Three Takes on the Berkeley Free Speech Movement

By Michael Rossman

A slightly doctored transcript of a panel talk during the 40th anniversary commemoration of the FSM.

(Moderator:) The next speaker talks about what one might term the esoteric history of the Free Speech Movement, as contrasted with the exoteric, the exterior, which is not to say superficial, but the acknowledged perspectives of history. He's going to talk about some unacknowledged perspectives. Let me get the prop. (Puts on an ornate jester's cap.)

         Now I'm no longer the moderator. I'm the last speaker on the program, and this wonderful hat is a visual aid for people who won't want to engage seriously with the ideas I mean to expose. They are entitled to think that anyone who would wear something like this at my age on a formal panel obviously doesn't want to be taken seriously. So this hat is meant as a moral crutch for them, to help them get away with that kind of thought without any feelings of guilt.

         I have three outrageous propositions about the FSM to present. The first begins this way:

[Who Elected Ronald Reagan?]

         We who were in the FSM have long borne a sense of shame as well as deep pride in our accomplishment. We really did succeed in opening the doors of speech to many aspirations and achievements, from protest of an unjust war to movements of affirmative action. But we are also widely credited with being responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan as Governor of California, because the key factor in Reagan's initial rise to power was his exploitation of the public reaction to student demonstrators, more on campus than in the community. So some of us have long lived with a weight of shame from the Law of Unintended Consequences.

         Only now has a new thought come to me about this, due to our distinguished historian Jo Freeman. One key result from her research is that our cherished founding tale -- that the FSM began when William Knowland, the reactionary publisher of the Oakland Tribune, called the campus administration and said "it's time to clamp down, to stop those kids from demonstrating" -- is simply not true. The trigger for suppression came from within the administration, from Vice-Chancellor Alex Sherriffs, not from outside pressure. Jo's analysis is broadly supported, and basically convincing. I hope she'll post it on our website.

         Beyond this, Jo has brought attention to crucial evidence about President Clark Kerr, and the key decisions and failures of higher administration that propelled the FSM. The evidence intrigues me, for I've long been on record as a curmudgeon about Kerr. When he died recently, a wave of glowing eulogies described him as a liberal saint -- based mainly on the research of Seth Rosenfeld in the San Francisco Chronicle, showing that J.  Edgar Hoover sabotaged Kerr's chance to rise even higher in national prominence by Red-baiting him in background checks. Facing this wave of total sympathy, I wrote a counter-eulogy in the Berkeley Daily Planet, to say, "hey, not so fast; some of us still remember." You'll also find my poem from 1967, testifying to what it was like to have been there at Ground Zero under Kerr's reign, in the poetry chapbook we've published for this reunion.

         Neither mentions a most damning fact: When he testified at our trial, Clark Kerr still didn't understand the reason we were headed for jail. His lawyers had to take him outside to explain the key technical point of our legal position, about prior restraint of speech. This man went through the entire conflict and did not understand the issue! How do I know? You'll find it in that thick anthology, The Berkeley Student Revolt, in the report of one professor, who says only that "a high university official" had to be taken out into the corridor for this explanation. Back in 1966, when I asked him who that official had been, he told me it was Clark Kerr. He'd been reluctant to publish this only a year after the conflict.

         So I understood those betrayals. But I never grasped what Jo has unearthed from the later oral histories by Kerr and others. Remember, Kerr was in Europe when the FSM began. We now know that the moment he got back to campus, he realized that a deep mistake had been made. This ethical Quaker and experienced labor negotiator understood that quashing our rights was wrong, both morally and practically. He knew the campus administration had made a wrong decision, and he did absolutely nothing to correct it. What he did instead was to Red-bait us, and the papers, the Examiner in particular, spread it over their headlines. Kerr charged that forty-nine percent of the FSM were "followers of the Mao/Castro line" -- in other words, we were just a pack of damned Reds. Six weeks later, from the steps of Sproul Hall we sang an early carol: "Joy to UC, the word is come,/ Clark Kerr has called us Red! /If you are forty-nine percent, you can't work for the government./ The Knowledge Factory churns out more GNP/ without your subversion on its property!"

