Free speech vets on the fine art of the protest.
“The days of apathy are over, folks,” says Cal public policy professor Robert Reich, addressing the crowd gathered on campus on a chilly morning last November. “Once this has begun, it cannot be stopped and will not be stopped.”
Thousands of people cluster around the Sproul Hall steps as Reich, a veteran of three presidential administrations—most notably, he served as secretary of labor under President Clinton—delivers the annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture in honor of the Cal student who launched the free speech movement in 1964. The crowd includes not just Berkeley students but hundreds of other East Bay residents. Together, they are part of the Occupy movement, a loose coalition of grassroots protesters who, since the launch of Occupy Wall Street last September, have been demonstrating across the country—and around the world—against economic and social inequality.
Reich’s speech explicitly links the protest movements of the ’60s with the Occupy movement—and pays homage to Savio, whose ideas he calls “as relevant if not more relevant today than they were then.”
Savio’s defiance of a university ban on student political activities helped cement Berkeley and the Bay Area in popular memory as ground zero for protest movements. So it hardly seems surprising that Occupy encampments found ready support in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco. But those who remember the epic local protests of nearly 50 years ago highlight key differences between today’s demonstrations and those of that earlier era—as well as crucial connections.
“In the ’60s, we were protesting against the establishment,” says Diane Reiner, a member of Occupy Oakland who remembers demonstrating against U.C. Berkeley control of People’s Park in the early 1970s. “Back then, we used to say ‘Never trust anyone over 30!’ Now I’m 59 and I see that this movement is multi-generational. Now it’s very different because we’re protesting against the very richest of the rich.”
“I see many parallels between the Occupy Movement and what we were doing back then,” says Mikaya Heart, 59, an Occupy Oakland participant. An environmental and feminist activist from the ’60s through the ’80s in England, where she lived in a commune, Heart is now a North Bay writer and life coach. “It feels as though there has been a hiatus of 30 years or so, and now that energy is picking up and taking off again,” she says. “The ideas we stood up for back then have really come into their time now. It’s not that everything is perfect with the Occupy movement, but it is a very powerful example of individuals standing up to be counted and refusing to be cowed.”
Inspired by the sweeping revolutionary protests of the so-called Arab Spring last year, the Canadian activist group Adbusters (which publishes an anti-consumer magazine of the same name) launched the iconic Occupy Wall Street protest against fat-cat greed and governmental concessions to corporations. The ongoing camp-out in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park set the template. Months later, the modus operandi of the Occupy movement remains the same: In every city, protesters establish a highly visible, long-term encampment, close to the city’s chief financial institutions. (Other varieties of civil disobedience and protest, such as marches, strikes, and the occupation of financial and government buildings, have also occurred.)
The main source of U.S. protesters’ discontent: the government’s response to the subprime meltdown over the past several years and the resulting economic crisis that hit Americans across the board. Retirees have lost their savings. Workers of all ages have lost jobs and homes. Recent college grads, drowning in student loan debt, struggle to find work. And American corporations are reluctant to hire American employees, instead shipping jobs overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor.
For some, getting involved with the Occupy movement has been their first taste of citizen activism, the first time a social issue has moved them to action. Margaret Rague, a 1975 U.C. Berkeley graduate and a principal organizer for Occupy Darien (Connecticut), can sympathize. She remembers her first protest—an anti-Vietnam rally in 1968, when she was 17—as a profoundly life-changing experience. A police officer dragged her across a permit line to justify an illegal arrest, she says, and ever since, she’s felt “outraged in the face of injustice.”
“It was an absolute eye-opener,” says Rague. “I had been raised to believe that the United States was the perfect preserver of democracy, and this made me realize that my country was not what I had thought it was. I see the same thing is happening with Occupy. A lot of people are having eye-opening experiences, realizing the very real problems we have in America.”
But although the reasons for the protests aren’t difficult to identify, proposed solutions seem to be. From the beginning, critics complained that protesters in New York City and elsewhere lacked clear goals—a charge that the deliberately leaderless movement seems to have done little to address in the ensuing months. But Jo Freeman, 67, an activist and feminist scholar who participated in many protests as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, isn’t disturbed by the so-far unarticulated agenda.
