Looking into UC Berkeley’s history of activism

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Daily Cal Archives/File

“Agitators on other campuses take their lead from activities which occur at Berkeley,” J. Edgar Hoover, the first-ever director of the FBI, wrote in 1966. In 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos condemned “batshit crazy leftists rioting at UC Berkeley.”

UC Berkeley has a long history of student activism, from the Free Speech Movement to the campaign for divestment from apartheid South Africa. The Free Speech Movement, when students organized for the right to campaign for political causes on campus, is now lauded by the student guides on campus tours. Less mentioned is the period of protest against the Vietnam War.

“We did a lot of peaceful things, and I would read about it in the press the next day, and they would say we had rioted,” said Paul Glusman, who was a freshman at UC Berkeley in 1965 when he marched with the Vietnam Day Committee toward the Oakland Army Base. Police, helped by the Hell’s Angels, blocked the marchers at the edge of Oakland, Glusman said.

Glusman was never a leader of the Vietnam Day Committee — “I would pick up the leaflets at 4 in the morning from whatever print shop and deliver them to where they were going. That kind of grunt work.” This was in part by choice: “I was never that serious.”

“There were late night meetings with wine and cigarettes (until) 2 a.m., and decisions would be made by the people who could stay awake. This was all very interesting to me as an 18 year old.”

– Paul Glusman

Glusman formed a satirical one-person organization, the Concerned Stalinists for Peace. But there were many groups that stood against the war, according to Dan Siegel, who was also a student activist at the time: the Congress on Racial Equality, Friends of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society and the Radical Student Union.

Groups hosted sit-ins and demonstrations. And meetings, Glusman said — endless meetings.

“There were late night meetings with wine and cigarettes (until) 2 a.m., and decisions would be made by the people who could stay awake. This was all very interesting to me as an 18 year old,” Glusman said.

Many events targeted the draft, such as Stop the Draft Week in 1967. Thousands of campus students marched into downtown Oakland in what the BBC called “the biggest demonstration yet against American involvement in the Vietnam War.” Students burned draft cards and obstructed arriving buses of draftees.

Reese Erlich, who participated in Stop the Draft Week, was suspended from UC Berkeley for a year for “unauthorized use of sound equipment in the middle of the night,” he said. “It was 1 or 2 in the morning and I had a bullhorn I was using to organize people for (Stop the Draft Week) and that was deemed a suspendable offense.”

Erlich became one of the Oakland Seven, students and anti-war activists who were indicted on charges for conspiracy for organizing Stop the Draft Week.

Erlich’s opposition to the draft was both personal and ideological. Student deferments were being eliminated, he said, but anti-war protesters also opposed the disproportionate drafting of Black men and the war’s destructive impacts on Vietnam.

Movements for Minorities

Many anti-war demonstrators were also involved in the Third World Liberation Front, an organization that sought to start various departments dedicated to the study of ethnic minorities, such as a department of Black studies. The movement began at San Francisco State University in 1968 and was taken up at UC Berkeley in 1969.

The Third World Liberation Front organized a strike that, in February of 1969, caused former governor Ronald Reagan to declare a “state of extreme emergency” and authorize state police presence on campus. Through an eventual compromise, the strike resulted in the Department of Ethnic Studies.

Linda Burnham, who was and is a Bay Area women’s rights activist, was primarily involved in activist groups for women of color such as Black Sisters United at the time. She worked with both student anti-war activists and members of the Third World Liberation Front.

“There were a lot of young activists coming from different directions, and they overlapped and intersected,” she said. “There was no single-issue activism.”

Anti-war groups worked with the Black Panthers and the Black-lead Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, according to Glusman. But the primary anti-war group of the time, Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, was largely white.

Within SDS, the role of women was also subject to criticism. Jane Brunner, an anti-war activist, recalled women being asked to run the mimeograph machines but barred from leadership.

Ruth Rosen came to Berkeley for graduate school in 1967 and immediately joined the anti-war movement.

“During the civil rights movements and the anti-war movement, we began asking, ‘Why aren’t women in the movement treated as equals?’ We’re asked to get the coffee, but not to write the papers,” Rosen said.

For Rosen, involvement in the developing women’s movement was an awakening. She remembers a meeting of a women’s consciousness-raising group where organizers asked, what would your life have been like if you had been born a boy?

“But it is also true that from very early on, working class women of every race and ethnicity and women of color were active.”