         By then, Kerr had issued a minor correction, buried in a small paragraph on a back page of another paper, claiming he hadn't said the percentage was that high or our Redness that pronounced. But the damage had been done. At the precise moment when we were out there in public and totally vulnerable, this son of a bitch poured gasoline on the fire instead of doing what he knew was right. And you know what? These things have consequences. I'm not saying that if he'd done something different it would have quelled all the clamor about us. But suppose that man had stepped up to the plate and instead of saying what he knew was false, had said what he knew to be true: "Hey, not so fast, folks, we made a mistake. The kids can have their tables back. They were right, to protest their rights being taken away. And I know they've been making trouble in town with their Civil Rights demonstrations, but you've got to understand, it's not like a panty raid. People come to college in part to learn to be be citizens, and this is part of that learning, so this is actually a legitimate educational activity." That wouldn't have worked a total magic, but many people would have been torn between J. Edgar Hoover and Clark Kerr, instead of finding both in the same boat in their perspectives about us, and would have thought a bit more about what was going on.

         And it is actually conceivable -- remember, Reagan was narrowly elected, less than two years after the FSM. We were the first campus revolt, we blazed that concept into the public mind, and the brand we were stamped with at first stayed as a brand upon that activity. If that brand had been confused, if our rights had been acknowledged by anyone of public stature, if Kerr had actually functioned as an educator of the public rather than as a heartless and cowardly bureaucrat, Reagan might not have become Governor and gone on to become President, and our nation's history might have been much different.

[The FSM as Spiritual Possession]

         So that's my first proposition: it was not our action in the FSM, but Clark Kerr's failure in response, that launched Reagan's rise to the Presidency. Now here's proposition two: I think the Free Speech Movement was a case of spiritual possession.

         I'm not speaking metaphorically. I mean it literally. Let's go back to the FSM's defining moment, the two days when we sat around the police car. You know, I thought I understood what a public dialogue is. Somebody steps up before an audience, he says some things, people talk back to him, they ask him questions, he answers back -- that's a public dialogue, right? If you'd tested me on the concept before that moment, that's what I would have written down. But here we are, seated around this car, thousands of us, we're talking to each other, and I'm amazed, just amazed! I'm almost twenty-five, I had no idea that I'd never actually witnessed a public dialogue in my whole life, until that strange, suspended moment, when a bolt of something came down through us. Okay? The spirits of Liberty and Democracy possessed us. We were open conduits for their energy. We glowed. We glowed! But you couldn't see that glow with your eyes, so how the hell could you say anything about it?

         Even so, it was a case of spiritual possession. I didn't come to understand this with my mind until years later, until I began to have more familiarity with situations in which certain kinds of energy are conjured. I can't go into that now. But let me go back to that moment. There was no language for it. There was no framework for our experience. Nobody talks about spirits. Nobody talks about transcendence. That stuff is way over there with gurus and strange shit, right? Remember how the campus was all fractionated? The art department was here and the engineering department was there and the sociology department over there, as if they were merely separate pursuits! As if the human reality, the integral reality that they all presume to comment upon, was actually different things that are not really connected, that touch each other only indirectly. But it's one thing, okay? Spirit is not isolated over there in the province of mystical reality vs. the province of the sociological. We had no frame to understand that transcendent phenomena and action could occur in the midst of a strictly secular, ostensibly political context -- but it happened. It happened. We glowed.

         People understood that it was strange. All through the semester, folks with literate backgrounds would say, “Well, you know, it’s just like a Greek tragedy,” as we waited for the administration to do the next step in the Dance of Inexorable Atrocity. Thinking this was only a metaphor, but just watching these predictions uncannily play out, the hackles rising on our necks. The tension of consciousness was so great. On the one hand, I was a totally awakened, totally free actor. I’m sitting-in, we’re talking to each other around the car, and it’s the moment when I understand what is the difference between a mass and an actual public. All that the cops, the media people, the public, the administration, all that even our teachers could see was a mob action. Thousands were around that car; but sitting there, I was not part of a mob. I was part of a group of people who were just like me, in that every one of us had our minds and hearts engaged in that moment.

