UC Berkeley on Strike… The 1964 Free Speech Movement

When police occupied the UC Berkeley Campus in early December of 1964 and arrested the protestors in Sproul Hall, the University went on strike. I joined a picket line on the edge of Telegraph Avenue next to Sproul Plaza.

My bed was indeed much softer that the marble floors of Sproul Hall.

After a quick breakfast I hurried back to campus to rejoin the sit-in. I was too late.

Armed men in uniforms formed a cordon around the Administration Building where students were being dragged down the stairs and loaded into police vans. Windows had been taped over so neither protestors or media could not see what was transpiring inside.

We had an occupied campus.

The great liberal governor of California had acted to “end the anarchy and maintain law and order in California.”

Whereas Jack Kennedy had used troops to protect civil rights in the South, Pat Brown was using them to stifle civil rights in the West. Of course Brown didn’t see it that way; he was taking a courageous stand against anarchy, the anarchy I described in my last blog.

I am sure Laurel and Hardy would have seen something to laugh about. Dragging kids down stairs on their butts while their heads bounced along behind could easily have been a scene in one of the old Keystone Cop films. The Oakland police weren’t nearly as funny as the Keystone Cops, however.

As for Clark Kerr, President of the University, he felt we were getting what we deserved and argued that the FSM leaders and their followers “are now finding in their effort to escape the gentle discipline of the University, they have thrown themselves into the arms of the less understanding discipline of the community at large.”

The campus came to a grinding halt and a great deal of fence-sitting ended. Whole departments shut down in strike. Sproul Hall plaza filled with several thousand students in protest of the police presence. When the police made a flying wedge to grab a speaker system students were using, we were electrified and protected the system with our bodies.

It was the closest I have ever come to being in a riot; thousands of thinking, caring students teetered on the edge of becoming an infuriated, unthinking mob. Violence and bloodshed, egged on by police action, would have been the result. Kerr, Brown, Knowland and company would have had the anarchy they were claiming, after the fact.

A few days later we were to come close again.

Kerr, in a series of around the clock meetings with a select committee of Department Chairs, had arrived at a compromise he felt would provide for the extended freedom being demanded on campus while also diffusing the outside pressure to crack open student heads.

Sit-in participants arrested in the Sproul Hall would be left to the tender mercies of the outside legal system and not disciplined by the University. Rights to free speech and organization on campus would be restored as long as civil disobedience was not advocated.

Kerr and Robert Scalapino, Chair of the Political Science Department, presented the compromise to a hastily called all-campus meeting of 15,000 students and faculty at the Greek Theater. There was to be no discussion and no other speakers.

When Mario Savio approached the podium following the presentation, he was grabbed by police, thrown down, and dragged off the stage. Apparently he had wanted to announce a meeting in Sproul Plaza to discuss Kerr’s proposal. Once again, Berkeley teetered on the edge of a riot. We moved from silent, shocked disbelief to shouting our objections.

Mario, released from the room where he was held captive, urged us to stay calm and leave the area. We did, but Kerr’s compromise had become compromised.

A full meeting of the Academic Senate was to be held the next day and all of us waited in anticipation to hear what stand Berkeley’s faculty would take.  We knew that most faculty members deplored the presence of police on campus and the violent way they had responded to the nonviolent demonstrators. Dragging Mario off the stage had not helped the Administration’s case.

Some departments such as math, philosophy, anthropology and English were clearly on the side of FSM while others including business and engineering were in opposition.

My own department of political science was clearly divided. Some professors believed that nonviolent civil disobedience threatened the stability of government. Others recognized how critical it was for helping the powerless gain power. To them, having large blocks of disenfranchised, alienated people in America seemed to be a greater threat to democracy than civil disobedience.

The Senate met on December 8 in Wheeler Hall, ironically in the same auditorium where Peter Odegard had lectured on the meaning of democracy to my Poly Sci 1 class during my first day at Berkeley. Some 5000 of us gathered outside to wait for the results and listen to the proceedings over a loud-speaker.

To the students who had fought so hard and risked so much, and to those of us who had joined their cause, the results were close to euphoric. On a vote of 824-115 the faculty voted that all disciplinary actions prior to December 8 should be dropped, that students should have the right to organize on campus for off-campus political activity, and that the University should not regulate the content of speech or advocacy.

Two weeks later, the Regents confirmed our hard-won freedom. We had won the battle but not necessarily the war.

Next Blog: Looking back at the long-term results of the Free Speech Movement

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