A legacy of political art on campus

Everett Collection/Courtesy

A seed was planted in front of Sproul Hall on November 9 by a few students and their ill-placed tents.  That seed has sprouted.  Spring has come early.  The roots of the Occupy Cal movement grow in the ripples of the Internet, in the rhetoric of the classroom, in the hallowed hall where the Academic Senate meets.  This movement operates on many fronts, and free speech is certainly one.

During the Free Speech Movement artists emerged as magnets in a movement, pulling people together from opposing poles, articulating the ideals behind which they could unite. In 1964, folk singer Joan Baez, swarmed by students in Sproul Plaza, sang a slow ballad, “I’ve got a little book with pages three / And every page spells liberty.” In 2011, spoken word poet Josh Healey, also swarmed by students in Sproul Plaza, sang a similar ballad, “This is not our first occupation: Flint, sit-down strikers in ’36, Alcatraz, American Indian Movement in ’69, Sproul Plaza, Free Speech Movement in ’64 and every semester since then that was worth a damn and reminded Berkeley what it means to be called Berkeley.”

Through his poetry, Healey invoked that legacy of protest that has become synonymous with Berkeley. It is one composed of marches, rallies, chants, open microphones, consensus based assemblies, sit-ins, linked arms and arrests.  If protests have remained consistent throughout the years, then so has the administration’s response. It begins with the mass mobilization of multiple police forces and the authorization to use tear gas, riot gear and batons. There is an adamant refusal to have dialogue with students. Meetings are held in secrecy behind closed doors. No explanation is ever given.

About 50 years ago, University of California President Clark Kerr made the attitude of the administration very clear when he said, “One of the most distressing tasks of a university president is to pretend that the protest and outrage of each new generation of undergraduates is really fresh and meaningful.” In one fell swoop, Kerr condemned the whole act of protest as stale, insignificant clamor. He lumped together all student movements and then slashed at them with this tongue. He snatched away their validity.  In 1964, the administration of this University employed the same tactics of force that are being employed now. Chancellor Birgeneau may be another Clark Kerr — a man who has simply recreated the same blatant disregard for free speech that existed at the time of the Free Speech Movement.

The Free Speech Movement has often hovered over the university, occupied the minds of the students and slowly seeped into the administration’s stockpile of marketing tools. It is very easy to be enveloped by this cloud, especially in the Free Speech Movement Cafe. Laden with photographs, quotes and history, it is a temple, ordained as a place of worship, using art to conjure faith in the university as an institution. The Free Speech Movement had once posed a threat to the powers of authority on this campus, but now it has been reduced to some sound bites, a few well circulated photographs and an assortment of pastries. The photographs themselves have been marketed to the point of cliche.  The art has been wrung out of them so thoroughly, that they are now empty tools of propaganda hung out to dry.

Here hides the danger of equating the Occupy Cal movement to the Free Speech Movement. The Free Speech Movement has been put through a commodifying machine and spit back out in the form of a packaged product meant to cater to the university’s needs.  Comparing the Occupy Cal movement to that is akin to cementing its enslavement  as well as the enslavement of its artists.  Artists who were at first instruments for social change, now, are merely instruments. They are stuffed into a box, tied with a bow and sold to tourists and prospective students along with the rest of higher education.