An essay by Don Mitchell, Department of Geography:
This autumn marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement (FSM). In American lore, UC Berkeley student activists and their supporters are now seen as heroic defenders of crucial American ideals: the right to free political speech and the efficacy and importance of civil disobedience. Tightly linked to the rising Civil Rights Movement and to the anti-war movement that was just taking hold, FSM activists sought to open up the UC Berkeley campus as a space for engaged, vigorous debate. In the process, impressive orators like Mario Savio, Jackie Goldberg, and Sander Fuchs also articulated a vision of what many students thought the American university should be. While recognizing that they were part of the great democratization of American higher education that marked the post-war era, they were worried about what the university was becoming.
In 1963, only a year before the FSM erupted, UC President Clark Kerr, the great architect of the California higher education system, sought to articulate the then-modern university’s new role in society. Writing in The Uses of the University, Kerr argued that what he called the “multiversity” had to specialize in the “production, distribution and consumption of ‘knowledge’.” The university was an economic machine, a central cog in the machine of capitalist production. A few years before that Kerr and some colleagues had described their vision of what citizenship might now entail. As they laid it out in Industrialism and Industrial Man (1960) not only were universities part of a new rational social order, but so was politics. Politics were now a matter of management. Men and women, Kerr and his colleagues wrote, “can be given some influence” in political life, but, “Society has achieved consensus and it is perhaps less necessary for Big Brother to exercise political control. Nor in this Brave New World need genetic or chemical means be employed to avoid revolt. There will not be any revolt anyway, except little bureaucratic revolts that can be handled piecemeal.”
Perhaps the FSM was piecemeal, but it was part of a much larger revolt against the way society – and the university – was structured. As Jackie Goldberg argued:
[T]he University has not gone far enough in allowing us to promote the kind of society we are interested in. We’re allowed to say why we think something is good or bad, but we’re not allowed to distribute information about what to do about it. Inaction is the rule, rather than the exception in our society and on this campus. And, education is and should be about more than academics.
The FSM activists won and opened up the campus for both political action and important experiments in non-instrumentalist education, forms of education that explicitly rejected what we would now call the corporatization of the university. The victory only came after a long and concerted effort and against significant opposition from among some faculty, many administrators, the Board of Regents, and pressure from the governor’s office.
In December, nearly three months after the FSM began, but before most of the crucial issues had been settled, Mario Salvio made his most famous speech, now remembers as one of the great instances of activist oratory:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
But it is worth remembering what he said right before that:
We have an autocracy which runs this university. It’s managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received — from a well-meaning liberal — was the following: He said, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?” That’s the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw material[s] that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!
* * *
There is a line, a fifty year-long, complex, twisted, but nonetheless vital, line that connects the FSM with THE General Body – the students occupying Syracuse University’s Crouse-Hinds Building. The line from FSM led directly to the Vietnam Day Committee and the explosion of antiwar activism, but also and importantly to the Third World Strike of 1969 that demanded new programs in Black and Ethnic studies, a more diverse student body, and that universities address the institutional, structural racism that was not incidental to universities’ postwar democratization. It led to the ebb and flow of two generations of movements of students on campus: student protests against the expansion of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, the wars in Central America in the early 1980s, university investment in corporations doing business with or supporting the South African Apartheid regime later that decade, women’s access to and safety within the public spaces of campus, universities’ acceptance of sweatshop labor in their branded goods and other vital labor issues in the 1990s, rising tuition and the closing down of the democratic promise of universities, together with ongoing racism and a festering rape culture in our current times. In each of these movements and each of these moments, students have not only focused in on issues of great social concern, but also taken the reins of education and sought to reorient its purpose, refocus it way from an instrumental “production, distribution, and consumption of ‘knowledge’” and toward a deeper engagement with ideas, with collective, collaborative learning, and with making education a public, progressive good rather than merely a corporate training ground.
All students know they must find a way to earn a living when they graduate, but they want that living to be meaningful – for their education, in the end, to lead to more than just being “bought by some clients of the University.” For education to be meaningful, the university needs to prepare the ground – not the ground to be a cog in the machine, but the ground to know when to “put your bodies against the gears … and make it stop.”
THE General Body has made it stop. And in doing so, they have exposed another way in which that line between FSM and now remains vital. Every successful movement of students (indeed every successful social movement) has been successful when it has been able to take, occupy, and hold a space from which their demands can be made – and seen. The FSM occupied Sproul Plaza and made it its own. The anti-apartheid movement occupied quads all over the United States. The student movement of 2010-2011, which fought against austerity reforms at universities and schools around the world (from once again Berkeley, to Santiago, to Glasgow, to Korea, and any number of places in-between) advanced by occupying buildings and campuses and holding on tight. Beyond the university, the taking of space has been utterly vital to the pressing of demands. Occupy Wall Street (and everywhere else), the Hong Kong democracy movement, the Arab Spring and the Tel Aviv tent protests that came hot on its heels, Gezi Park and Taksim Square in Istanbul, and the current protests in Mexico City: in every instance the occupation and holding of space has forced governments and institutions to respond (sometimes violently, sometimes by addressing the ills brought to the surface by the protest) and public discourses have been altered. Holding space makes movements visible; it gives them purchase; it makes them unavoidable.
The Syracuse University Administration understands this, of course, which is why, as it scrambles to come up with a way to move the students out, it has stocked the Crouse Hinds lobby with armed “Public Safety” officers, constantly shifted the rules by which THE General Body’s occupation will be “tolerated,” and thrown up an opaque fence all around the building, blocking the occupation from view. At the same time, it has been forced to contend with the identified needs – the demands – and the proposed solutions of the student occupiers. Discourse on campus has been changed. Grievances – beyond those being raised by THE General Body – are being raised as others are emboldened by the steadfastness of the occupation. Change is in the air.
Opposition, from among many students too, remains, which is inevitable. There was all kinds of opposition to the FSM, too. But we now recognize that Free Speech Movement activists were not merely the “non-conformists” Clark Kerr called them, nor merely “well educated” but inexperienced youth whose “libidos are unanchored” as the sociologist Seymour Lipset described them, but, as my colleague Bob Wilson has said of student activists more generally, men and women who are “on the right side of history.” All indications are that THE General Body, whether we agree with each of their demands or not, is also on the right side of history. It would behoove the Administration of Syracuse University to recognize that fact.
It’s their education, but all our future, the students occupying Crouse Hinds are so determined to shape, and just as we all like to think, in the rosy gloss of history, that had we been there we would have actively supported and abetted the Free Speech Movement fifty years ago, we owe it to ourselves – as well as to the students – to support THE General Body now.