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125 YEARS / EDUCATION: A COMMEMORATIVE EDITION / PROTESTS

From Berkeley, challenge to authority spreads

The Free Speech Movement serves as a model for antiwar rallies, but violence increasingly becomes a factor.

September 12, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

BEGINNING about noon on Oct. 1, 1964, Jack Weinberg sat in the back of a police car while hundreds of UC Berkeley students, singing "We Shall Overcome," encircled the cruiser and held it and its occupants captive for more than 30 hours. A succession of speakers, including Mario Savio, the emerging leader of the Free Speech Movement on campus, and future California Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, addressed the throng from the vehicle's roof.

These events were not the first example of student activism in California or the Bay Area. The social issues-minded campus political party SLATE was formed at UC Berkeley in 1958. Students at the university played a principal role in demonstrations against House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in San Francisco in May 1960, protests that resulted in singing demonstrators being fire-hosed from the steps of City Hall and 68 people, including 31 UC Berkeley students, being arrested. In 1963, students from the university participated in numerous demonstrations against racial discrimination in hiring at Bay Area restaurants, car dealerships, hotels and other businesses.

It was the Free Speech Movement, however, that, thanks to widespread media attention, resonated nationally and provided a basic blueprint for the student demonstrations that became common over much of the next decade.

Considering the circumstances and the sometimes violent nationwide student protest movement the incident was to help spawn, the arrest of Jack Weinberg was a decorous affair.

Campus police officers took shifts sitting with Weinberg. They permitted students to pass him food and water, and empty cartons he concealed under his coat while relieving himself. Graduate student Savio took off his shoes before climbing atop the car to speak.

"This was not a hostile scene, in any way," the 66-year-old Weinberg recalled recently. "This was different from the later time when hostility to police was a theme of activism. Nobody had any beefs with the campus police. They had a not very pleasant task, but they did it in good spirits. I was not fearful in the slightest."

Weinberg's arrest and the demonstration it prompted were the culmination of several days of student activism in opposition to a new rule prohibiting students on campus from promoting off-campus movements. Weinberg, chairman of the campus chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality, had, with other activists, defied the ban, setting up an information table in front of busy Sather Gate to lobby students regarding the racial oppression he and others, including Savio, had observed the previous summer while doing civil rights work in the southern United States.

Shortly after his arrest, when a newspaper interviewer's questions hinted that older communists might be orchestrating the student protest, Weinberg uttered what would be shortened into a mantra for activist youth of the day: "We have a saying in the movement that we don't trust anyone over 30."

The ensuing three months passed in negotiations with the administration, enmity toward the students from conservative members of the state Board of Regents, a massive sit-in at the university's main administration building that resulted in 773 arrests and a student strike backed by many faculty members. In the end, the Free Speech Movement succeeded in overturning the campus ban on promoting off-campus movements.

"The demonstrations start out as very peaceful, rooted in the recipe for demonstrations established in the South by Martin Luther King Jr. and others, where it's very, very dangerous," said Mary Corey, who teaches 20th century cultural and intellectual history at UCLA. "The singing of 'We Shall Overcome,' the holding hands, the dressing properly are part and parcel of the civil rights movement. They had the look and feel of the Old Left: people in suits, people with neckties, people in dresses."

The focus and relative civility that characterized the Free Speech Movement dissipated when student protesters turned their attention to the less readily influenced Vietnam War. Demonstrations occurred at hundreds of colleges and universities, and although relatively few erupted in violence, those that did seared an image of the era into the public memory.

Just as the Democratic Party's failure to seat members of the Mississippi Freedom Party at its 1964 national convention for fear of alienating Southern segregationists prompted many black activists to give up on reforming the system from within, the suppression of antiwar protesters at the party's 1968 convention in Chicago completed the radicalization of the student antiwar movement.

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