         We were listening to each person who spoke atop the car because there had never been a situation like this. Nobody knew what was the right thing to do. Nobody knew how to see it, how to say it. Each person, what they had to say was valuable because it was one side of the matter, one facet, you understand? And as you listened there and they mounted the car and mounted and kept talking, in time everything you felt and thought would be said by somebody else, because everything you had was possessed by somebody else, but this didn’t cancel your individuality, not one whit! It did not stamp it, did not convert it. In fact the whole thing confirmed your individuality. This is the mystery of true democracy, in which we are united and one and yet we do not lose our separate selves. Our selves are deepened, and yet the mystery is that we are also one. We’re alone and we’re together, okay? This mystery! Of democracy! It is a spiritual condition, as well as a literal, a social, a psychological, a political, a theoretical condition -- it’s all one, conditional on all these angles.

         We were a polity, a genuine public rather than a mass, a functional democracy. We brought our minds and our hearts to this. We listened. Everybody mattered. All the different people mattered. Whoa! That energy! You couldn’t measure it with a volt-meter!

         It was so weird! On the one hand, I’m this totally independent actor in radically awakened free will, and on the other hand I’m playing my predestined part in an inexorable script I already know by heart. How could one consciousness encompass those two realities? They don’t fit with each other, you can’t parse their intersection logically. Yet that too was what was going on. That was what I vibrated with. That was what we all vibrated with, but our hands and bodies didn’t shake, so how could you tell? How could you say even one word about it, other than occasionally, “gee, this sure is weird!”

         And it didn’t end when we said it ended -- when we were arrested, or when the faculty voted to back us, or when we formally dissolved the Free Speech Movement. I still ring with that energy. You know it, you can feel it here. The reason you know is because you still ring with that energy. That was not the only time it struck. That was not the only way it was conjured. It gets conjured again and again in many, many places. Large places, dramatic places, small places, quiet places, whenever we look into each other’s eyes and actually take each other seriously as important to the whole -- whether that whole then is two people or fifty or a million, whatever it is. It is still the same magic, it is still the same energy, we are still the same conduits for it. It can change your life. It changed our lives forever to be branded with this energy coming through us in that moment. We were so fortunate. We were so lucky it came through us, glows through us still.

         When they closed down People’s Park in '69, we took over the strip where the subway went underground, and planted it as a park. A decade later, I used to see Lee Felsenstein sitting out there. Lee was 18 during the FSM, an engineering student, monitoring the police radios as they came to arrest us. Now he’s 33 and he’s sitting in Ohlone Park all alone for weeks, designing the circuit board for what will become the first computer a person can carry around. You know, he's still saying “Power to the People!” And what that means now is: Take this heavy, centralized IBM power, let it be freed and made light. Let people be able to carry it, so that they can use it wherever they choose, however they want.

         Then there was Alice. Alice Waters went and picked fresh vegetables. She said, “Oh, this tastes good. Let’s cook something nice with it. Let’s eat food that grows nearby, that's in season, that's raised naturally, cooked simply, it’s good for us,” said Alice. She’s still doing it, right? They say she started a revolution. She says she learned how in the FSM.

         And Jeff! Jeff Kline was really impressed by the way the media mistreated us. So he went and organized a radio station, and then another, and by now he's organized this massive chain of two hundred independent Hispanic radio stations around the country.

         I’m going to stop with just these three. But there are hundreds of others among us who carried that bolt of energy on in such specific ways. Most didn’t make full time careers out of it, you know. It surfaces partially in your life, now and then. Nobody’s boasting of anything. You know you do it imperfectly. You feel guilty for the ways in which you don’t do it right, don’t do it more, but every now and then you know you’re doing it, you know you’re channeling a fraction, a ray of the pure energy, you feel a little more relaxed, a little bit better. You know, this person working in public media, that one working in poverty law, another in the state legislature, another in education ... it’s all different aspects of the same vision, shaped by the same energy. We still vibrate with it. We vibrate with it in life, we vibrate through it with life.

