Learning more in 32 hours than in 32 ordinary months

Submitted by AWL on 7 March, 2008 - 7:46 Author: Tom Unterrainer

It’s very simple. We want to see social change in the world in which we live. We want to see this social change because we are human beings who have ideas. We think, we talk, we discuss, and when we’re done thinking and talking and discussing, well then, we feel that these things are vacuous unless we then act on the principle that we think, talk and discuss about. This is as much a part of a university education as anything else. - - Jack Weinberg, Berkeley Free Speech Campaigner

Jack Weinberg was arrested for trespass on the morning of 1 October 1964. His real “crime” was to be the loudest, most outspoken critic amongst a large group of students and campaigners who’d gathered to challenge restrictions against political campaigning at the University of Berkeley. Weinberg was typical of a number of students who’d started to question not only the world around them but the significance and relevance of their day-to-day lives. These students were influenced by and involved in the civil rights movement where their exposure to brutal, institutional racism armed them with the ability to resist oppression no matter how it was manifested.

Students had organised themselves into a united front of Clubs (the main political bodies on campus) in response to the “Kerr Directives” which proscribed many forms of political campaigning and restricted others. The Clubs had already mounted legalistic challenges to the directives, forcing a number of changes and clarifications to the rules through lobbying and debating the university administration.

At the end of this process, they were still faced with a set of directives that severely limited the right to organise politically on campus. They therefore decided to directly challenge the rules, setting up a number of campaign stalls in the heart of the Berkeley campus. “Shortly after 10, the first table appeared at Sather Gate; then others — about ten in all before long. At 11 o’clock the tables moved over to the foot of Sproul Hall steps. For the next 30-40 minutes the ‘table-manners’ industriously violated regulations, particularly by asking for contributions.” (Draper, Berkeley: the new student revolt)

Jack Weinberg was quickly identified by campus police as a leading trouble maker. The CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) stall, staffed by Weinberg, was the largest of those assembled and its activists some of the most hardened campaigners on campus. Weinberg was approached by university officials and Lieutenant Chandler, the campus police chief, who asked him for identification. Weinberg refused. “When the police chief said, ‘will you come peacefully, or if not, we’ll take you,’ the cry went up, ‘Take all of us!’ The cop went off to get help.” (Draper)

Now under the threat of immediate arrest, Weinberg turned to the crowd and gave a short speech outlining many of the ideas developed by university librarian and veteran socialist Hal Draper to explain what was going on at Berkeley: “I want to tell you about this knowledge factory, while we’re all sitting here now. It seems that certain of the products are not coming out to standard specifications. And I feel the university is trying to purge these products so that they can once again produce for industry exactly what they specify… Occasionally a few students get together and they decide they are human beings, that they are not willing to be products, and they protest; and the university feels obliged to purge these non-standard products.”

As Weinberg responded to a hostile student, a police car drove onto the scene and policemen carried him towards it. Even before they reached the car it was surrounded by students. They were joined by up to three thousand others who blockaded the car — with Weinberg inside — for thirty two hours.

The experience of those thirty two hours must have been as valuable to the students as a life-time of dry lectures. From the roof of the police car, speaker after speaker put forward analyses of the university, capitalism and tactics. Draper recalled “It was a tense situation, but what was more vivid at the time was a peculiar fact: this was my first speech in stockinged feet… There was no loudspeaker, but the immense crowd was amazingly quiet and orderly… By the time I had spoken for fifteen minutes about the basic issues in ‘mounting social and political action’ that had led to the suspensions and this protest, my voice was breaking.”

Speeches from the “platform” were not the only valuable lesson of the day. Questions of tactics came to the fore. In any sharp political confrontation — whether it be a strike, picket, protest or physical blockade — conservative and radical elements come into confrontation. Self-appointed representatives issue warnings of caution, call for reconciliation or a down-scaling of demands before anything has been achieved. Berkeley was no different.

The university administration refused the advances of one student, Jamie Burton, who immediately returned to the protestors and demanded compromise. Mario Savio, who was to become a leading figure in the still unformed Free Speech Movement, replied “Here’s a compromise for the dean: release the guy, don’t bother the people on the tables, and we’ll quietly disperse till the end of negotiations.”

For the students to disperse at that moment would have meant victory for the administration and a damaging de-escalation of student activity. All the campaigning efforts so far would have come to worse than nought as eight students were already suspended for political activity and Weinberg was still in the police car.

Rather than pack up and go home the students continued to blockade the car and sent Mario Savio in to issue demands. The administration was intransigent, they refused to negotiate on any but their own terms. In response, around 200 students left the blockade and staged a sit-in of the admin office.

I would encourage each individual … to teach children, in the home and in the school, ‘To be laws unto themselves and to depend upon themselves,’ as Walt Whitman urged us … for this is the well-source of the independent spirit.

Clark Kerr, President of UC Berkeley

At what point Kerr repudiated his much-vaunted liberalism is unknown. What we do know is that by October 1964 he had managed to personally engineer a crisis within the walls of his own university. Kerr’s reputation as a reasonable, liberal man exposed him as a hypocrite to those with political experience. To some politically raw students it sowed seeds of confusion. Throughout the day a running debate took place on issues of ‘Law and Order’. One group was concerned that militant action might not be the best way to oppose the restrictions, that breaking the law — university rules at any rate — would undermine the struggle. As Draper pointed out: “The CIO [US trade union organisation] sitdown strikes of the thirties had been clear violations of law and order. As a result they had brought a measure of democracy and human dignity to the shops and assembly lines. Many who denounced the students’ sit-ins seemed to think the students had invented the tactic. Nor did they ask how ‘criminal’ it could be if the Berkeley halls of learning suddenly produced such a multitude of criminals … didn’t this suggest there might be something dreadfully wrong with what the administration was doing …?”

Seymour Lipset, director of the Institute for International Studies, mounted the police car and denounced the students as acting “like the Ku Klux Klan” because they too violated the law.

The political debates played out that day and the lessons learnt are important not just for understanding how the Free Speech Movement developed. They provide an important example of how a relatively small number of experienced, politically educated individuals can influence and lead important political movements and provide guidance for confronting similar situations today.