In a time in which we have a tendency to feel disenfranchised and powerless, we would all do well to remember the lessons of the free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s. The motivated students of UCB created a feeling of empowerment in the student body that had important positive repercussions not only for the freedom of speech, but also the equal rights and women's rights movements.
The Free Speech Movement was a student protest that began on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley in 1964 under the informal leadership of student Mario Savio and others. In protests unprecedented at the time, students demanded that the university administration lift a ban on on-campus political activities and recognize the students' right to free speech and academic freedom. The Free Speech Movement is often cited as a starting point for the many student protest movements of the 1960s and early 1970s.1
On September 14, 1964, the administration disallowed the setting up of tables to distribute political materials (or for any other purposes) at the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues. It was an attempt to stifle all political speech on campus, and was met with a significant backlash from all of the political groups on campus who ordinarily would never have been willing to work together to achieve any goal.
These events and their immediate repercussions are the focus of this movie, Berkeley in the Sixties. About half of it deals with the events described above; after this point it branches off to discuss the effect Berkeley politics had on the movements in general. It also spends a significant amount of time discussing the Black Panther Party, including an amusing anecdote on how they raised money to get their first shotguns, a fund raiser which they actually carried out on the Berkeley campus. At the time, California state law actually specifically protected the rights of citizens to carry guns on public property!
I took three main points away from this movie. First and foremost, political power comes from personal action. These few students who initially stood up incited a multitude to seek to protect their constitutional rights. On October 1, 1964, former graduate student Jack Weinberg was arrested for failing to provide identification to the police, and the student body sat down on and around the patrol car in which he was placed for over 36 hours. This is political power; it comes not from the barrel of a gun, but (with apologies to Kim Stanley Robinson) the look in the eyes of the people on the street. But the second message is that we really don't spend enough time thinking about how the government is working, day by day, to deprive us not just of our constitutional rights, but of our basic human rights.
The Black Panther Party, in fact, illustrates a right that we have all but lost, especially in California: the right to bear arms. Again, in the 1960s, the law explicitly protected your right to carry guns on public property. Fish and Game law allowed you to carry a loaded weapon in your vehicle, but you could not have a round in the chamber. You could actually legally be holding a weapon with a chambered round on the street, but you could not point a weapon at someone with a chambered round, because that in itself is considered assault with a deadly weapon (whether it is by accident, or not.) In California today, the only circumstances under which you can carry a loaded weapon at all is if you have a concealed weapons permit, which is very difficult to get. In fact, you are not permitted to walk down a public street in posession of a firearm and the ammunition even if both are in sealed containers - it is considered posession of a loaded weapon.
What the Black Panthers understood is that the guns are the only thing standing between the citizenry and an abusive, fascist government. The Panthers actually armed themselves specifically for protection from the police, a tradition that continues in the ghetto to this day. The statement surprised no one in the 1960s, but today such a statement is held in contempt by the majority of the population and the government can and will kill people in order to prevent them from exercising this right; it is precisely what happened in Waco, which was nothing more than a massacre - they in fact used tanks with flamethrowers (clearly visible in video) to ignite the structures, and deliberately parked a tank on top of the escape tunnel from the underground shelter in which the majority of the residents of the Waco compound were hiding; it became their tomb. Law enforcement had detailed maps of the facility including the tunnels, and knew precisely what they were doing. It took only thirty years to move from shooting down young black men in the streets to burning alive white christians who happened to believe in owning guns.
And finally, when we got into Viet Nam, but before the war really began appearing on TV, the people largely believed (for some reason) that the US entered into the theater of international conflict only grudgingly, in an attempt to spread peace throughout the world. Viet Nam was the watershed line, which when crossed woke up many Americans. Seeing video of mass graves full of vietnamese citizens who clearly did not benefit from our being there, seeing people on fire, seeing villages consumed with napalm... This convinced rational people that our goals were less than saintly. But the reality is that we have always been militant meddlers who think nothing of invading other countries when it suits our goals. We ostensibly learned this trait from our parent nation of Britain, which was well-engaged in empire building until it spawned the USA and subsequently lost the new world.
A flash movie called Hope and Memory that features a timeline of U.S. military intervention throughout history is an excellent primer; as is Wikipedia's "List of United States military history events". The flash applet is a little more accessible and, amusingly, more complete in many ways, sharing with us the motivation behind some activities without having to click away. Sometimes it seems like we've invaded the whole world at some point or another; Mexico in 1806, Florida (which belonged to Mexico) in 1812, 1813, 1814, 1816, and 1817, until Mexico got so tired of dealing with us, they sold us Florida. We were in Cuba from 1822-1825 going after pirates, attacked a town in then-Spanish Puerto Rico in 1824, destroyed a town in Sumatra in 1832, and sent troops into Argentina and Peru during social unrest in 1833 and 1835, respectively, in order to "protect U.S. interests". The list goes on interminably...
Where does this tie into a review of this movie? One of the comments that repeatedly was made by interviewees was that they felt that the events in Berkeley and especially the events surrounding the Viet Nam War made it difficult for America to carry out these actions while hiding them from their citizenry. But now, with ten major media megacorporations in control of some 90 percent or more of the media in the U.S., we hear only what they want to tell us! This is the subject of another documentary titled Orwell Rolls in his Grave, which would make a nice double-feature with this movie. Orwell tells us what is wrong; Berkeley tells us what to do about it - DO SOMETHING! Oh sure, doing something might not help, but doing nothing is a sure ticket to a loss of your rights, and once you give them up, it's almost impossible to get them back.
Every civics instructor should show their students at least the first half of this movie. Political power needs to come from the people, not a stack of dead presidents.
- 1. "Free Speech Movement." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Sep 2006, 16:13 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 Sep 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Free_Speech_Movement&oldid=73590887>.