– Ruth Rosen

“I started thinking, why couldn’t I play with my brother’s trains? Why did my father pay for my brother’s college but not mine? My father said a girl doesn’t need a graduate degree but he paid for my brother to go to law school,” Rosen said. “When I left that room on the fourth floor of the student union I thought, ‘My life has been changed.’ ”

Rosen went on to join women’s consciousness-raising groups with other women from the anti-war movement. They held discussions and hosted an International Women’s Day event on Shattuck Avenue. As a graduate student, Rosen taught the first history seminar about women’s history at UC Berkeley.

The Chicana women’s movement was particularly powerful, Rosen said: “This notion that we were all white and middle class was really a lie.”

Burnham, who at the time was involved with the Bay Area group Black Sisters United, said that questions of race, class and sexuality were a source of conflict within the women’s movement from the beginning.

“There was a struggle within the women’s movement about how inclusive it was going to be able to be and how much it was going to be able to extend its understanding and analysis beyond the specific issues that faced white women of the middle class,” Burnham said. “But it is also true that from very early on, working class women of every race and ethnicity and women of color were active.”

The People’s Protests

In spring of 1969, a new conflict arose. The university had bought out and demolished a block of low-cost housing with plans to build a dormitory, but the land stood empty for about a year. The land was muddy. Mosquitos bred there. Berkeley resident Mike Delacour and a few students decided to build a park.

“It started not as ‘let’s do a wonderful thing and make a park,’ but ‘let’s take some university property and cause some trouble,’ ” Brunner said.

Students and community members took over the land, planting grass, flowers and vegetables. And over time, Brunner said, students developed a relationship to what became known as People’s Park.

“It became a community space, a place we all went to after class,” Brunner said. “It became a meeting ground, and I think that’s why the university shut it down.”

First, former chancellor Roger Heyns ordered that “further unauthorized development … be stopped,” according to “California History: the Journal of the California Historical Society.” Park supporters resisted. Heyns called for a fence, to be supervised by police. The conflict came to a head May 15, 1969 — what would come to be called “Bloody Thursday.” Police ejected park supporters from the lot. Student anti-war activists and the student body president-elect Dan Siegel, giving a speech, suggested, “Let’s go down there and take the park” — and the 3,000 students assembled in Sproul Plaza took him at his word, heading to the park before he could finish his speech.

In the encounter between the mob and police, 32 people were injured, one blinded and one killed.

In response, governor Reagan sent 2,700 National Guardsmen into Berkeley to restore order and banned any assembly of more than three people. At one point, a National Guard helicopter was sent over the campus, spraying tear gas.

Rosen, then a graduate student, was riding her bicycle across campus to teach a class when the helicopter passed overhead.

“(The gas) makes you nauseous. People were vomiting all over campus,” Rosen said. “One of my students saw me and dragged me into the bushes (as the helicopter passed). It was a terrible moment.”

Reagan defended the use of force, saying that “whether that was a tactical mistake or not, once the dogs of war are released, you must expect that things will happen.”

“Glusman described going to a rock concert on campus in 1966 that Reagan later described as an ‘orgy’ with people smoking marijuana.”

Students rallied for the park, passing a student referendum with 85 percent in support of the park, and Heyns proposed allowing it to remain a park which Reagan called a “cop-out.” Today, the park is once again a proposed site for student housing.

“History has made the People’s Park fight into some kind of hippy dippy thing or something that was disconnected (from the anti-war movement), and it wasn’t at all,” Seigel said. “The fight over People’s Park was a continuation of fights with the administration that had been going on at least since the early ‘60s.”

This sense of confrontation extended to the gubernatorial level, too.

“Reagan made his name on attacking us,” Glusman said.

Glusman described going to a rock concert on campus in 1966 that Reagan later described as an “orgy” with people smoking marijuana.

“I was 18, 19 years old,” Glusman said. “When he was saying that, my thought was wow, how come I wasn’t having all this fun?”

But the anti-war movement did have a lighter side.

“It was a lot of fun to be in Berkeley in 1968, in the early ‘70s,” Brunner said. “We had passion, we were excited about what we were doing … and we had a good time.”

Glusman told a story about hijacking a meeting of some “Berkeley heavies,” serious student activists who held regular discussions to plan anti-war activities.

“My roommate and I actually came because of the color TV,” Glusman said. “We wanted to watch Star Trek, so we had to somehow sabotage these meetings, which were so self-important.”

They succeeded by bringing a hookah, getting everyone high and then turning on the television. They were never invited back.

Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam continued. In the spring of 1970, Seigel’s term as student body president was ending when U.S. troops invaded Cambodia. Student anti-war protesters were killed by police at Kent State in Ohio and at Jackson State in Mississippi.

“The Berkeley campus exploded,” Siegel said. “We were on strike. There were no classes for the last six weeks of the academic year. … The goal was to end the bombing of Cambodia and more generally to end the Vietnam War.”

