A Crosscut reporter who covered the Berkeley drama of Dec. 2, 1964, that made Mario Savio a leader of a similar movement wonders about the prospects for today's activist movement.
Every year about this time, in California, they honor the founder of the Occupy Movement and his electrifying speech of 47 years ago. The Mario Savio Memorial Lecture happens on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California in Berkeley, where Savio incited students to take over the center of University authority on Dec. 2, 1964.
There are cross-generational links between what was born in Berkeley half a century ago and what’s happening today in Seattle, Portland and the rest of the country. The parallels are not perfect, but there are vital similarities.
“Occupying” was all about jobs and equity then, as it is today. The Berkeley movement grew out of the civil rights movement. During the year before Savio led the Sproul Hall occupation, students and other Bay Area activists had occupied a hotel, a drive-in restaurant, a supermarket grocery, and a newspaper, because their owners had refused to hire African-Americans.
The chaos on campus began two months before the Sproul Hall action. Silly and futile as it seems today, the University Board of Regents had directed Chancellor Clark Kerr to prohibit political speech, political signs, or leaflets on campus. University police arrested a student, Jack Weinberg, for leafleting at the campus gate on behalf of the Congress for Racial Equality, a nationwide organization demanding equal voting rights and job opportunities for blacks and whites.
Two police officers put Weinberg in a patrol car and started to move him across campus. A crowd of students surrounded the car, blocked it, and sat down. Savio climbed onto the roof with a bullhorn and urged his audience to stay where they were until authorities rescinded the arrest. They held the car, with the two policemen and Weinberg inside, for 32 hours.
The late news cameraman Paul Meeks and I covered the standoff for KNXT in Los Angeles, which fed the film to the CBS Network. (There's a photo from that event on a Berkeley publication's web site — scroll down to find the photo of Savio; I'm the one holding a microphone in front of him.) Our black and white television film was grainy and the action was bumpy, but millions watched. Only a year earlier, the network had lengthened its CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, from 15 minutes to half an hour. The added news time allowed what in TV were considered long-form stories, with representative bits of revolutionary rhetoric from the occupiers.
Radical and brazen as he was, Savio believed in civility. Look closely at the photo on the Berkeley site and you’ll notice that he had removed his shoes to avoid marking the police car. Throughout the sit-in, occupiers shared sandwiches with the police and their prisoner, Weinberg. They organized a “surround” area with male students to give the police and Weinberg some privacy during bladder breaks. The day passed, and a night, and part of the next day, and Savio announced an agreement with Chancellor Kerr. Weinberg would be booked and released without charge. Savio urged his listeners to go home quietly, and they did.
As the Free Speech Movement found its voice, thousands around the country took to the streets, fed up with what they perceived as a corrupt political-economic system that denied African-Americans their constitutional rights. They saw the country going ever deeper into a needless war in Vietnam. They found American style capitalism unfair and undemocratic. Some were uncertain of their goals and some joined the action for the fun of raising hell. But they helped end racial segregation and helped stop an impossible war.
It seems inevitable that governments pump energy into such causes by trying forcibly to repress them. The more the authorities crack down, the more the movement gains energy and traction. In 1969, a few years after Savio's speech, it was Gov. Ronald Reagan tear-gassing the University campus and adjacent Berkeley neighborhoods, including a hospital where the gas entered the air-conditioning system. This year it’s Seattle police pepper spraying an 84-year-old woman in the face; officers at the University of California-Davis spraying seated demonstrators; New York City police forcibly preventing journalists from photographing police actions at Zucotti Park.
Savio, in his Dec. 2, 1964, speech, which was delivered with the administration still refusing to lift its ban on political activity, described the University of California as a machine and incited the crowd of some 4,000 to “put your bodies upon the gears, and upon the wheels … and you’ve got to make it stop!”
The crowd moved into the building, past a handful of campus police, to occupy the second floor nerve center of the campus. Trying to hold the building, police lost their footing and wrestled with occupiers on the floor. It was loud, angry, and chaotic. Meeks and I were in the middle of it and so far as we could see, no one pulled a gun or swung a club, or deliberately destroyed anything.
However, reports reaching then-Gov. Pat Brown said students were trashing the office. Brown called in the California Highway Patrol. Some 730 were arrested, including Savio. They were released the following day. None of us who were there could have guessed what the next few years would bring.
By 1968 — historian Mark Kurlansky calls it “The Year that Rocked the World” — the rebellion-repression cycle had spun into violent clashes on campuses all across the world. In 1969, Berkeley activists occupied a vacant lot owned by the University, planted trees and named it “People’s Park.” Berkeley Police and Alameda County Sheriff’s officers used tear gas and shotguns to clear the area, killing an unarmed spectator with a shotgun blast.
By then, Savio had quit the Free Speech Movement, citing his disappointment over a growing separation between the FSM leadership and the students themselves. He won a scholarship to Oxford, married, divorced, married again, and moved to Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, to teach mathematics and physics at a local college. He died from a heart attack in 1996, at the age of 53.
Somewhere within its ranks, the Occupy Movement had better find a Mario Savio -- a brilliant young person with an unyielding passion for fairness and a superb command of the language, to incite and inspire non-violent change. It seems certain to happen, but it will take time, which the movement may not have. Sadly, public opinion in our time seems to form and vanish within a day or two of tweeting, Facebooking, and cable news headlines. Go a week without a spectacular event and you risk seeming no longer to be here.
Savio and his movement had time to develop. He and his companions did not parachute into Berkeley fully armored with fearlessness, organizing talent, and blazing rhetoric. They had paid their dues, formed their vision, and grown their nerve in the very dangerous — life-threateningly dangerous — voting rights struggles of Mississippi during the two summers before the nation began watching occupiers on the evening news.