“The two movements I was a part of when I was a student at Berkeley—the Bay Area civil rights movement and the free speech movement—were prompted by specific grievances, which made it easy to formulate a set of narrow demands,” says Freeman, author of a 2003 memoir titled At Berkeley in the Sixties. “Occupy emerged in response to a general malaise, making it more analogous to the women’s liberation movement—which also emerged as a feeling that something was wrong. It took a while for that sense to evolve into a list of specific changes that needed to be made.”
Though Berkeley is associated with political protest in the popular mind, its neighbor Oakland has its own storied history of protest—a 1946 general strike to protest union busting remains one of the nation’s largest strikes ever. And for a time, the Occupy Oakland movement featured one of the most nationally visible—and controversial—of the 2,000-plus Occupy encampments worldwide. Protesters clashed with police several times over attempts to clear the Occupy camp at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza; in one confrontation, police allegedly fractured the skull of an Iraq War veteran protester, an incident that incited the wrath of Occupy sympathizers across the country.
Last November, taking a page out of history, Occupy Oakland staged the first general strike in the United States since 1946, with thousands of protesters forcing the busy Port of Oakland to shut down for the day. In December, the Oakland group almost repeated the feat—one link in a broad-based Occupy action that aimed to shut down all West Coast ports (the effort succeeded in Portland and Longview, Wash.).
But after a heady fall of protest fervor, most of the large urban Occupy encampments nationwide—including those in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco—have been closed down by city governments. However, at least some—including the one in Washington, D.C.—remain open as of this writing.
Now what? Those who take the broad view, like Freeman, perceive that the movement may just be getting started. Freeman draws a parallel with how the women’s movement first strove to simply educate the general population and convey that many traditional attitudes about women were wrong. In the same way, she says, the Occupy movement’s initial goal was just to raise consciousness about economic inequality.
“The next challenge is to translate raised consciousness into changes that need to be made and programs and policies to achieve those changes,” Freeman says.
In a televised discussion in 2008 with Rev. Alan Jones of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, U.C. Berkeley assistant history professor Kathleen Frydl compared the zeitgeist of our current decade to that of the 1960s, with particular emphasis on the parallels between the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, both “discretionary wars that are not of great national security import.” But many old-time activists feel that the influence of the war in Iraq on the current wave of protests has been overstated. The same might be said of the similarities between past and present.
A crucial element of the Occupy movement, as well as a potential source of strength, is that, unlike the anti-war protests of the ’60s, it spans generations. (An October survey of Occupy Wall Street protesters by the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York found that only 10 percent were full-time students; 47 percent were employed full-time.)
Activist movements comprised mostly of young people made sense in the ’60s: The free speech movement at first directly affected only Cal students. More strikingly, protests against U.S. involvement in Vietnam initially involved mostly young men of draft age. Many older Americans didn’t express opposition to the war until later, when the human toll became apparent.
“We ’60s radicals were not nearly as inclusive,” says Alicia Bay Laurel, now 62, who was 16 when she participated in San Francisco’s 1967 Spring Mobilization against the war. “White blue-collar workers despised us, and we had little sympathy for them. The economy was booming, and their jobs were secure. We were against the war, and did not appreciate those who volunteered to fight in it. Occupy, by contrast, comes at a time when the economy is dire, the wars endless, and the wealth disparity vast.”
Walter Brasch, 66, says that the issues that grip activists today are different than they were in his youth—but the passion is still there. “In the ’60s, people had very personal reasons for protesting,” says Brasch, who became involved in the free speech movement as an undergrad, first at U.C. Berkeley and then at U.C. San Diego.
Now a Pennsylvania journalist, Brasch is the author of a fictionalized memoir, Before the First Snow, that recounts (among other things) his days as a student radical.
