From protest to social media: how student activism has changed

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As a university renowned for its bustling activism, UC Berkeley is facing a particularly relevant year: the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement that catapulted the student body into fervor. With such a reputable anniversary on the horizon, student leaders are looking inward, trying to glean lessons from the university’s vibrant history of student activism.

Berkeley’s campus has been known for its deep interest in protest and for vocalizing student opinion since the 1960s, during which students protested the administration’s controls of on-campus political activities and demanded recognition of the students’ right to free speech and academic freedom.

Since the days of Mario Savio, the occupation of Sproul Hall and the march down Telegraph Avenue, however, few events other than the Occupy protest have led to the kind of student activism that defined the Free Speech Movement.

In the past decade, accusations that UC Berkeley’s students have “had final exams and winter break on their minds, not radical causes,” as CNN wrote in a 2004 article on Berkeley’s liberal legacy, seem to bubble up enough for Berkeley students to start questioning how deeply rooted the school’s politics are in its past.

“We aren’t the Berkeley that we were in the sixties,” said Haley Broder, a current ASUC senator known for her activism in environmental issues. “But, every generation is different — we face different years, different challenges.”

Like Broder, students are recognizing that just because on-campus protests do not happen as often as they once did does not mean students are not still interested in resolving the issues facing them. Since the Occupy protest, UC Berkeley students have most recently reacted to Napolitano’s presidency and the alleged unfair labor practices of the University of California.

New issues have bubbled up, such as the controversial implementation of Operational Excellence, a cost-cutting initiative aiming to streamline campus operations. At the time, students raised their concerns about the initiative’s cost and lack of student involvement by passing bills through student government and protesting for seven hours on a Wheeler Hall ledge.

If anything, student leaders believe activism is still alive — it’s just taking a form different from what many students are used to.

“Student activism isn’t just marching down Sproul with picket signs now — a lot of it is social media and institutional politics,” said Caitlin Quinn, ASUC external affairs vice president. “A lot of us in the ASUC are activists, but people normally don’t view us as activists.”

Quinn explained that running for office or resolving issues within the institutions themselves are practically foreign to an activist of the Free Speech Movement era, because social movements have traditionally been understood as a collective effort by those outside of the political process to have their grievances answered. Visioning yourself in an elected position is now a big part of a more multifaceted reality of student activism, she said.

With her term in office coinciding with the Free Speech Movement’s 50th anniversary, Quinn has made one of her goals while in office this year to nurture and cultivate a more vibrant community of student activism on campus through mentorship, voter registration and mobilization of students.

What Broder and Quinn ultimately hope to express to UC Berkeley students is that activism is not linear — there is no one correct way to be an activist.

If anything, student leaders view the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement as a point of self-reflection for current UC Berkeley students — as a time to consider the school’s traditions and react to the present day.

“A lot of people see the Free Speech Movement as something that happened out of the blue, but that’s not how it worked — so many little things built up to it that they were fed up and protested,” Broder said. “Right now, there’s a lot of microaggressions and microtensions that are building up our energy… students aren’t going to stay silent for long.”

Contact Bo Kovitz at [email protected].