         So the event did not end at that moment. It was like a pellet of dye flung into a downstream current, and as it dissolves these streamers of color trail out, diverging from each other and yet somehow born somewhat together because they’re flowing down the same stream. That’s what happened to the Free Speech Movement, to the spirit that possessed us. It’s still going on through the lives of these people, and this moment is still that moment, for reasons I will explain as I pass to my third proposition.

[The Deep Transformation of the FSM]

         It goes like this. What was important about the Free Speech Movement? I tell you it was the moment when everything changed, or so much that one is tempted to say "everything."

         We came into this episode as children of the Old Left. Many of us were actually Red-diaper babies. But we called ourselves a "New Left" because we were indeed new in some ways. We had discarded some constraints of ideology, we talked more honestly with each other. Yet we didn't have much besides our hearts to orient ourselves, and we were still in the classic alienated posture of the Old Left, bent over, displaced away from our own selves, doing good for the "poor oppressed Negro" or for the abstract mass of humanity: "let's ban the Bomb!" These were precious kinds of good, but they were also really displaced from ourselves, okay? By the time of the FSM, we had worked up considerable energy doing this, mainly in the civil rights movement. Then the university said, "Thou shalt not organize from the campus," and we just went nuts.

         Why did we go nuts? Here's my thesis: It wasn't just the civil rights movement that got hurt when we got stomped on. When the university took away my ability to help the "poor, oppressed Negro," it oppressed me. It oppressed me! The idea was so new we could hardly recognize it, all we could say was that the ban on campus activism would wipe out the local civil rights movement. Yet that effect was secondary, the ban was primarily a stomp on me, because I was involved in that movement not only for the sake of the "poor oppressed Negro," genuine as that was, but for my own sake, for my own soul, because I found meaning in doing this, a deeper and wholer kind of meaning than I found in the rest of my academic or citizen life. This was an important part of my life, an important part of my learning, because I am a whole person. You go to college to learn more about being a person, right? There's the daytime university, and then there's the nighttime university -- you understand what I'm talking about? They're not really separate, they are one thing: and your spiritual being and your political being, you're tending to both at the same time that you're tending to your professionalism. So they said, "don't do that, you can't organize!" And we said, "Whoa! Wait a minute!"

         Now, we came into this burdened by two elements of classical perspective. One was the notion that there is only one basic engine of change. The Marxist idea that everything depends on the condition of the industrial proletariat still dominated our minds even after the Old Left was crushed. And we were still permanently off-balance, because for a hundred years there'd been no place for us. We were the young liberal intelligensia from the managing/owning class, right? And in the schema that said, "industrial proletariat is where it's at," who am I? I only exist if I can serve the Workers by being part of a "vanguard political party" which can pave the way for their eventual triumph, right? So I'm parasitic on their fate. But who will speak for me, the privileged me? Because I'm so privileged I can't speak for myself, I have no standing of my own. I've gotta go help those unfortunates and they shall be everything and my class is nothing. Okay. That was the tradition we still internalized, even though we knew we were doing something helpful in the civil rights movement -- indeed, we were re-creating this alienation in the very act of helping.

         Suddenly the university stomps on us and I say, "Wait a minute! That hurts! My condition! I am oppressed! Son of a bitch! I am oppressed! Me, in my condition as a political citizen! You got no right to do that! I got rights. I'm a citizen! Yelp! Yelp!" That's what comes down in the histories of the FSM. But you know, immediately at the same moment it was like, "Hey, wait a minute, you stomped on my condition as a learner!" Not a student, got it? As a learner! Okay? "Oh, wait a minute, this is the best multiversity in the world, but something is terribly, terribly wrong here. How come? How come this place teaches me to separate my head and my heart, separate my mind from my groin, right? How come there's courses in the sociology of poor people but no courses in the sociology of the rich people who run society? How come the girls gotta be home in the dorm at ten o'clock and they can't be in our political meetings? That's sure weird! How come so much of the teaching work gets farmed out to the T.A.s and they don't get paid beans for it? How come it's a bunch of rich white men who run the state who are on the board of regents of this public school?"

