Every day, as the Campanile tolls its morning bells, I make my way to the Free Speech Movement Café. Right outside the doors, I stand and read the international newspapers that line two sides of the walkway. Headlines from Latin America all the way through to Asia loom. New headway in a construction program has been made, someone’s running for reelection, a major crime has been committed, a breakthrough in research has occurred, trade talks, policy — they speed by, filling my head.
In my previous op-ed, “In a world of speech,” I discussed the importance of free speech and the freedom of information. When widely shared information is fact-checked and true, it can flow more freely, and we are better off. In short, opinions of a diverse variety are important for accountability and progress. The Free Speech Movement Café, which is dedicated to Mario Savio, exhibits this proudly.
The café attempts to follow through with its association with a progressive time through the owner Daryl Ross, as he tries to get the food to match the vision of the movement. With this vision in mind, Ross goes for locally sourced food that is also sustainable. After all, Ross exclaimed in an interview, “‘It should be progressive, it’s the Free Speech Movement Café.’”
And with the discussion of free speech at UC Berkeley, it is almost impossible to avoid talking about the namesake of the café: Savio was a key figure in starting the counterculture protest movements in the midst of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. UC Berkeley, at the time, had prohibited protests and any such acts of civil disobedience. Going to UC Berkeley, of course, students protested this. When one student, Jack Weinberg, was arrested, Savio took the lead of an impromptu sit-in that lasted for more than 30 hours. While the Free Speech Movement merged with the anti-war movement, Savio emerged as a prominent student activist who would help alter the course of free speech not only at UC Berkeley but throughout the nation.
And this brings us to the issue of today. Recently, the ASUC Senate saw a motion to condemn Bears for Palestine for its cubicle in Eshleman Hall that depicts photos of Palestinian activists, as some of these activists have alleged ties to terrorist groups. The meeting, which occurred Feb. 3, drew more than 200 participants, speaking for both sides. As polarizing rhetoric grew back and forth, tension did as well.
While no formal conclusion was made, this conflict does show how certain changes can be created with enough conviction and support. Amid the many issues that campus faces, this issue is another one that students actively take sides on. Furthermore, the fact that so many people showed up to the meeting to talk in a civil manner demonstrates that the spirit of free speech at UC Berkeley has not died.
More importantly, many of the decisions made here at UC Berkeley by active and charged students continue to have ramifications beyond the local area. One other prominent example was in 1984 when UC Berkeley had a direct impact on apartheid. With thousands of students, activists and celebrities, protests took place against UC Berkeley’s involvement with corporations and organizations that were entrenched in apartheid. This eventually kicked off a slow and steady incremental change in policy by the UC Board of Regents. In 1990, even Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison stopped at UC Berkeley to thank protesters for their support in the anti-apartheid movement.
Throughout the storied history of the campus and its students, Golden Bears have always been a symbol of progressiveness. Doing many things that students at other schools wouldn’t, UC Berkeley students have led the charge in social, political and ideological change time and time again. So, I have to ask all of my fellow Bears: Why have we become the activists that we are today?
I think our spirit is rooted in our liberal institution, situated in one of the most forward-thinking parts of the country, if not the world. We all continuously work on challenging modern-day institutions. I think we have all realized that there is no point in attempting anything if we don’t challenge ourselves.
Like real bears, we claw at what we disagree with. As a result, we end up pitted against each other as frequently as we are against others. Of course, it is not easy to see who is “right” or “wrong,” but what we have to recognize is that our most successful movements have been well researched and supported. Yes, there is always opposition, and we as activists must acknowledge and respect it. It is hard to understand what is right or wrong, but to enact true change, we cannot remain passive or become bystanders to history.
Atharva Palande is a freshman at UC Berkeley, majoring in economics.