About 15,000 students attended rallies during the strike. Erlich, who had returned to campus, was suspended a second time, this time for helping to organize the strike.

“The student strike against Cambodia was by far the most inspiring set of activities that I believe ever took place at Berkeley,” Seigel said. “They dwarfed anything that occurred before or since.”

But the United States did not withdraw from Vietnam until 1973. Did the student anti-war movement have any effect?

“It ingrained in America for a long time that we were not going to get involved in foreign wars stupidly,” Glusman said. “We did affect change, but I think that it got rolled back, ironically because the liberals allowed it to happen.”

Where are they now?

Glusman is now a lawyer. Siegel is an attorney and served on the Oakland School Board. Brunner, an attorney, was a member of Oakland City Council. Erlich became an investigative journalist.

Brunner said she has found that many former activists have gone into “social work, teaching, doing socially useful things in the world. (Activism) drove people into doing that kind of work in their lives.”

Though each is willing to speak about their youthful radicalism, the decision is not an unconsidered one.

Rosen, who was interviewed in the 1990 documentary “Berkeley in the Sixties,” describes taking “a long walk all through the Berkeley hills” while deciding whether to participate in the film.

“I thought, is there anything I’ve done that I will be ashamed of when I am an older person?” she said. “I realized, I’m never going to be embarrassed because I’ve never done anything I was ashamed of. I wasn’t a counterculture person, I was an activist.”

But some former student activists have dramatically changed their views.

“What we did was terrible,” said David Horowitz, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 1962 and worked as editor of San Francisco-based “Ramparts” magazine, which served as the mouthpiece of the anti-war movement and which Erlich also wrote for during the era.

Once, Horowitz was hauled before the administration for giving an anti-nuclear speech in front of Dwinelle Hall without authorization. He marched with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962 to integrate Woolworths. Horowitz left Berkeley in 1962 but returned in 1968 to edit “Ramparts.”

Horowitz recalls standing with Tom Hayden, a fellow activist, during the People’s Park conflict.

“It was really ugly. Tear gas cans were flying. Tom said, ‘What we have to do, David, is lure middle class students into situations where the police will crack their heads, and that will make them radical,’ ” Horowitz said. “I was horrified.”

Horowitz recruited his bookkeeper from “Ramparts” magazine to work for the Black Panthers, and she was later found dead. Horowitz alleged that the Panthers had killed her. He became disillusioned with the anti-war movement as a whole.

“The U.S. withdrew from Vietnam and the communists proceeded to slaughter 2.5 million Indo-Chinese peasants. That’s when I knew I could no longer be a leftist,” Horowitz said. “They were murderers, and the innocent leftists who weren’t murderers would defend them. If you believe that you could create heaven on earth through social justice, what lie would you not tell?”

“I would characterize today’s student left as fascist. … They want to shut down everyone who disagrees with them. In the ‘60s, the left still had some democratic aspirations. I don’t see that today.”

– David Horowitz

Horowitz is now a conservative author. He is 78 and will not travel to campuses without a bodyguard. His organization, the Horowitz Freedom Center, supported Milo Yiannopoulos’ Feb. 2 appearance on campus, according to Breitbart. Horowitz himself will speak at UC Berkeley on April 12.

“I would characterize today’s student left as fascist. … They want to shut down everyone who disagrees with them. In the ‘60s, the left still had some democratic aspirations. I don’t see that today,” Horowitz said. “Berkeley is a national disgrace.”

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Other former student activists spoke more cautiously of the events surrounding Yiannopoulos’ appearance.

“Yiannopoulos may be beyond the pale. Even I, who am almost a free speech radical, cannot advocate letting someone advocate child abuse,” Glusman said. “(But) if people want to get out and advocate for Trump, I think the best thing is to ignore them or to surround them with people who are against Trump. To attack them I think is exactly what they want. … Revolution has to be deeper than a tantrum.”

Rosen, who returned to the campus to teach in 2006, said there was less campus activism at that point than during her time as a student. Students were more concerned about economic insecurity than they were before, she said.

Glusman said the weight of student loans and the movement away from the humanities were also responsible for the changes at UC Berkeley.

“The UC standards are skewed now towards people who are academic and technically driven to succeed and not so much to reflect and to criticize the world as they see it,” Glusman said.

But Brunner and Burnham expressed cautious optimism at the rise of activism in the Trump era.

“There is a new awakening of activism. That’s a really good thing,” Burnham said. “Folks have to learn by doing that it’s a long-term, sustained, decade-by-decade — not just day-by-day — struggle.”

Contact Lillian Holmes at [email protected].