Marking the 40th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement on Friday, organizers are attempting to re-create that iconic tableau of the '60s protest movement: a police car surrounded by thousands of Berkeley students, a few of whom climbed up on the car's hood and roof and railed against the university's policies denying the students free speech.
"I love the fact that all the students took off their shoes before climbing on it," says UC Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle, who, as a young faculty member, joined the movement 40 years ago. "That's so American. Americans respect cars. They don't respect the police, but they do respect cars. I like that."
The police car parked outside Sproul Hall on Friday is a new white Ford Crown Victoria, and there is a makeshift stage made out of wood and foam built over the car's roof. The watered-down setup doesn't bother Jack Kurzweil, an FSM veteran who received his master's degree from Berkeley in 1966. He looks on with great amusement.
"Are you kidding me?" he asks. "Some of us need a ramp and a forklift. These are folks from the '60s. I climbed it, sure, but none of us could do that today." As for the late-model car: "Young man, vintage cars are very expensive to rent."
The crowd of almost 3,000 Friday could easily carry former presidential candidate Howard Dean to the stage for his speech, if the volume of cheers greeting him is any indication. Dean comes on after a slew of FSM veterans -- including California assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg -- had taken the stage to sing, read poetry, talk about their past and the crowd's future. Dean tells the crowd that "history is cyclical," and that's why the lessons of the '60s need to be learned and celebrated. But most of Dean's speech sounds like this:
"The right wing is about guns, God, gays and abortion!"
"We need a president to defend America and to tell the truth!"
"That's why I am voting for John Kerry for president of the United States."
The crowd cheers. Doug Smith, 20, the lone student holding a Bush-Cheney sign during the rally, takes it all in stride. "I sort of expected this reaction -- it's Berkeley. I'm not going to take my sign down."
Then Dean predicts that Berkeley will beat the University of Southern California in Saturday's football game, to which a student in the crowd responds, "Oh, now he's really pandering."
The notion that the Free Speech Movement was a victory of the left is a time-honored misconception. At the beginning of the school year in 1964 when, at the height of the civil rights era, the university banned political advocacy of off-campus social issues on school property, both liberal and conservative student groups joined forces, calling themselves the United Front.
"It's always exciting to be a part of a movement made up of people who don't normally agree with one another," says Goldberg. She is the first spokeswoman for the group. "That was the genius of the FSM: It had left, right and center."
On Sept. 30, 1964, the student activists ignored the new policies and set up shop beneath the arch of Sather Gate. The five students manning the tables, and eventually three other student leaders, were asked to appear before the dean at Sproul Hall for disciplinary measures. But more than 400 other students demanded to go before the dean as well, saying they were equally involved.
The dean refused to see the other students, who, in turn, refused to budge from the building. The standoff continued into the next morning. A police officer arrested a mathematics grad student named Jack Weinberg for not identifying himself. But before the police car could take him away, students and their supporters surrounded the car, the roof and hood of which became the impromptu podium, sans shoes, for the day's rally of nearly 5,000 people.
The shoes also came off of a 21-year-old philosophy student named Mario Savio, whose knack for eloquent revolutionary metaphors quickly made him the most recognizable spokesman for the FSM. Savio died in 1996 at the age of 53. Author and columnist Molly Ivins was chosen this year to give a midweek lecture in his name.
"I feel very connected to the spirit of the movement, even though I was very far from the action those days," Ivins says before her lecture. "I'm working on a book about the Bill of Rights, and I think the lessons of the FSM just have to be learned. But there's always an extent to which we think: 'When will we ever learn?' Think about it -- there was a rule on this campus against political activity. Doesn't that blow your mind?"
The rally is the centerpiece to a celebration that has continued all week. It includes a film festival, poetry readings, FSM reunions, lectures and panels.
On Tuesday, a panel discussion on "Students, Power and the Desires of Society" took place at the Free Speech Movement Cafe, which opened on campus in 2000. Junior Ester Kwon, 20, was sitting outside the cafe when a friend came up and asked her why the cafe was closed.
"Some kind of free-speech talk or something," Kwon says.
The friend looks worried. "Does that mean we can't get coffee?"
As her friend walks away, Kwon says, "Whatever. It's Berkeley -- that's what it's known for. I'm pretty apathetic about [the anniversary], since I'm more of a conservative."
Indifference is more widespread than that. According to the university, there are now as many career-oriented student clubs at Berkeley as political ones.
"People are here to get a degree and have a successful career, and it's stronger now than it was in the '60s," says Searle. "I think it's because students feel more economically insecure right now. In the '60s, kids came from middle-class families where they took financial security for granted and they came here and paid nothing. Now, they come from all different backgrounds, and they don't take economic security for granted."
Goldberg doesn't believe that apathy will be the last word on Berkeley, and her experience during the FSM proves that, she says. She thinks there's something special about the campus community.
"I can't forget the time when we were all about to be arrested in Sproul Hall," says Goldberg, referring to a later sit-in. Around 1 in the morning, the local radio stations started to report that police units were being sent to arrest the students, she says.
"At that moment, from the east window of Sproul Hall, I saw hundreds of students running down Bancroft toward us, hoping to get into the building in time so that they could be arrested, too. It was an exhilarating moment."
"I'll tell you a secret about democratic societies," Searle concludes. "If a movement is successful, it has to be symbolically absorbed into the mainstream. I think that's what happened to the FSM. The FSM is not a threat to anyone if it's a coffee shop -- a cafe, for God's sake. If a police car can be something that former presidential candidates can climb on, it's no longer a revolutionary act. And I think that's terrific. It's a sign of a healthy democracy."