Please Warn Me of Poles, Pedestrians and Protestors

Jan 31, 2011 No Comments

By Claire M. Viall

As a tour guide, (the best job on campus – hiring soon) my favorite spot when I give tours is right in front of the Free Speech Movement Café. Being the history nerd that I am, I probably relay a tad too much information about this one spot on campus, but how can I not? I attend UC Berkeley, this bastion of political activity, right?

Well, before the Student Day of Action or Walkout on September 24th, I would have answered no. The daughter of an alum, I grew up hearing stories of taking over buildings, protesting the war and Governor Ronald Reagan. Well, what changed? What happened to us? We had a war going on and a pretty horrible governor to boot and yet, the political dynamics on this campus are not the same.

I think the issue is that the FSM gave us a reputation, like it or not, that we will never escape. This reputation, coupled with the fact that the university is located in a city that voted to impeach President Bush, does not help matters. Protests are expected and sometimes happen for no other purpose than just for the sake of protesting. That is not to say that there are not real issues to draw attention to, but sometimes it is about knowing your audience.

The Free Speech Movement erupted on this campus in December of 1964 because political speech and activity were denied to students and they felt that this was a detriment to their education. It was a time of political awakening for a lot of students in general. Emerging out of the tight-lipped 50s, students were traveling to places like the Mississippi Delta to register disenfranchised African American voters as a part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer; in fact, the highest number of students who participated were from Berkeley. With over 800 arrests, the Free Speech Movement was the largest student protest in our campus history and it fostered a community of activism that made UC Berkeley the most famous liberal university not only in the country, but around the world.

On my tours, after I give basically the spiel above, I used to say that this sort of political activity, the kind that galvanized the whole campus into a collective movement was no longer here. This spiel started to change after watching last November’s election. I thought that election day 2008 and the inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s first African American President, was my “Berkeley moment”; although I was never going to have the stories my dad had of taking over California Hall and waiting until the “Blue Meanies” came to break them up (know your Beatles), at least I saw something. At least I could cite some sort of political action.

The Walkout changed what I tell on my tours even more, but I have to say, it is not enough. There are so many parallels from today to the 1960s. To add to what I mentioned above, we have a civil rights battle heating up across the country. Except this time, California is not leading the way. Berkeley is not leading the way and frankly, I am disappointed.

Furthermore, I hate saying on my tours that if you don’t want to get involved in politics, you don’t have to – you can ignore it completely. I say this to parents and students aware of what we once were to calm them down. I came here for multiple reasons, but one was because of the large impact I know this school had and can have again on this country. The sad thing is, you can ignore it and it takes something like budget cuts impacting the entire school from class size to the libraries, to invigorate students once again.

The difference this time, is that it was a planned day of action- one day. FSM was almost spontaneous, student generated and in your face every day.  Today we have to rely on quotes from Mario Savio instead of coming up with a new collection of quotes for a new generation and our “movement”.

So what to do now? Don’t get me wrong; the Walkout was a great start and Berkeley delivered more than any other UC. But because we have this reputation, because FSM happened here, the stakes are higher. Protests are absolutely expected from us and because we have “eccentrics” (and by eccentric, I mean crazy) demonstrating on Sproul every other day, it clouds the message. If this is going to be our FSM moment we have to pool our efforts and make sure we are not ignored. If students can ignore activism, administrators and regents sure as hell can too. We need to be bigger than the walkout…five thousand people?!? We need ten thousand marching on Sacramento.  We have to make it impossible for them to ignore us and we have to motivate not only students, but also voters. So, when I come back to Cal, 30 years from now, to take a tour, there will be a café dedicated to us, with our pictures and our quotes and our burned draft cards…oh wait…

Fall 2009

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