What would Mario Savio say about the Occupy movement?

Nicole Lim/Staff

“There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop, and you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

Those words from my father’s most famous speech ring in my ears as I watch Occupy unfold. Now is clearly such a time and there are many, many people – perhaps not 99 percent of the country, but more, to be sure, than the many thousands who are actually camping and marching – who are feeling a sense of relief and hope that someone has finally stepped forward to say, “We’ve had enough.”

Critics of the Occupy movement have tried to dismiss the protesters as unserious because they haven’t yet articulated a detailed reformist political agenda. It’s impossible for me to say how my dad would have reacted to this. On one hand, he took action, when he did, out of a relatively straightforward moral imperative. “The one moral principle that I took from my (religious) education was this: Resist evil,” he said in 1994. Surely he’d applaud Occupy for doing just that. On the other hand, I can imagine him now, were he still with us, working to help the Occupiers articulate a persuasive agenda from their righteous nonconsent.

What sort of movement would Mario help build? Well, that’s the hard part. What I’m struck by in looking at a few of his speeches is that he wasn’t at all extreme in his advocacy. Here’s what he told an audience on the Berkeley campus in 1984: “America, to accommodate the just demands of the new majority, has to become at least a little bit less capitalist.” He went on to advocate a fairly modest shift away from pure maximization of profit and towards basic social benefits like universal health care. (A similar sentiment was nicely expressed in a Wall Street protester’s sign: “Replace capitalism with something nicer.”) Mario then added, and I think this is incredibly relevant: “Becoming less capitalistic means we don’t have to become less democratic; we can become more democratic!”

Indeed, for all the talk of tactics and strategy, perhaps the most salient aspect of this movement has been the conspicuous display of in-this-togetherness across a relatively wide swath of the country’s demographics. My dad had a faith (though it could be shaken) that a more just world is possible and that such a change can only come about through people working together and caring for one another. He was never a Marxist, but he loved the iconic statement: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” What I have found most moving and most hopeful in the Occupy movement is the embodiment of this sentiment in images and stories of simple communal living and spontaneous caretaking. I believe my father would have been deeply moved simply to see a broad spectrum of people coming together, laying their bodies on the gears and helping each other face an unjust, inhumane machine.

Nadav Savio is the son of Mario Savio, the iconic leader of the Free Speech Movement.