On the Edge of Radicalism… Berkeley’s 1965 Free Speech Movement

A major confrontation erupted on the UC Berkeley Campus in 1965 known worldwide as the Free Speech Movement. At stake was the right of students to be actively involved in the Civil Rights movement and other political issues of the time.

While I was playing in Puerto Vallarta, my nephew, Wayne Cox, posted the video of a Campus Cop using pepper spray on students at UC Davis. The students were involved in a nonviolent protest supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It was a strong indictment of the policeman, a bully using his power of position to intimidate and physically strike out at the protestors.

Those who oppose the Occupy Movement rushed to classify the incident as a random act of a disturbed individual. It was bad PR and the video had gone viral. But the use of violence to counter protest movements has a long history in America, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War and the Boston Massacre.

I was to experience incidents similar to Davis during student protests at UC Berkeley in the mid 60s. I’ve already written a two blogs about the roots of the protest (see below).

I returned to UC in the fall of 1965 excited about my senior year. Two of my former dorm mates, Cliff Marks and Jerry Silverfield, had agreed to share an apartment. Prices were high. Landlords had a captive student population to exploit. We ended up with a small kitchen, bathroom, living room, and one bedroom. Things were so tight in the bedroom that Cliff and I had a bunk bed. I would later wonder why this was superior to dorm life.

Jerry (on the right), Cliff and I in our small apartment.

We christened the apartment by consuming a small barrel of tequila Cliff had brought back from his summer of sharpening Spanish skills in Mexico.

While we were recovering from our well-deserved headaches the next morning, UC’s Administration moved decisively to eliminate off campus political activities from being initiated on campus.

There would be no more organization of Civil Rights demonstrations and no more money collected to support political candidates or causes. Controversial speakers would not be allowed on campus without tight administrative control.

The Bancroft-Telegraph entrance free speech area was out of business, closed down, caput. That incredible babble of voices advocating a multitude of causes would be heard no more.

The Administration’s actions were a testament to the success of the 1960s Civil Rights struggle taking place in the Bay Area. It wasn’t that the activists wanted change; the problem was they were achieving it.

Non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful tool. Base your fight on legitimate moral and political issues; use the sit-in and the picket line to make your point. When the police come, don’t fight back; go limp. If they beat you over the head, you win. Sing songs of peace and justice; put a flower in the barrel of the weapon facing you.

It is incredibly hard to fight against these tactics. People tend to get upset when they see nonviolent protestors being beaten with nightsticks in national and international media. It gives power to the powerless.

Major businesses being targeted for their discriminatory practices in the Bay Area, the Sheraton Hotel, United Airlines and Safeway, blinked. Each would alter their practices.

One business that didn’t back down was the Oakland Tribune, owned by William Knowland, a conservative Republican, former Senator from California and leader of California’s Republican Party.

As the protests in the surrounding community became more successful, the power structure being attacked struck back. Calls were made to the Regents, the President of the University system and the Chancellor at Berkeley. ‘Control your students or else’ was the ominous message.

The Regents, President and Chancellor bowed to the pressure.

Some members of the Regents and Administration undoubtedly agreed with the businesses being challenged and saw the protesters as part of an anarchic left-wing plot. Others may have believed that the students’ effectiveness would bring the powers that be down on the university. Academic freedom could be lost. Some likely felt that the activities were disruptive to the education process and out-of-place on a college campus.

One thing was immediately clear; the Administration woefully underestimated the reaction of the leaders of the various organizations and large segments of the Campus population to its dictum. Possibly the administrators believed they were dealing with a small, unpopular minority, or maybe they just needed to believe: the outside pressure was so great it didn’t matter what the students believed or how they reacted.

Next blog: I become involved in ‘civil disobedience.’

Proud to be a UC Berkeley student, I display my sweatshirt.

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