ACLU executive director gives Mario Savio Memorial Lecture on campus

Aslesha Kumar/Staff

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Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, delivered a speech Thursday evening to commemorate late activist Mario Savio and recognize young people for their work in accordance with Savio’s legacy.

In his speech, given at the 19th annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture in the campus’s Pauley Ballroom, Romero — the first Latino and openly gay man to serve as the executive director of the ACLU — discussed how mass incarceration places limits on freedom of speech. The ACLU is a body that defends the rights of incarcerated individuals through legal representation.

The event also recognized the winners of the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture Fund’s Young Activist Award, a distinction given annually to young people who demonstrate a commitment to human rights and a proven history of activism.

The three honorees of the evening included Eli Garcia for her advocacy of undocumented students’ rights, Johnnie Turnage for his role as a voting-rights campaign organizer and Quentin Savage, who mobilized a campaign for racial justice in Kentucky.

Throughout his speech, which was described by Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, as “profoundly moving,” Romero spoke to the experiences of many individuals who had been incarcerated and how these circumstances might affect their voting and free speech rights.

The lecture has been held annually and featured many prominent speakers to honor Savio’s legacy since his death in 1996. Savio led UC Berkeley students during the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s and was regarded by many as a voice of youth activism.

“The establishment of freedom of speech didn’t happen overnight,” Romero said. “It had to happen to individuals who were willing to stand up to demand the rights for lesbian and gay, African American, Latino immigrant workers, (and it) happened because we stood up and made those demands.”

After the event, Turnage — a Detroit native and one of the night’s honorees — said Romero’s speech demonstrated a change in national attitude about mass incarceration.

“It’s exciting to see that the national agenda is moving towards mass incarceration solutions. … Mass incarceration is a form of taking away their freedom of speech,” Turnage said. “We cannot have 2.3 million people locked up in a place with no voting rights.”

Audience members said Romero’s use of personal anecdotes to convey the experiences of the incarcerated was effective in its relation to one of the night’s themes — redemption in criminal justice reform.

“(He related) to the concept of free speech so viscerally,” said Gladys Onyango, a graduate student in the campus development practice program.” It wasn’t a talk about the prison industrial complex — it was about redemption.”

Ultimately, the event’s theme of supporting youth activism was apparent to Rondi Gilbert, a campus lecturer in the department of English who participated in the 1960s Free Speech Movement as a campus sophomore and in the Berkeley High School protest that took place earlier the same day.

“People are involved in social change in a way we never were before,” Gilbert said. “It’s a way of relating to the world.”

Contact Cassandra Vogel at [email protected].