The Betrayal of Lenny Glaser

CounterPunch runs this memoir of a betrayal by the Free Speech Movement back in the Sixties because November 21, 2002, sees a betrayal of the memory of that movement and of one of its leaders, Mario Savio.

On the UC Berkeley Campus a lecture series established by his widow in memory of this great anti-war orator will be inaugurated by a fanatic advocate of war against Iraq, Christopher Hitchens. It is as though the keynote speaker at a conference honoring the memory of Martin Luther King was an FBI agent defending the Cointelpro program.

The central figure in Rossman’s riveting narrative is now known as Lenni Brenner, an organizer and author now active in New York, a CounterPunch contributor with his lively memoir of his tutelage of Bob Dylan on New York’s lower east side.

How much more appropriate it would have been if Brenner, not Hitchens, were to speak this Thursday night in the Berkeley Student Union.


As background to this story of betrayal, one should understand the role of Lenny Glaser (later known as Lenni Brenner) in the political culture of the Berkeley campus during the era leading to the Free Speech Movement. If one can summarize six rich years of history by saying that SLATE was the key organizer of students’ increasing expression of civil liberties, one might say on the same scale that Lenny Glaser was the individual exemplar of free speech.

For years, his thoughtful and passionate tirades greeted students on cold mornings, assailed them at noon as they hurried past the pedestal at Bancroft and Telegraph where he perched, eyes gleaming as he criticized Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, mocked the Pope’s stand on birth control, told us marijuana wouldn’t make us crazy. One must understand the era’s context, still shadowed with McCarthyism’s chill, to grasp how aberrant his act seemed; and one must understand the subtext of collective feelings, gathering to erupt in the later 1960’s, to grasp the shameful fascination of his lingering words and example for many who hurried past, averting their eyes from that crazy guy.

In the annals of campus political history, the laurel for solitary courage is often credited to Fred Moore, for his fast on Sproul Hall’s steps in 1961 in protest of compulsory military training. Yet to my mind, the courage of Glaser’s lonely example was as vivid, long sustained, and more fertile in influencing the emerging culture of political expression.

Of course, Glaser’s act drew the attention of campus administrators and the police. That these authorities were not friendly then to such liberty of speech is well-known, but one must appreciate the particular structure of their hostility, which led them to view Glaser as more than an individual nut. From 1958 on, local administrators had been called not simply to deal with the consequences of an increasingly active student political movement, but to understand the dynamics of its development among a student mass that had seemed quite tractable.

During 1960-1961, I participated in a liberal salient of their inquiry in meetings convened by Dean of Men Arleigh Williams. But their political perspectives were divided, and the views of Vice Chancellor Sherriffs came instead to govern administrative perceptions, applying a theory of malignancy to describe our troublesome development as driven by the infectious agency of Red-stained “non-student agitators.”

At this distance, the paranoia of the administration’s analysis is clearly visible as a relic of early Cold War culture, remarkable in its persistence. Gathering momentum continually, this view did not reach the apex of its folly until after the anti-war movement’s escalation in 1967. But its thorough entrenchment by 1964 was reflected in President Kerr’s incautious assertion that 49 percent of the FSM demonstrators were “followers of the Mao-Castro line,” and his subsequent “correction” allowing that only a small minority were Red provocateurs. The gulf of understanding thus demonstrated was essential to the campus administration’s provocation and subsequent mismanagement of the free speech crisis, and to its extraordinary intervention in Glaser’s legal case.

To account for this impropriety, one must also understand the state of mind of the adminstrators involved. The rising, fractious tide of student dissent had suddenly come home, as protest against the decree banning political tables escalated out of control. The unprecedented sit-ins and police-car blockade of September 30 and October 1-2 left ranking administrators in a hysterical state, seeking external agencies to blame for the disturbance and means to quell it. By October 8 University officials filed a petition to revoke Glaser’s probation, on grounds (as later summarized by the appeals judge) that he “had been creating a disturbance and interfering with an officer in the performance of his duties” on September 30 and October 1.

During a prior series of arrests for civil rights activity, Glaser had been cited also for possession of a marijuana roach. Although conviction on this count threatened a term of one to ten years, he had been granted probation. In that era, considerations of due process did not extend to revocation hearings, since probation and revocation were still seen as discretionary gestures by judges. The University sent a representative to the probation hearing to testify against Glaser, who was not allowed to present witnesses on his own behalf. His probation was revoked, leaving him to serve thirty-nine months in the state prison in San Luis Obispo.

