Thursday, November 20, 2014

... when the operation of the machine makes you so sick at heart ...

This fall is the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, a student uprising that took place in two phases in Berkeley during the fall of 1964.  The first phase was the sit-in around the police car, which occurred in October.  The second phase was the much larger sit-in in Sproul Hall, the administration building, where students put their bodies on the gears and levers of the apparatus, to borrow words from the speech Mario Savio gave on the steps of Sproul Hall on December 2, 1964. Curiously, the university that prosecuted the protestors in 1964 now plays up those events in fundraising efforts. 

I remember the brilliant speeches of Bettina Aptheker, now a professor at UC Santa Cruz, and Michael Rossman, who later wrote Wedding Within the War, and others.  But since it is Mario Savio who remains the symbol of that revolt, I will say what little I can about him. 

As everyone at Berkeley then did, and as is well documented by thousands of photographs, I saw Mario Savio atop the police car in those early days of October during the first phase of the revolt. I was a freshman at Berkeley and initially opposed to the protests. I had grown up in rural towns and was thankful for just having been admitted to the University of California, impressed with the history of the institution, my professors, particularly the scientists, the Nobel Prize winners, and happy to breathe the ether of the place, a mixture of the then still clean air of the Berkeley Hills which in the evenings and mornings mixed with the fog that floated up from San Francisco Bay.

My sympathies started to change when I went home for a weekend to Clovis, California, and heard high school friends and my parents refer to the “FSMers” as communist spies, traitors, freeloaders, outside agitators—none of it true.  I began to listen.

I will not claim to have known Mario Savio, but I did talk to him once.  (Rather like the old soldier in Lawrence of Arabia who remembered shaking the colonel’s hand, a moment of no significance to an object of veneration has become a treasured nugget in memory.)  It was September 1964, before the protests began.  He was beside Sather Gate next to a handmade sign, talking about the American South, the efforts to get people the right to vote.  There were only two or three others listening to him. He was still a rebel looking for a cause.  It would come soon enough.

I asked him a question, I have forgotten what, but I remember the fire in his eyes as he looked at me, almost through me, and answered. 

Barely a week later Jack Weinberg was arrested in Sproul Plaza and put in the police car and Savio climbed onto the car, a simple movement only a young man could accomplish with such ease, a gesture that started a small revolution, yet a revolution that for many of us never really ended. The rest is a history that others know and have told better than I can, how he became Berkeley’s saint in the civil rights pantheon of the 1960s, followed by that strange silence that seemed to hide him, to keep his very existence a mystery for decades, until I opened The New York Times in a subway one morning in November 1996 and saw the announcement of his death.  

He was not one to commercialize the courage of his protest, his status in the American history of civil disobedience, not like Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman. Or so it seemed to me. I realize that blemishes are not visible on saints when seen from the distance at which I stood. Reading Abraham Heschel’s The Prophets some years ago, a passage reminded me of the day I spoke to him beside Sather Gate:

“The prophet is a man who feels fiercely.  God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed.  Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man.  God is raging in the prophet’s words.”

It is not a perfect description of the FSM leader because of the emphasis on God, but there was that anger, fist pounding the air as he spoke against racism, greed, suppression, the abuses of government and the wrongs of the world, a voice that seemed to come from some deep connection to the pain wrought by the injustices he could not ignore, could not keep silent about. 

Such protests as I had the courage to make were later, during the Vietnam War, but those things would not have happened had my world not begun to change at Berkeley in the fall of 1964.    

About the pictures

The first picture above shows Savio and leaders of the Free Speech Movement walking through Sather Gate.  The student union is in the background.  That picture is scanned in from The Trouble in Berkeley by Steven Warshaw (Diablo Press 1965).  The second picture, taken by Mike Friedman with a box camera, shows students listening to a speaker on the police car in early October 1964, which would be to the right beyond the frame. I believe that I am the individual wearing glasses and a sweater shoved up to the elbows, left leg behind the coffee cup on the table in the foreground.  The photo is posted on the website of fsm-a-org. Thanks to Mike for sending me the scan used here.  

Several people have remarked that the clothes I am wearing in the second picture do not look like anything they thought I would own, that by the time they knew me I was usually seen in tattered jeans, a work shirt, and an Army jacket I bought at a war surplus store in Oakland.  That is true, but it must be remembered that the picture was taken barely a month after I left Clovis and the clothes I am wearing were the sort that my mother picked out for me. To show how bad it got (or good, depending on your politics), I include a picture taken some years later. I am against the outer wall of the Bank of America office on Telegraph Avenue. In the background, a Berkeley sanitation worker is emptying trash from a mounted receptacle. Butch Lee, the photographer, saw the trash collection as some kind of joke. My hair hasn't been that long for about 40 years. After law school, I had, in the words of Lenny Bruce, to grow up and sell out.