On Being Labeled a Radical… The 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley

 

The Press, Governor of California and UC Administration labeled participants in the Free Speech Movement as a small group of radical revolutionaries bent on destroying law and order. Were we?

I was curious about the background of the students who were arrested during the Sproul Hall sit-in, considering I had almost been one. A sociologist was doing a study on who was involved so I volunteered to take part.

We were given extensive questionnaires, trained and told to hit the streets. I seemed to inherit some of the more elusive, fringe types who always hang around Berkeley. Just finding them was an adventure.

When our data was analyzed, we found that a quarter or so of the participants were relatively hard core in terms of having been actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. Most of the participants resembled me: students and grad students who were somewhat on the idealistic side, angry at the Administration, in sympathy with the Civil Rights Movement, and committed to our right to participate in the political process.

Were there truly radical students on campus who saw the protests as a way to radicalize students and achieve objectives beyond retrieving the basic rights that had been taken away?

Yes. I met some when I decided to help create a Free Student Union. A union made sense to me. The student government, by its very nature, was tied closely to the Administration. A union would go beyond the temporary, nonrepresentational nature of the FSM and give us ongoing power and representation that we lacked as individuals.

I participated in two or three meetings including one I hosted at our apartment. Chaos was good, I quickly learned. Policemen dragging students down stairs and bashing an occasional head was to our advantage. It created solidarity among the ranks and radicalized the student body.

We needed to goad the Administration into further action, the more outrageous the better.

It did not reflect who I was or my goals. After sharing my opinion on what I thought about the chosen strategies, I parted ways with the Free Student Union. Apparently, most students shared my perspective. The union, to my knowledge, did not get off the ground.

The focus shifted temporarily in the spring and maybe this shift reflected a more radical strategy. We had our so-named Filthy Speech Movement. People would get up in the free speech area and see how many obscenities they could mouth in the name of free speech.

From my perspective it was inane and counterproductive, a non-issue designed to infuriate the Administration and garner media coverage.  Rather than serve a positive purpose, it degraded our efforts of the fall and was utilized by the Oakland Tribunes of the world and their allies as justification for their condemnation of the campus.

More typical was a return to what some would define as an accepted activity of college life. I was amused to read a Junior Class party announcement in the “Daily Californian” one Friday.

“Everyone is welcome at our TGIF party, especially the FSM: it will give them a chance to quench their thirst.” Dennis O’Shea, Junior Class Activities Chairman was quoted. “It promises to be the hell raiser of the year – lots of girls, a screaming rock and roll band that frequently plays for the Hell’s Angels, and 150 gallons of liquid refreshments.”

I can imagine that the Administration was praying for a return to the good old days when a ‘hell raiser’ was defined as an ocean of beer and a screaming rock and roll band.

Next Blog: Looking back at the FSM: What did we accomplish?

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