At the time, such details of the university’s intervention were unknown to the FSM political community. All we knew, vaguely and somewhat inaccurately, was that campus police had caused Glaser’s arrest for possession a roach and that he had vanished. But it was clear that he had been specially targeted as a political troublemaker, that the marijuana charge was a pretext for his removal from the scene of ongoing protest, and that he needed and merited our support.

To our shame, I must record that we lifted barely a voice and not one finger in his behalf. A few spoke for him at the Executive Committee meeting of October 18, where it was decided that some would study the matter and report back; I doubt that they did. I think we may even have considered his defense at a Steering Committee meeting and decided against it. The injustice of his case was glaring and closedly linked to the one we were protesting. But our response was paralyzed, as much by inner conflict as by outward considerations.

In retrospect, it may seem simply prudent for us to have averted our attention from Glaser’s predicament. Beside having so much else on our hands, we had strong reason to distance our movement from his case. Desperate for public support, in a climate where newspapers were contending to publicize the Commie agitators responsible for our rebellion, we could ill afford to have the FSM identified also with drug use by supporting a pot-smoking Trotskyist sure to be spotlighted, accurately, as a crusader against drug laws.

So we backed off from this hot potato, so quickly we may scarcely be said to have encountered it — savoring our senses of being prudent protectors of our movement, to mitigate the sense of shame some also felt at abandoning Glaser and the issues he represented. For by then many of us had come not only to understand that marijuana use should not be construed as a crime but to recognize the very issue of regulation of such consciousness-affecting agents as a key frontier of civil liberties, extending protection of freedom of thought and expression.

In this light, Glaser’s years of campus preachment had been entirely political, rather than divided embarrasingly between politics and drugs, as many activists of traditional political mind had viewed them; and the roach was not just a pretext for arrest, but integral to his case. The FSM could hardly have supported him properly without expanding its consciousness of its own cause. What wonder we shirked the theoretical and practical complications involved!

This story of injustice and cowardice — of the university’s extraordinary, unconscionable persecution of a political agitator and the Free Speech Movement’s failure to contest it — is part of the buried history of the FSM and of the peculiar war against marijuana continuing to this day. In The Spiral of Conflict Heirich dubiously cites a professor’s impression that Glaser was the first to throw himself before the police car to entrap it. In Berkeley at War, Rorabaugh repeats this claim drawing on a Jan.24, 1968 San Francisco Express-Times story on Glaser’s release from prison.

As I suggest elsewhere, though the claim may be slightly false in fact, it is true in spirit. Glaser was among the first to try to stop the car and likely the loudest to yell for help; and he was almost certainly the one most recognizable to campus police, who may indeed have mistaken him as the chief instigator of our novel defiance, given their mind-set of infectious “non-student” agents and their prior assessment of him as among the worst.

Lacking sufficient documentation, I cannot say with certainty whether the impulse to put Glaser away originated with the campus police or in the administration. But surely his prominent role was soon brought to the attention of key administrators, most notably Sherriffs, who were scrambling to understand what had happened, and surely the action against him proceeded with their oversight and blessing.

In The Free Speech Movement (184-185n) Goines quotes Rorabaugh’s indirectly derived version of this story and adds an alternative account of Glaser’s jailing. Though each version is as plausible as the rumors that reached us then, neither is accurate about the process, and neither recognizes the administration’s aggressive role in Glaser’s imprisonment. Goines mentions “the Executive Committee meeting, where both Mario and I made impassioned speeches about solidarity and not letting [Glaser] fry all alone,” and notes that nothing came of this but doesn’t discuss why.

The story of Glaser’s betrayal forms the Afterword to Rossman’s “The Rossman Report, A Memoir of Making History,” (in) Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik (Editors) The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (University of California Press, 2002.). For Rossman’s extended account of his own role in enacting and recording the history of the FSM movement he has supplied CounterPunch with the full memoir.

Lenni (Glaser) Brenner has written several stories for CounterPunch, including a recent memoir on Dave Van Ronk’s influence on Bob Dylan. Brenner is the author of the new book, The Hidden Documents of Zionism.


Lenni Brenner is the author of Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators. He can be contacted at