Title: Berkeley: The Student Revolt
Author: Hal Draper
Published: 2020 (Haymarket Books edition)
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Publisher Blurb: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”
Brimming with lessons still relevant for today’s activists, Berkeley: The Student Revolt is a classic of on-the-ground historical reportage.
There’s something about this period of history which fascinates me deeply. I can’t go to Berkeley or San Francisco without being aware of the history I walk through. Reading Hal Draper’s Berkeley: The Student Revolt written in 1965, is on the ground “I was there” reporting.
Draper brings together all the minute by minute details to explain how the Free Speech Movement exploded on campus one day in September, 1964. Although, as most historians will tell you and Draper certainly does, things don’t happen overnight because there are mitigating factors. The history leading to the Free Speech Movement is rich and dense, filled with many factors.
Draper writes of the peaceful student protests demanding to be able to express their opinions, political or otherwise, on campus. To be able to raise money and recruit volunteers for off campus events. Many had spent the previous summer in the Deep South working for civil rights.
To have their own rights stunted in the face of an unpopular war (Vietnam) and the treatment of African-Americans caused deep anger and resentment. In the face of a dictatorial Chancellor who had been hired based on his research about labor movements which should have made him sympathetic but didn’t, student unrest grew.
Draper was there, amongst the students as a library employee, his knowledge of the inner workings makes this an excellent resource in the body of work still evolving about dissent, protests in the face of bureaucrats who use might makes right to get their rules obeyed.
Over the fifty years since, this very scenario has played out more times than I like to remember. In 2019 during a deadly global pandemic, government leaders are using the same playbook to shut down the rights of us all to be healthy and safe.
Confusing, contradictory, obfuscatory dictums fly through the media. Responses to any common sense calls for reasonable actions on the part of leaders are met with ridicule and often threatened violence.
What amazed me as I read was how very young these students were, how mature and deeply committed they were to their cause. They understood it was about something larger than themselves. Mario Savio’s thoughtful speeches give an insight I hadn’t much thought about because I have reaped the benefit of their protests.
At the same time, I was saddened to understand that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Change is always met with resistance, those in power backed by those with greater power and money will always clamp down. Their actions invariably lead to some sort of police action.
Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement opened the door for peaceful protests and thoughtful discussions about the First Amendment and its role on college campuses. A discussion which continues now, and is especially important as an ill-informed citizenry continues to misunderstand the power of the First Amendment and try to use it in support of their *-ist rhetoric.
But I have hope because things have changed, the citizenry is allowed to express themselves. Students are allowed free and open discussion of unsavory topics. And the discussion about what First Amendment rights mean continues unabated. Without the student protests and strike at Berkeley, none of this would be possible.