By Javier Panzar
October 1, 2009
In 1964, the Free Speech Movement put UC Berkeley at the forefront of
student activism, creating a lasting legacy of protest and dissent.
Forty-five years later, many current and former student organizers
point to the Sept. 24 UC systemwide walkout, which drew thousands of
students, faculty and staff, as a resurgence of that tradition.
The estimated 5,000 people who gathered on Sproul Plaza last Thursday
was one of the largest groups to protest on campus in recent memory.
While it is not the crowd of 7,000 that gathered on Dec. 2, 1964
outside Sproul Hall during the height of the Free Speech Movement,
the student activists involved with the walkout see the beginnings of
a potential movement.
"With this walkout I actually feel that Berkeley is living up to this
image," said Ricardo Gomez, a student organizer of the walkout. "I
think that excitement, the energy, the numbers, that it is something.
That it could fall in line with this tradition of the Third World
Liberation Strike or the FSM."
The Free Speech Movement developed in protest against university
restrictions on tabling on Sproul Plaza, while the Third World
Liberation Front came together in 1969 to create a separate ethnic
studies college. The administration later lifted the restrictions on
tabling and in the case of the latter created an ethnic studies department.
The Sept. 24 walkout was organized by students, faculty and staff to
protest the UC administration's handling of the state budget cuts to
public higher education, among other grievances. But with those
parties still trying to decide what the next step will be, a clear
end goal has yet to emerge.
Lynne Hollander Savio, who was married to Mario Savio-one of the Free
Speech Movement's most well-known leaders-said she saw the walkout as
a "resurgence" in activism.
"It's certainly important for Berkeley students to not focus so
narrowly on their academic education that they forget their roles as
citizens in the larger community," she said.
However, she credits the Free Speech Movement's success in part to
the cheap housing and tuition fees of the time. Students then had to
work only part time and enjoyed the freedom to be more politically
active. In contrast, today's scarce job market makes students more
career-oriented and focused on their futures.
"They have less time, less energy and less ability to be concerned
perhaps about other people and more focused on their own needs," she said.
Harvey Dong was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley during the Third
World Liberation Front's movement to establish an ethnic studies
college on campus in 1969. Now a lecturer in that department, Dong
sees great opportunity in the developing movement.
"What's going on now is probably one of the biggest movements this
campus has seen in a long time," Dong said. "That has a lot of
potential because it's an issue that touches everybody on campus."
Both Dong and Savio credited the political climate that existed prior
to their movements as crucial to the development of their movement.
The assassinations of Marin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy
created a "crisis situation" that sparked the protests and strike of
the Third World Liberation Front, Dong said.
"The civil rights movement was reaching a certain point ... there as
a lot of anger and people seeking change. You could say today is a
crisis situation as well," he said of the severe budget crisis and
Meanwhile, Savio said that the UC Berkeley students who helped
register black voters in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 opened up
the campus to political activism. "This was really quite critical,"
Savio said. "There was already an enormous amount of civil rights
activity on campus."
Gomez sees students becoming more active because of last year's election.
"I feel like as a whole people are getting more comfortable with the
idea of being political and from that becoming more comfortable with
the idea of becoming activists," he said.
Current and former organizers say the key to keep the movement
growing is to act fast and mobilize succesfully with other people.
"We have numbers, we have energy, we just need to be able to mobilize
it," said Blanca Misse, an organizer and GSI in the French
department. "The energy is there, in two weeks it will not be."
Savio, who was pulled into the Free Speech Movement while seeing her
fellow students take action on Sproul Plaza, thinks the current
momentum is crucial.
"I learned as much, if not more, from participating in the FSM and
the civil rights movement as I learned in my classes both in society,
about myself and about other people," she said.