“The youth movement was central because of the draft,” Brash says. “Today the anti-war movement is not as strong because the war doesn’t affect us as much because of the lack of a draft. Occupy happened because of economic reasons—stocks are plummeting, savings are down, our houses are being taken away. It [too] became a personal movement.”
The confrontation often associated with the start of the free speech movement happened on Oct. 1, 1964, when police arrested recent graduate Jack Weinberg for distributing civil rights fliers at the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft; the university had banned political speech on campus just a few weeks earlier. Three thousand students rushed to Weinberg’s aid, surrounding and immobilizing the police car for almost two days.
Bettina Aptheker, now 67 and a professor of women’s studies at U.C. Santa Cruz, was a leader of Cal’s free speech movement. She remembers well the vibe of the day: the tense enthusiasm, the grim determination not to back down, the fear when police arrived with clubs to clear protesters out of the plaza.
“There was a committee of students to make sandwiches and bring things to the demonstrators,” writes Aptheker in a 1965 essay published in a pamphlet by the W.E.B. DuBois Clubs of America. “We contacted friends on other campuses, particularly within the state, and asked them to hold sympathy demonstrations, raise money, give whatever support they could.
“Can we ever forget the blazing sunset over the Bay, visible from the Sproul Hall steps, the passionate cheers when it was announced that demonstrations were being called at UCLA and Stanford, the inexpressible joy when adults in the community gave us money and food?”
In the days following the police car incident, university officials threatened to expel the movement’s student leaders. In response, 1,500 students took over Sproul Hall on Dec. 2 and Savio delivered the famous speech to which Reich referred in his November address. Sit-ins were a common tactic of the civil rights movement in the South, but were not yet standard repertoire among student protesters.
Ultimately, police arrested 800 of the participating students—including Aptheker. Negative publicity from the mass arrest—the largest in California history—convinced the university regents to relax restrictions on student speech. “The free speech controversy set the tone for an entire college generation’s confrontation with authority,” writes University of Michigan sociology professor Max Heirich in The Beginning: Berkeley, 1964.
The success of the students’ tactics made Berkeley’s reputation as a center of student activism. In 1965, the campus again drew national attention, this time as a focal point of the anti-war movement, when 40 U.C. Berkeley students burned their draft cards in front of the city’s conscription office. In 1967, 60,000 young people—many of them students from Cal—attended the Spring Mobilization for Peace in San Francisco, the largest anti-war protest until that point.
One of those attendees was then-teenage Laurel, who arrived at the San Francisco bus terminal from Los Angeles with no idea where she would sleep. Luckily, she ran into friends, who invited her to bunk at the home of Esther Silverstein Blanc, an activist nurse who had served in World War II and the Spanish Civil War. Blanc felt that she was too old to participate, instead giving her blessing to Laurel and her friends to march in her stead.
The protesters marched from San Francisco’s financial district to Kezar Stadium near Golden Gate Park, where folk singer Judy Collins performed. Laurel recalls being nervous when she saw uniformed police officers lining the route, but found herself grateful for their presence when a group she calls “neo-Nazis” tried to disrupt the march and the police stepped in to protect the marchers.
“Sharing this profound experience linked us like blood relatives,” says Laurel, now an artist living in Phoenix. “My friends from this group support Occupy, and, as Esther said to me in 1965, they march for us, since most of us are now senior citizens, unwilling to face police in riot gear.”
Some tactics of the Occupy movement mirror those used in the ’60s, including marches and protests, says Reiner, the Occupy Oakland member. But one of the essential strategies—quietly but visibly occupying a space, indefinitely—was not common several decades ago. Even short sit-ins were such a novelty that they received media coverage. Today, of course, it takes more to draw attention to an issue. In one notable longer occupation in 1969, Native American “Red Power” activists swarmed the Island of Alcatraz for 19 months to pressure the U.S. government to fulfill treaty obligations with Native American tribes. The protest helped spur passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act and other reforms.
But in the ’60s, many young people were after something more than political change. Looking for something ineffable, they often sought mystical ways to expand their horizons—hence, the flowering of interest in alternative religions and mind-altering drugs.
