawing on a multitude of sources rather than a homogenized pool of Eurocentic patriarchal classics and reinforced the idea that public universities exist for the purpose of building a better society by influencing individuals to become more productive citizens. Curricula evolved out of the ’60s to include focus and even requirements in community service and involvement. Students at UC Berkeley, and elsewhere, have come to expect that. The ivory tower university is a thing of the past, and it ended thanks to movements like the one for Free Speech at UC Berkeley.

From the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley in particular inherited a richly progressive soul. This victory for the will of the people carried over into the People’s Park struggle of 1969-70. Gov. Ronald Reagan ordered the National Guard to march on peaceful protesters in the city of Berkeley. James Rector, a UC Berkeley student, was fatally shot in clashes between law enforcement and the police. Alan Blanchard was blinded by the buckshot used by the Alameda County Sheriffs in the struggle. Despite these terrible occurrences and hundreds of injuries, peaceful protest prevailed again. The spirit of Berkeley remained what the FSM had helped to make it in 1964.

In 1970, the editorial board of The Daily Californian came into conflict over the coverage of the People’s Park fight with the administration of the university. The newspaper took a major but crucial risk in disassociating itself from editorial oversight by the university and becoming truly independent. This commitment to the freedom of the press and the necessity of an unencumbered student voice on the campus and in the city of Berkeley might not have been possible without the sacrifice of those 801 students arrested in protest in the historic sleep-in at Sproul Hall. The Daily Californian joined with the new character of UC Berkeley by siding wholly with free speech even though it had not openly supported the movement in progress, costing the paper its full university support. The legacy of the Free Speech Movement winds its way through every moment when the students of Berkeley stood up for their right to speak.

That right was called into question again with emphasis on time, place and manner during the Occupy Cal protests in 2011. Again, a peaceful protest was met with force by police in an effort to dislodge a demonstration from its use of public space. UC Police Captain Margo Bennett somewhat ludicrously referred to the linking of arms between protestors as an “act of violence.” Students and professors, including U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, were beaten by UCPD with batons when they simply refused to disperse. Although police response at the UC Berkeley campus was excessive and poorly managed — like elsewhere, such as the now-infamous pepper-spray incident at UC Davis — the public reaction characterized police response as untoward and unnecessary. Public opinion of Occupy Cal was partially shaped by the expectation that UC Berkeley has long been and probably will always be a locus of political activity. Occupy Cal was likely spared worse police intervention because of the legacy of the FSM.

Occupy Cal was not the last large-scale demonstration on the UC Berkeley campus. Union and general strikes happen with the same regularity as midterms. Protests for and against the divestment of UC funds from Israel have taken place on the Mario Savio Steps at Sproul Hall, as have demonstrations for the war in Syria, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, for the recognition of indigenous peoples, for the rights of women and for countless other causes in the last year alone. The density and multiplicity of causes and messages has multiplied, often with the effect of losing a cohesive voice. But those steps and the stretch of campus between Sproul Plaza and Bancroft Way have become a psychic center of the university, populated by club tables and flashmobs, dancers and street prophets, vending and singing, where both bubbles and minds are regularly blown. The same university that once insisted that this expanse of sidewalk could not be a place of political action now cheerfully leads groups of touring prospects past demonstrations in progress, letting them know that the bullhorn is just something else they will have to get used to.

The steps of Sproul are a battleground, but they are also the heart of the UC Berkeley campus. That heart beats every day, bloodily and messily, but it keeps the rhythm of the days and the spirit of the school alive. The spot where Jack Weinberg sat in a police cruiser for three days is the same square of concrete where students realize daily that there is a power in the will of the people that cannot be contained. The revolution goes on, aided by technology and a free press of which the FSM could only dream. The building where terrified freshmen confront the reality of financial aid is the same building where protesters once celebrated Hanukkah when the sun went down for the benefit of the kids who were spending the night on the floor for their right to speak and be heard. These demonstrators were not all radicals; many were insisting on their basic constitutional rights or their personal conscience. This was a movement of average students choosing to align themselves for social or personal reasons, not only of the high-profile leaders whose names became synonymous with it.

The steps where Mario Savio was arrested more than once now bear his name. Beyond Sather Gate, academia rises up as orderly as the ringing of the bells in the Campanile. Beyond the sidewalk at Bancroft, the chaos of Telegraph and the larger world beckon. That middle space, that borderland, is where this fight will always take place and must always be won.

There is an alternate universe where the Free Speech Movement failed. In that universe, The Daily Californian stayed under university control and wrote about the demonstrations as riots that were quelled by a benevolent state government. In that reality, People’s Park is a parking structure, and Occupy Cal never happened. College students all over the country learned to behave at the end of a rifle and learned to think inside the box. The outrage cycle is a little quieter there, and Berkeley is thought of as a placid enclave of intellectuals just a stone’s throw away from that oddity, San Francisco. Fifty years ago, this world could have been ours. What it will be 50 years from now depends on how that stretch of sidewalk between knowledge and experience, between Sather Gate and Bancroft Avenue, is used by the students who can hear this story and see how far we’ve come.

May they use it well.

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