Occupy Sproul Hall… The 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley

 

The release of the hostage Police Car did not bring peace to the UC Berkeley Campus. Each time a solution seemed imminent, the Administration would renege or the FSM would increase its demands.

In addition to the right to organize on campus, the disciplining leaders of the Free Speech Movement became a central issue.

Demonstrations took place almost daily and were blasted in the press. I learned a great deal about media sensationalism and biased reporting.

One day I would sit in on a democratic and spirited discussion of the pros and cons of a specific action and the next day I would read in the Oakland Tribune or San Francisco Examiner that I had participated in a major insurrection of left leaning radicals who were challenging the very basis of law and order. (It was documented later that the FBI was paying a reporter to write the Examiner stories.)

Older adults in suits taking photos looked suspiciously like plain-clothes policemen or FBI agents. It was easy to become paranoid.

If we signed a petition, demonstrated, made a speech or just stood by listening, would our pictures and names end up in some mysterious Washington file that proclaimed our disloyalty to the nation? These weren’t idle thoughts. A few years earlier people’s careers had been ended and live ruined because someone had implied they were soft on communism.

J. Edgar Hoover was known for tracking Civil Rights’ leaders and maintaining extensive files on every aspect of their lives. While we weren’t up against the KGB, caution was advisable. Hoover considered Berkeley a hotbed of Communism.

We looked warily at those who didn’t look like us. One day a small dog was making his way around the edge of the daily demonstration, sniffing people.

“See that Chihuahua,” a friend whispered in my ear. I nodded yes. “It’s a police dog in disguise. Any moment it is going to unzip its front and a German Shepherd will pop out.”

The wolf in sheep’s clothing was among us. It was a light moment to counter a serious time. And we were very serious. I sometimes wondered when the celebrated fun of being a college student would kick in.

One day I was faced with a test more serious than any I had ever faced in the classroom. On December 2, 1964, FSM leaders called for a massive sit in at Sproul Hall, Berkeley’s administration building. Once again communication had broken down and the Administration was back peddling, caught between students and faculty on one side and increasing pressure from the outside on the other.

I thought about the implications of the sit-it and decided to join. I needed to act. For three months I had listened to pros and cons and watched the press blatantly misrepresent what was happening on campus. I was angry, knowing that the public had little option but to believe that a small group of radicals was preaching anarchy.

It was not wrong to utilize an edge of campus for discussing the issues of the day, or for organizations to raise funds for supporting various causes, or even to recruit students for participating in efforts to change the community.

It didn’t disrupt my education. I was free to stop and listen, to join in, or pass on. What it did do was irritate powerful, established members of the community. And for that reason, our freedoms had been curtailed.

Maybe if enough students joined together, the Administration would listen and the press would dig deeper. I told my fiancé I was going inside and then joined the thousand or so students who had made similar decisions.

It was early in the afternoon and we were in high spirits. I believed it would be hard for the Administration to claim 1000 students were a small group of rabble-rousers bent on destroying the system. And I was right. It claimed we were a large group of rabble-rousers bent on destroying the system.

Inside I was treated to a unique experience. The sit-in was well organized. Mario Savio and other FSM leaders gave us directions on what to do if the police arrived. There were clear instructions that we were not to block doorways. The normal business of the University was not to be impeded and we were not to be destructive in any way.

Floors were organized for different purposes. The basement was set aside as the Free University where graduate students were teaching a variety of classes. These included normal topics such as physics and biology and more exotic subjects such as the nature of God. One floor was set aside as a study hall and was kept quiet. Another featured entertainment – including old Laurel and Hardy films, which seemed particularly appropriate.

After administrators left, a desk in the dean’s office became a podium for speech making. I felt compelled to add my dimes worth. Each speaker took off his or her shoes so the top of the desk would not be damaged.

The real treat though was an impromptu concert by Joan Baez. I joined a small group sitting around her in the hallway and sang protest songs. The hit of the night was “We Shall Overcome.” It provided us with a sense of identification with struggles taking place in the South. I felt like I belonged and was part of something much larger than myself.

Mainly I walked around and listened, taking extensive notes on what I saw and felt. Later I would sit in the Café Med on Telegraph Avenue and write them up. They would become the basis of talks I would give back home over the Christmas break. I also turned them over to Father Baskin, an Episcopal minister who wanted to use them for a sermon at his church in Placerville.

Along about midnight the un-radical part of my nature took over. I started thinking about my comfortable bed back in the apartment. The marble floors of Sproul Hall did not suggest a good night’s sleep and it appeared the police weren’t coming, at least in the immediate future. Yawning, I left the building and headed home.

I would come back in the morning to chaos and an occupied campus.

Next Blog: Berkeley on Strike. (See below for the story about Jack Weinberg and the police car.)

2 comments on “Occupy Sproul Hall… The 1964 Free Speech Movement at Berkeley

  1. Pingback: College students mostly riot over being drunk | Voxitatis Blog

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