Past, present and absence

Berkeley Got Back

As an intended sociology (and political science) major, I am accustomed to hearing deprecating remarks about my field from peers studying in other, more “legitimate” departments. In fact, I join in on the fun. Teasing myself is one way to cope with crippling anxiety over my future career.

Of course, I am only half-kidding.

Sure, sociology is not as scientific and empirical as biomechanical engineering, but sociologists critically dissect taken-for-granted assumptions embedded in our discourse, such as the definition of presence. Many forget that in the process of defining what is present, we unconsciously acknowledge what is absent. Unfortunately, the latter fails to receive equal attention.

Within the United States, there is a clear absence of people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ+ community and indigenous peoples in Trump’s priority list — the United States’ priority list. Milo Yiannopoulos argues that the “alt-right” has been oppressed by an overly “politically correct” culture on college campuses. Apparently, “liberal snowflakes” are the majority dispossessing the right to free speech of “alt-right supporters.” But the facts fail to add up: Trump’s ascendency to presidency reflects a strong following, a presence, of those who agree with his policies: anti-immigration, anti-Black, anti-Indigenous rights, anti-feminist, anti-welfare, anti-environment, and unfortunately, the hunt to erase their presence continues.

In the fall of 1964, Mario Savio, Jackie Goldberg, Steve Weissman and other leaders of the Free Speech Movement protested campus policy that silenced politically active students fighting for Black people’s presence in public spaces and access to equal employment opportunities. At one point in Berkeley’s history, businesses on Telegraph and Shattuck avenues, the two main commercial strips even to this day, enforced racially discriminatory segregative practices. Students could no longer ignore the reality that local stores in Berkeley, Lucky’s supermarkets, and hotels such as the Sheraton Palace in San Francisco refused to employ African Americans because of the color of their skin.

When students and locals began to organize sit-ins, picketing and “shop-ins,” the federal government pressured UC Berkeley and state officials, such as former UC president Clark Kerr and Governor Pat Brown, to restrain political activism. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted the movement, which he feared to be involved with Communist sympathizers.

Reprisals from UC Berkeley only incited more dauntless resistance from fellow students. Discouragement of civil disobedience only spurred the Free Speech Movement to eventual victory with the very tactics UC Berkeley banned.

When Savio declared, “All of us must refuse to accept history’s final judgment that in America there is no place in society for people whose skins are dark,” he points to the systemically rooted absence of Black people. In fighting for the inclusion of Black people, Cal students also fought for the presence of their voices.

Last week, Savio’s words echoed in my mind as students were filing in, waiting for my sociology professor to start her lecture. She started with a free discussion on whether classes should continue during “Free Speech Week.” For a rare moment, individual student voices were elevated, rather than suppressed, as on campus where police officers, white supremacists and distorted media portrayal disregard their input. Could you believe that in this lecture hall, the presence of students was tangibly strong, when out there we are invisible?

National narratives emphasize the violence of broken windows or destroyed property during protests, but they fail to acknowledge the absence of student services and resources when our education is disrupted by an intimidating military presence. Those who spout hate speech are oblivious to the violence they inflict as a privileged group that does not have to fear doxing, deportation and police brutality.

My job as an aspiring sociologist, political scientist and journalist is to materialize the invisible before your very own eyes. I am not here to waste your time, regurgitating what we already know — what we already see. I choose to voice those who are silent, drowned out by those who are loud, because they will never be able to speak if no one notices their absence first.

To exploit an abstract principle such as free speech to invalidate the existence of people of color, women, LGBTQ+ community and DACA recipients contradicts the core principle of free speech for “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Yes, “Mario Savio is Dead”… and rolling in his grave.

Dohee Kim writes the Friday column on UC Berkeley’s past and present.