Twenty years ago this December 2, 761 students were arrested following a nightling sit-in at the University of California at Berkeley. The sit-in and events preceding it signaled a politically conscious student activism that for a time seemed likely to become permanent in American life.
The Berkeley Free Speech Movement, as it came to be known, was a spontaneous reaction to the university's early fall announcement that on-campus organizing for offcampus activities, routine for years, would no longer be tolerated. Since Berkeley was a recruiting and fund-raising center for such diverse causes as Southern freedom rides and local peace demonstrations, the ban was not quietly received.
There followed three months of escalating confrontations between growing numbers of students, school authorities and the local police. Some were rather theatrical. On one a student challenged the rule by opening a card table on campus and distributing leaflets for off-campus causes. A dean came out to warn him. Then the police drove up and placed the student in their patrol car. Several hundred students sat down around the car, immobilizing it, and used its roof as a stage for all-night speechmaking. In the morning, a swap was negotiated: student for car.
Eventually came the sit-in, the arrests, the mass trial, the mass trespass convictions and the mass fines. Eventually the ban, illegal under the First Amendment, was withdrawn by the school.
The events of that fall term at Berkeley drew international notice. There were front-page stories in the national press. The New Yorker dispatched a Far-Flung Correspondent. Bertrand Russell sent a congratulatory telegram. Journalists from Europe and Asia came to the campus.
Why all the attention? I think it came because the Berkeley Free Speech Movement was the first modern demonstration by American students about an issue more consequential than dormitory curfews or dress codes. This was not Western Europe or South America, where student activism was an expected tradition; it was the United States, where tradition endorsed inanities like panty raids, goldfish swallowing and squeezing bodies into telephone booths.
The Free Speech Movement signified that some students were prepared to take their college years extremely seriously. And in the following decade, many did.
Students were at the forefront of the civil rights, antiwar and environmental campaigns. They were important to the Presidential bids of George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. They challenged the ways in which colleges invested endowment money, made faculty appointments and behaved within their neighborhoods. They dominated the serial marches on Washington in the 1960s and early 1970s, often arriving after long rides on chartered buses.
It didn't last. The "student movement that began at Berkeley,' as journalists were fond of calling it, vanished about as abruptly as it had appeared. I mark its demise with Richard Nixon's resignation. The campuses have been silent since. Today there are few teach-ins on Latin America, few student demonstrations against fiscal decisions that topple millions of Americans into poverty, few organized protests against reactionary and radical civil rights policies.
Are current university students derelict for abandoning the "tradition' begun two decades ago at Berkeley? Or does each generation understandably respond to its times?
The student movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was basically altruistic. Whatever one's views on its various student activism in those years was characterized by a concern for others, an engagement with public questions. It arose at a time when selflessness was encouraged, when there was an emphasis on social responsibility, when one of the most memorable public statements was John Kennedy's inaugural plea that we ask what we could do for our country.
The nation's mood has changed. Concern for others has yielded to concern for self and the pursuit of personal gain. President Reagan suggests that we ask whether we are better off now than we used to be. If other Americans accept that standard, can we expect students to choose much differently?
Twenty years ago at Berkeley, we thought something important was happening. We thought we were history. Today we know better. We were only news.
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|Title Annotation:||20th anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement|
|Date:||Oct 20, 1984|
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