“That’s one really apparent difference,” Reiner says. “I see that today’s young protesters are very focused on the outside world and far-reaching change. Although people in the ’60s and ’70s wanted to change the world, there was also a large faction in that movement that was devoted primarily to inner spiritual change. That exists in the current Occupy movement, but I see a certain seriousness of purpose and focus on the political issues.”
Sixties psychedelia gave rise to some of the most iconic figures of the decade, like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, whose wacky shenanigans helped embed revolutionary ideas in the general cultural mind-set. The era spawned the drug-fueled gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, the raunchy political stand-up acts of Paul Krassner, the scathing satirical writing of Mark Rudd, and much more of the same ilk.
Today, Before the First Snow author Walter Brasch worries that the Occupy movement may fail to connect with the broader population because young Occupiers think that to be effective, a protest must be deadly serious.
“The music of the ’60s helped spread the message and people were singing, enjoying being with each other, knowing they were united,” Brasch says. “Protesters, even against major odds, need to experience joy, the ability to laugh and mock the accusers, to make a movement not just important but fun. Until the Occupy movement can harness all forms of protest, they won’t get the message to the people.”
Others, however, read the tone of the current movement differently. “Occupy almost is like a mini-Woodstock,” says Phoebe Sorgen, an Occupy Berkeley organizer. “It’s all about the same problems and you get the same sense of euphoria. It’s just that the music isn’t as good.”
Regardless of where the Occupiers register on the fun-o-meter, though, history seems to suggest that activist high jinks do more than lift sagging spirits. “After all, nobody thought the anti-war protesters of the ’60s could really levitate the Pentagon,” says Brasch, referring to a 1967 media stunt involving prominent radical Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party (Yippies) and famed Chicago Seven defendant, who staged an exorcism of the Pentagon as part of a 70,000-person anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. The tongue-in-cheek event created a media firestorm, drawing new attention to the anti-war cause.
“Make it fun. Make it interesting,” says Brasch, who praises Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart as modern satirists who lampoon establishment insiders. In the same snide vein, Josh Brown, author of “The Reformed Broker” finance blog, has floated the possibility of an “Occupy Wall Street!” musical.
Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi has covered the financial meltdown and subsequent Occupy protests with a stinging wit that rivals that of Hunter S. Thompson. His evocative description of too-big-to-fail bank Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” inspired Occupy protesters in New York to build a giant foam-rubber squid to carry in demonstrations. Closer to home, Sorgen of Occupy Berkeley points to the Occupella Singers, an informal group that has sung ’60s protest songs at Occupy demonstrations in Albany.
To activist Aptheker, watching Occupy protesters in Berkeley last November felt like déjà vu. “I was incredibly impressed by these students and their commitment to nonviolence,” she says. “That was the main parallel that I saw between Occupy Berkeley and the free speech and civil rights movements of the ’60s. They were all absolutely committed to nonviolence.”
In the days following Reich’s speech, after police cleared campers and protesters out of the Plaza (including 70-year-old former poet laureate Robert Hass and his wife, the poet Brenda Hillman, who were beaten by deputy sheriffs), many young people returned to decorate the steps with small art projects, silent testimonies to commemorate the event. Someone left a tiny origami tent with “OCCUPY” emblazoned across its side. A makeshift recycling bin cobbled together from cardboard scraps urged students to “Recycle the Regents.”
But what was most striking to Aptheker was the impromptu shrine to Mario Savio, collections of daisies, candles, seashells, and small icons arranged on the circular plaque at the Plaza’s center commemorating the free speech movement. For 47 years, generations of students have passed this plaque every day on their way to class. Many probably never even give it a second thought.
But, says Aptheker, “the young people involved in this [Occupy] protest are very aware of the free speech movement and the legacy and rights they enjoy because of it. It visually
demonstrated the historical continuity, [which] particularly arose when police used unnecessary violence,” she says.
“Every generation informs their own movements, they have their own issues and ideas. But these students understood and invoked the legacy of the free speech movement.”
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly.