The Outlook Interview; Mario Savio Talks to Karlyn Barker; Mario Savio, 41, was a junior in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley 20 years ago this month when he climbed atop a police car surrounded by students in the university's Sproul Plaza and struck what is now seen as the first blow for the social and political revolution that is encompassed by that amorphous phrase "The '60s." What Savio actually helped launch that day was the Free Speech Movement -- the first nationally noted college protest of the era. Although it is almost incomprehensible today, at the time, the university administration prevented students from conducting political activities -- such as supporting the black civil-rights movement then at its height -- on campus. It also controlled who could be allowed to speak on campus. The FSM was a struggle by Berkeley students to limit the university's role in matters of speech to technical affairs such as scheduling. Savio became the master orator of the FSM. The protest culminated in the arrest of more than 800 persons during a sit-in in Sproul Hall. He served 120 days in jail for his leadership role -- U.S. Attorney General-nominee Edwin Meese was one of the prosecutors -- but the FSM goals were eventually achieved and the organization disbanded. Since then, Savio has been in self-imposed seclusion, the result of '60s "burnout" and a wariness of giving press interviews that focus on him rather than issues. Suspended for his campus activism, he studied in England for a time, once ran for the California senate as a candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party and re-enrolled briefly at Berkeley in the early 1970s. This month, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement and to register his alarm at U.S. involvement in Central America -- which he calls the next Vietnam -- Savio broke 15 years of public silence to address a commemorative rally at the Berkeley campus. He is still "press shy" and turned off the tape recorder at several points during this interview when he thought the questions too personal. Today Savio, older and grayer but unchanged in his political convictions, is a graduate student and teaching assistant at San Francisco State University, where he graduated last spring, summa cum laude, with a bachelor's degree in physics. He has three children from two marriages and lives with his second wife, a psychologist, in San Francisco. Karlyn Barker, who entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1966, is a reporter for The Washington Post.
Q: Many people -- college and high school students especially -- have never heard of the Free Speech Movement. Why did it occur?
A: The Free Speech Movement (FSM) was a direct outgrowth of white student involvement in the civil-rights movement of the very early 1960s. In the summer preceding the FSM, the summer of 1964, a number of students from western and northern campuses -- including myself -- took part in the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
We had as nightly (television) fare, black students in civil-rights protests, holding themselves against the onrush of water from fire hoses or the snarling, snapping police dogs. Our identification with the students of the black civil-rights movement (was) the emotional and social underpinnings of the FSM.
When we came back to school in the fall of 1964, the administration sent letters out to the heads of the various political and social-action organizations. I was chairman of the Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (a civil- rights group) and those letters said that from then onward there would be no such activity on the Berkeley campus. For us it was a question: whose side are you on? Are we on the side of the civil-rights movement? Or have we now gotten back to the comfort and security of Berkeley, California, and can we forget the sharecroppers whom we worked with just a few weeks before? Well, we couldn't forget.
Q: It was more than just what you did for your summer vacation.
A: Yeah. One instructor said he could tell in the eyes of the students that fall that there had been some kind of change. The faces looked different. There was a kind of a determination, a never-turn-back expression in people's eyes.
Q: The FSM people take a lot of pride in the fact that their demonstrations were non-violent. How did you feel (in later years) when the protests turned so violent?
A: When I went down to Mississippi, the SNCC workers encouraged non-violence, but they asked us to think about particular kinds of situations in which our non-violence would be sorely tested. Suppose youre caught in a farmhouse with a black family at night and night riders come to the farmhouse and start shooting into the farmhouse? Suppose the family wants to defend itself? Suppose one of the people asks you to hand them a gun? What will you do? They encouraged us to imagine what the situation might be like.
I realized at the time that I was, and am, personally non-violent, but that I would not be able to interfere with families defending themselves if they were under armed attack. It seems to me that the extent to which we in the opposition resort to violence when there's no need, when we are not defending ourselves, we encourage others who don't share our democratic values to eliminate our rights.
I'm told that people in other parts of the country have the impression that (the Free Speech Movement) was a very violent movement. There were reports that we overturned a police car on campus.
Q: You took your shoes off when you got on top.
A: Somebody in the crowd said to me as I was starting to get up on it, "Take your shoes off!" I understood this was the right thing to do and I took my shoes off. (The movement) was force without violence. We weren't begging for our rights. We were demanding our rights.
We were fighting on the Berkeley campus for a very simple, very clean principle: that the university administration should under no circumstances have any authority to regulate the content of speech. That position is so basic, so elementary that it's hard for people now to even imagine what the fight was all about!
Q: I remember seeing you on the Berkeley campus in 1969 right after a particularly violent clash between police and demonstrators. The windows of the Student Union had been bashed in and there was trash all over the floor. You were exchanging some concert tickets and nobody seemed to recognize you, but as you left, you stopped and picked up some trash on the floor and put it in the trash bin. I always thought that that gesture said so much about your feelings for that campus. You really cared about that place.
A: Yeah, and I do. The university I think of as kind of a refuge, in spite of what the administration and the external society may do -- places where there is a community of students and teachers. Despite all distortion, there is some real fostering of thoughtfulness, despite a factory- style education sometimes, even a fostering of a certain degree of serenity. I don't feel good about trashing universities and that's not what I was trying to do.
Q: There was a period when some FSM veterans talked about you as a recluse and even as a victim of the movement. Did you have a hard time picking up your life after such an intense period? Do you ever wish that you didn't care so much or get so involved? Why you?
A: There's something mysterious in that. A minority of people -- I'm not unique -- do seem to be more affected. This has been a terrible century. It would be in the running as "worst century" in the last 20. A great many people seem to have been numbed, so that the possibility of having a fresh reaction to each thing no longer exists.
Q: Jack Weinberg, whose arrest in Sproul Plaza launched the FSM, says the '60s and FSM changed his life. Joan Baez says she's sick to death of the '60s. Eldridge Cleaver is a Republican and Jerry Rubin has traded in Yippieism for Yuppieism and says networking and stock trading is where it's at. Does it bother you when somebody like Rubin gets a lot of publicity for, in a sense, apoligizing for what he did in the '60s?
A: He is not unique, but close to it. We've lost very few sheep from this fold. The rest of us are bleating just as before. And I think we'll go on for the rest of our lives. I cannot foresee circumstances under which I would become a stockbroker. My field is physics and there is certainly great scope for evil in that particular field. If I ever felt that there was any harm to people that would come from the sort of work that I do, I'd become a gardener.
Q: You're involved now in efforts to challenge U.S. policies in Central America. After 20-plus years of movement struggles and political battles, where do you find the energy to gear up for another one?
A: I've had a certain amount of rest -- about 15 years. I'm a young person. I'm going to be 42 in December. So, as they say, he's at the height of his powers. Those of us who were active in the movement (are) being referred to now as aging radicals. I don't know what this means. Maybe by American standards only children can have political convictions. That as you get older you lose your convictions and this is a normal part of growing up. Judging from those of us who got together (this month), there are lots of people who we're going to find now energized by the fact that we are getting into another colonial war. You'll see a lot of people of my generation who will be right back in the thick of it.
Q: The "rainbow lady," who I gather is a special character around the Berkeley campus, said at the panel on protest the other night that those who survived the '60s ought to consider themselves heros just for getting through that era. Do you feel like a survivor?
A: In a sense, of course. There were people who didn't make it. The people at Kent State. The three civil rights workers in Mississippi. James Rector who was shot in Berkeley and the artist (Alan) Blanchard who was blinded by gunfire in Berkeley.
There were people whose lives were ruined by drugs, who may have survived but in a much weakened form. A number of people I knew just died from natural causes. One person I can think of committed suicide and there were others I'm sure. There are other people whose lives were touched by tragedy, who emerged from the shadows of it chastened, and maybe stronger for it. I consider myself one of those people. But we didn't get emotionally crushed. There's a significant number of people in this country who have been active before who are going to be active again and who will resist. In sum I would say as a generation I'm proud of us.
Q: You were studying philosophy at Berkeley and you were a junior at the time of FSM. This past spring you finally got an undergraduate degree in physics. Why didn't you graduate sooner and why did you switch majors?
A: I actually switched back. I was born into the Catholic religion and I needed to have a little sojourn in philosophy to help think my way out. Anyone born Catholic who has tried to extricate themselves knows it's a difficult thing to do and it turns out that the period of the FSM coincided, overlapped part of that period during which I was trying to think and feel my way free of that.
I had started in physics in a Catholic college and I used philosophy for my personal purpose, which is the best thing to do with it. Then I returned to physics. If my life hadn't followed quite the twisted path it has, I imagine I would have gone on to a doctorate some time ago and would perhaps be teaching at a college someplace now.
Several months ago my wife and I had a little conference and we said to one another, well, there's a war building in Central America and at some point we'll have to decide to rearrange our lives so we could make some contribution to resisting that war.
Q: Since the FSM you've said been dogged by the cult of personality. Why does it bother you so much?
A: Just recently I was part of a group that spoke on the Berkeley campus -- former leaders of the FSM. I had no part in the organization at all. I simply was one of the speakers. But in some of the papers, there was really no sign at all that anybody was involved but me. (As if) I was a sort of strange person parachuting down from Mars, who just couldn't resist the temptation to make another great speech on the Berkeley campus. It's embarrassing.
I sometimes feel ashamed to talk to people with whom I'd worked in a collective, highly democratic movement after seeing myself in the paper and thinking oh, my God, do they think that I'm really enjoying this?
Q: How did it feel seeing so many of your friends and associates at the recent FSM reunion at Berkeley?
A: It was terrific! I wanted to be with my friends, but I had a current motivation as well. I wanted to see how the current students would react to the sorts of things that we stood for then and that most of us stand for now. When I made a speech on Sproul steps, I was listening to see well, are they going to clap in the places I hope they are? When the rally was over and I just walked away from the plaza, people would come up to me, clearly younger than I was -- it's getting easier and easier to tell -- and say, hey, thanks for that speech, I really appreciated it, that was a good job. It was very gratifying.
Q: How do you react when student surveys suggest that college students today are apathetic compared to students of the '60s and want high-paying careers rather than social crusades?
A: Just a few months before the FSM, the radical student government party on the Berkeley campus got crushed by the conservative opposition and considered disbanding because (they thought), "It's hopeless, we can't get through to these people." Then suddenly the FSM emerges out of student involvement in the civil- rights movement. If the reception we received (this month) on the Berkeley campus had been lukewarm, or a matter of simply nostalgia, then I would feel differently. But I was very heartened by the reception. It clearly was related to real understanding of the issues. It's too early to write this generation off.
Q: Looking back, what do you see as the legacy of the Free Speech Movement?
A: That there was evidence that a mass movement could be organized amongst white youth alone. That became very important and gave us confidence in the years ahead that we could organize a movement against the Vietnam war.
It took years to organize and to energize a sufficient domestic opposition that could make a real contribution to ending the war. You sort of hate to think of having to go through that all over again. But people who think that those who struggled against that colonial war won't be around to struggle against this one, have another think coming. We have a lot of work to do and it's time for us to come out of the woodwork. If this war is significantly escalated, it will come home here. It will be once again something to be decided in the streets of America.