         And suddenly out of nowhere, this reform movement begins paying attention to all the dimensions of our educational condition. "Hey, how come there's no black kids here in this school? How come there's no black teachers? How come there's no courses that talk about racism and black culture?" Got it? Okay. Suddenly an entire program of education reform was kindled, and it spread like wildfire -- not because we gave marching orders, but because conditions were the same all over. In the late Sixties, as a traveling organizer I visited fifty campuses where the same detailed manifesto of reform had been written independently, from knowledge of local conditions.

         Now, the FSM lasted less than three months, we hardly had time in that moment to pay attention to more than our own conditions as citizens and as learners. But here's where it gets outrageous, here's where it gets esoteric. I want to tell you: these psychic signals, baby, they travel! They travel a long way and deeply! The next moment, we paid attention to our own condition as women. We paid attention to our own condition as queers, to our condition as cripples, and movements large and small sprouted. Okay? We paid attention to our condition as animals on a planet, as technological man and woman, as beings in bodies, as spiritual beings. And each way we did this, a movement sprouted and sent down deep roots and had broad resonances and consequences, and by the end of that decade, our perspectives had been completely transformed.

         In terms of psychic resonance, it's no accident that the morning after the FSM, the civil rights movement morphed to Black Power. For there's an exterior aspect of Black Power, "Give me some power!"; and there's the interior aspect, which asks, "what does it mean to be black?" What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be brown? What does it mean to be gay? What does it mean to be healthy, to be old? One resonance is passing through everything political: pay attention to your own condition. Whoa! There's a lot of stresses and inhibitions inside here, within. You'd better do something about that, right?

         We came into the FSM still thinking there was one fundamental motor of change. We came out of that decade struggling with a new wealth of fundamental issues. "Hey, listen! Sexism is central to everything. You can't resolve anything unless you resolve sexism. Hey, racism is central to everything, you can't resolve anything ... Hey, ecology is central to everything. Hey, our technological condition! Hey, homophobia! Hey, our spiritual condition ... " Okay. We came out with about eight fundamental problematics to add to the economic problematic of the working class, and you couldn't resolve any one of them in terms of any other. They were all claiming, "I'm fundamental!" That blew our minds apart, in a very technical sense. Now we are nearing forty years downstream from that, and we still have not pulled it together. There is some promise in a deeply anti-hierarchical perspective, but the philosophy and will that can link all these issues together has not yet emerged. We can just tip our hats to it as a theoretical proposition, okay?

         So I'm not claiming that the FSM started the women's movement in any simple and direct way.  It did give more place to women than had ever been given in the politics of the Left, and women took that experience -- both its strengths and its discontents -- on into developing their movement. So the FSM did have exoteric linkages to the women's movement. But I contend that the esoteric linkage was more important. The FSM was the key moment in which the young of the dominant class started looking at their own condition and taking that as an essential ground and motion, and the resonance of this change affected everything.

         It's not over, of course. There's a lot of critique of identity politics, and much of this is justified. In starting to pay attention to yourself instead of only to the oppressed others, a certain kind of community liaison with the oppressed became deeply endangered, and in many respects largely lost for awhile. There's some rebalancing that must take place between paying attention to your own condition and paying attention to others' conditions. You can't get much mileage from a theoretical tract about how to do it. It has to be worked out in slow terms of social time and growth. This is the project that's on the table still: how to rebalance and integrate this amazing opening that we've lived through, this wealth of perspectives. For this was, I submit, the key meaning of the FSM. It was the moment when the classical political universe shattered definitively. They'll never put the contents back in the old containers. There's never going to be a single motor of change again. We are permanently in the post-FSM reality.


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