Courtesy Ron Erickson
In the early 1970s I attended law school at the University of California at Davis. The law school was quartered in King Hall, named after the then-recently assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It attracted a fair number of students who were active participants in that tumultuous period in our history.
I was one of a group of law students that organized an effort to block trains carrying munitions to the Port of Oakland for shipment to Vietnam. The campus and local police cleared the tracks with a few arrests but no pepper spray or other acts of violence. The sitting governor of California, Ronald Reagan, told a newspaper that the activists at Davis were “bums.”
Bums? We were law students exercising our first amendment rights. We responded to this mischaracterization by inviting law students from all over the Bay Area to join us in a peaceful demonstration in the governor's s office. We put on suits (some of us had to borrow them) and ties and headed to Sacramento. About 30 of our fellow law students joined us in a sit-in there. We stayed for for hours reading the United States Constitution aloud, over and over again.
We ”bums” hoped to teach the governor something about protest in a free society. From his record as governor and, later, president, I'm not sure the Great Communicator imbibed anything from the experience. But we did capture the attention of the media and public across the country, and they applauded our efforts.
Now, 40 years later, students at UC-Davis are again the center of national attention. I stared in shock at the videos of campus police pepper-spraying students who were peacefully sitting on the Quad, the prime gathering place in the middle of campus. The Quad is akin to London’s Hyde Park, with its famous Speaker’s Corner. On the Quad, card tables with literature promoting student organizations and spontaneous protests compete for attention with Frisbees and undergraduate mating rituas.
The vivid images from the campus galvanized my fellow alums. We flooded the chancellor’s office with emails. We implored the dean of the law school to take action, join law students and faculty in supporting the protesters' rights, monitor the situation, and use it as a teaching moment.
Those of us who read the Constitution to the governor that day years ago have since spent long careers as lawyers, judges, businesspeople, and elected officials, trying to make positive and lasting change in our society. Now the Occupy Wall Street movement and the events at Davis have invigorated us again, reminding us that the struggle for equality and an open society never ceases.
As an aging boomer, I now feel reengaged with a youthful movement, in part because of the peaceful protest at my alma mater and the outrageous police reaction to that protest. Occupy Wall Street has gained traction as a consequence of that over-reaction. Thanks to those excesses, my own support for the inchoate but laudatory goals of the movement will no longer be passive. And, with less hair on my head and a ready supply of suits and ties, I can join the protesters without being called a bum.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!