Forty years ago this month a young man called Mario Savio, 21 years old, climbed on top of a car in Berkeley, California, and let fly with a stream of incendiary rhetoric and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement was born.
I’ll skip the next chapters and go straight to “forty years later”, meaning October 7, 2004, when a fellow two years older than Savio would have been if he hadn’t keeled over a few years ago clambered onto a chair at the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft, right outside the entry to the University of California at Berkeley and let fly with a stream of rhetoric that would have been a lot more incendiary for the crowds in Sproul Plaza if Lenni Brenner had remembered to bring a bullhorn.
These days the Free Speech Movement is comfortably, maybe too comfortably, installed on the Berkeley calendar as an annual event where FSM veterans look back on the Sixties (initial phase), hold panels on such topics as I’m quoting from the Fortieth Anniversary program which stretched across four days on “the FSM: Its Genesis, Meanings and Consequences” and seek to hector youth for their lack of revolutionary zeal.
I agreed to join Lenni for some curb-side ranting, not only because he’s an old friend but also because Berkeley survivors of that period whose judgment I respect say Lenni Glazer, as he was known then, was the fiercest and most mesmerizing speaker, holding crowds spellbound at that same corner of Telegraph and Bancroft, day after day till the University seized an opportunity to have Lenni put away in the state prison at San Luis Obispo for three long years. These days he’s as fiery as ever, though mostly at the other end of the country, in New York.
I was glad, I told the modest throng, to be able to speak at an FSM event on the very day when the newspapers were testifying to the potency and profitability of free speech, as uttered by the radio shock jock Howard Stern, who had just been signed up by Sirius, a satellite radio company for $500 million. There’s money in talking dirty about girls.
Russians have a toast to “those who went before”. You drink to the dead, though you don’t clink glasses. Stern, I said, was standing on the shoulders of many who “went before”, who had sacrificed much that he might enjoy his $500 million for speaking freely about sex. There was Lenny Bruce, harried mercilessly by prosecutors and cops across the country. Times were tougher still in the Forties and Fifties when men like Gershon Legman, Jake Brussel and Samuel Roth (who published the first excerpts of Joyce’s Ulysses in the US) all served prison terms after prosecutions by the Post Office.
Free speech counts most when it’s most risky. In you used the word “Palestinian” in any public place when I first arrived in New York in the early 1970s you risked being punched in the face. “Palestinians” didn’t exist, because Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, had said so. Things are better now, though substantively for Palestinians in Palestine they are far worse.
In the second debate, both George Bush even weirdly mentioned his hopes for a Palestinian state twice. He must be looking for the Arab-American vote. Of course Kerry did not, just like every other Democrat. Both Bush and John Kerry proclaimed their undying allegiance to the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution. Both swore they stood four-square for liberty, which was hard to listen to with a straight face (like 98 per cent of the rest of the “debate”) since both deemed the Patriot Act a splendid thing. Of course the Patriot Act embodies the notion that there are indeed times when free speech is too risky.
Lenni was holding my legs so I wouldn’t fall off the chair, and I sensed from the slight pressure of his hands that he wished I might descend to the sidewalk so he could wheel on his next speaker, Jack Heyman of the Longshoremen’s Union at the Port of Oakland, promoting the Million Worker March. Not so long ago Jack and his comrades received very painful expression, in the form of rubber bullets, of the current view of free speech and the right to assemble peacefully, as entertained by the Oakland Police Department and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.
So I wound up my hoarse rhetoric with some jabs at the left, as mustered in Berkeley for the FSM anniversary. Probably some 90 per cent of them are dedicated “Anybody But Bush” zealots who have, with varying degrees of venom, been denouncing Ralph Nader for presuming to exercise his rights of free speech, as an independent candidate in the presidential election.
Flowers of the sixties, now gone sadly to seed, have been coursing round the nation’s courthouses, challenging Nader’s efforts to get on state ballots. The older crowd hate Bush, that’s for sure. But they hate Nader more. So here was the great irony. Most of those mistily honoring the FSM don’t much care for free speech when it looks as though it might be risky, might inconvenience their favored candidate, even though the favored candidate, John Kerry, wants to fight a better war than Bush in Iraq and then march on to Teheran.
In fact the original FSM movement was a much bigger tent than people now recall. My old friend Conn Hallinan, who was an FSM militant and arrested in Sproul Hall in the largest mass university arrests (800) in the history of the US, has just reminded me of this. Hallinan says, “We had right wingers, libertarians, conservatives and of course weirdos. There was an FSM activist, who went on to successfully challenge the law forbidding women to hang off the side of cable cars in San Francisco. She was a right-wing libertarian.”
These days the left and PC crowd would find that the woman was opposed to affirmative action, or some such, and would have driven her out with oaths and curses. They have no idea of tactical coalitions. So much for the heritage of Sixties radicalism. Not everyone’s gone to seed, to be sure. There’s Lenni, who finally got me off the chair and actually there are many, many more who understand the importance of the third word that comes after Free Speech, namely “Movement”. Without a movement you have nothing, and you’ve built nothing. That’s what the ABB “leftists” don’t understand now. November 3 will be a bit late in the day to start looking for one.
It’s the long-term movements that count, the ones that don’t sell out every four years, to support someone like Kerry who wants to widen the war in Iraq and then go and burn down Teheran. These days many communities campuses have pro Palestinian groups on them. There were almost none thirty years ago. That’s a real Free Speech Movement, and one that has made a difference and will make a difference long after this campaign is over.