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LETTER FROM BERKELEY

December 22, 1996|LEONARD MICHAELS | Leonard Michaels is the author of, among other works, "Sylvia" (Mercury House), "To Feel These Things" (Mercury House) and "A Cat" (Riverhead Books)

The protests of the 1960s may fade in memory, but it remains clear that a critical spin swept the land and many young people engaged in outrageous, disruptive actions. Mario Savio put it this way: "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; and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon 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."

Savio doesn't say "the machine" restricts your freedom, only that it is indifferent to it, yet he made people feel they were personally oppressed, sickened, frustrated by an insensate, institutionalized operation and he inspired a need for action. During one protest at UC Berkeley, I heard that there wasn't a single sick student in the university hospital.

Savio is remembered with love as a heroic leader who could act as well as talk and as one who retained his political integrity to the end. At a memorial for him on Dec. 8, in the Pauley Ballroom of the Berkeley campus, every seat in the room was taken, and hundreds stood through the speeches for more than two hours. There was a lot of white hair in the crowd, which included young people and children and probably many who had been inspired by Savio and the Free Speech Movement in the '60s. People milled about the aisles, calling to one another and hugging. One gentleman said he'd thought about wearing a tie, because "they'll put us in the newspapers and say we could never hold a job."

There was plenty of laughter, and during the speeches people cried out for action. One said, "Democratize the regents," and another said the name Sproul Plaza--where Savio made a famous speech from the roof of a police car--should be changed to Savio Plaza. Fired by the idea the crowd chanted, "Savio Plaza, Savio Plaza."

I saw a former colleague, a professor of literature, hammering the air with his fist to protest the university's resistance to the name change, though it had been proposed only five seconds earlier. The thrill of going up against "the machine," or the nostalgia for protest, had taken well-dressed, comfortable-looking, law-abiding, highly educated, middle-aged folks and made them feel young and outrageous. Whatever your politics or proprieties, to not succumb, you'd have had to be made of stone.

In fact, the university hasn't resisted much since the '60s, so the memorial had an air of justified, triumphant exultation. Bettina Aptheker, a former member of the Free Speech Movement and one of the speakers, called the occasion "beautiful" and said, "Mario would have loved it." Later, Michael Rossman, an important figure in the Free Speech Movement who was close to Savio and who was with him when he died on Nov. 6, said there had been no leaders of the movement. "It would have happened without Mario," cried Rossman. "This is a political mourning." He kept saying, "You understand?"

It was a strong point and the crowd understood, but it hadn't gathered for edification or to memorialize the force of history. Another speaker agreed with Rossman but said that without Savio the movement wouldn't have happened the same way. In brief, one could honor the movement while continuing to love and celebrate Savio, the man.

Truston Davis, another friend of Savio's, gave an extraordinary speech. He said he'd met Savio in Alameda County's Santa Rita jail. "Like a lot of other young black and Mexican American people, I wasn't in jail for political reasons--at least not for my own political reasons." The crowd laughed and cheered. And then Davis told the story of that meeting. It lived in his manner and words and can't be reproduced in writing, but the gist is this: Davis, a prisoner who was the "lead man on a mop crew," saw a "tall, gangly, white dude walking across the wet floor." Davis yelled at him, "Hey, man, don't walk on the floor!" Savio "thought about it for a minute and said, 'What are my options? The ceiling? The wall? The floor?' "

In these questions, the crowd recognized Savio and laughed. Davis then said to Savio, "You know what. Let's take this to the mop room." Then he digressed slightly, telling the crowd: "This may seem like a small issue to you people, but in a jail every issue is magnified and it means a lot, and the minute you forget that you put yourself at risk."

The crowd understood that Savio had put himself at risk. Davis continued, "So we ended up in the mop room. It didn't take me very long to figure out that this was a special man. I held my counsel and tried to deal with it. He asked me a million questions. He had all kinds of suggestions on how we could do this."

Again, recognizing Savio in his questions and suggestions, the crowd laughed. Davis then said, "But the long and the short of it is that eventually I asked him, 'What's your name, man?' He said, 'Mario.' And it hit me. I knew. I said, 'Mario Savio?' He said 'Yeah.' And I knew he'd been in Mississippi. I had relatives in Mississippi. I grew up in Louisiana and I really respected the man. So we went out and walked on the floor. The floor was still wet."

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