Free to Be Silent at UC Berkeley

Times Staff Writer

At the Free Speech Movement Cafe on a recent afternoon here, students silently sipped lattes and smoothies, oblivious to enlarged photographs on the walls of historic campus demonstrations.

A documentary film on the radical era, “Berkeley in the ‘60s,” flickered unwatched in one corner of the terraced cafe, where an intense new generation of scholars hunched mutely over wireless laptops.

The cafe decor, which features a picture of an impassioned student leader addressing a crowd from the roof of a police car, is a reminder that 40 years ago today, modern campus political activism began here at UC Berkeley.


The studious atmosphere inside the cafe, endowed by a wealthy admirer of the movement and dedicated in 1998 as part of the Moffitt Undergraduate Library, symbolizes how much California’s flagship public university has changed in four decades.

On Oct. 1, 1964, students protesting the noontime arrest of a civil rights activist surrounded a university police car and staged a 32-hour sit-in, an event that not only ignited the Free Speech Movement here but also inspired countless other movements under different names and forms on campuses around the world for years to come.

“In the fall of 1964,” states a panel at the entrance of the cafe that reads like a message from a time capsule, “a student protest movement galvanized this campus and shocked the nation. It soon resonated on campuses around the United States.”

But except for a few graduate students quietly discussing the works of Virgil, there was virtually no speech at all on the recent afternoon at the Free Speech Cafe. The only other audible voice was that of a cashier barking out food orders in Spanish.

The university still boasts hundreds of student organizations. But their causes, reports historian Lisa Rubens, 58, a Berkeley graduate and veteran of the Free Speech Movement, tend to be more personalized, centered on issues of gender, ethnicity and narrower political and environmental concerns.

“You don’t see the constant mass public demonstrations that tended to characterize the late ‘60s,” Rubens said. “Today’s concerns are much more sophisticated and targeted, reflecting the era of identity politics.”

‘Nothing but a Cafe?’

Faculty and students say that increasingly selective admissions standards, higher costs, onerous academic workloads and a largely apolitical Asian student population are some of the reasons behind the change in campus politics.

During a public radio program broadcast from the campus this week to commemorate today’s anniversary, host Michael Krasny wondered aloud: “Is the Free Speech Movement nothing but a cafe?”

One of the panelists on the program, distinguished Berkeley philosophy professor John R. Searle, responded instantly: “Yes, and that is very healthy.”

Searle, now 72, embraced the Free Speech Movement as a young faculty member but was critical of its more radical offshoots. He said the institutionalization of the movement was a good thing.

“The way healthy societies work,” said Searle, interviewed later at his Moses Hall office, “is that they assimilate. What was once a threat is now part of the mainstream. In a sense it has been domesticated.”

Searle predicted that one day there would even be a statue of the late Free Speech leader Mario Savio, who died in 1996, on the campus next to the monuments to Free Speech era Chancellor Clark Kerr -- who blamed the protests on “Mao-Castroite” influences -- and legendary football coach Pappy Waldorf.

A couple of students on the Krasny radio panel explained why today’s students couldn’t actively engage in politics.

“It’s not necessarily a lack of interest,” said student association Vice President Liz Hall. “There is higher tuition and less financial aid, which means more and more students on campus who have to work.”

But Kalin McKenna, 21, a combined history and premed major from Lake Forest, said busy students had found a new way to agitate.

“There’s more online activism now,” said McKenna, national outreach coordinator for Mobilizing America’s Youth. “A lot of people know they can get the information they need from a computer. Rather than attend a forum for an hour, they read a synopsis of the forum on the Internet that takes 30 minutes.”

The contrast with years past is especially evident during the lunch hour on Sproul Plaza, the main student courtyard and entrance on the south side of the campus.

One of the primary achievements of the Free Speech Movement was winning the right to set up tables and distribute political tracts in the block-long plaza just outside Sather Gate.

For years, Sproul Plaza at noon was a battleground of competing political ideologies and sidewalk orators vying for an audience.

Today’s version is a pale imitation.

The only orator on a recent afternoon was a shouting, dancing evangelist who identified himself as “David Temple, B.A., J.D. Apostle.”

Except for the obligatory campus clubs of the Republican and Democratic parties and one ferociously anti-Israel Internationalist Socialist table, there were few overtly political tables among the several dozen flanking the plaza.

But there were tables for Jehovah’s Witnesses and Campus Ministries, for Cal Bears for UNICEF and the Cal Ski & Snowboard Club.

The most numerous and active tables reflected the large Asian presence on campus: the Vietnam Students Assn., Pilipino American Alliance and Society of Hong Kong and Chinese Affairs, among others. About 40% of the student body is Asian, compared to less than 5% four decades ago.

Staffing the table of the Chinese Students Assn. was 21-year-old Peter Wang, a bioengineering major who described his organization as a “social club” that arranges dances, movie nights and karaoke songfests.

Asked about the legacy of the Free Speech Movement in his life, Wang, who was born in Taiwan and raised in Fountain Valley, said, “I never really thought about it, I guess.”

But even if most of today’s students don’t commemorate that fading era, the university and community have.

A Free Speech Movement Oral History Project, headed by Rubens, is racing to record the memories of participants.

Over the next week, veterans of the movement are staging a series of activities on or near the campus to remember the events of 1964.

Reenacting the Sit-in

Organized by former Free Speech steering committee member and longtime activist Michael Rossman, the programs will include panel discussions on the lessons of the movement, political satires, speeches by Texas columnist Molly Ivins and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh and, on Oct. 8 in Sproul Plaza, a reenactment of the original sit-in that will be attended by senior university officials.

Among those planning to be present are Assemblywoman and former Los Angeles Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and celebrated Berkeley chef and food guru Alice Waters, who were both Berkeley undergraduates during the Free Speech Movement.

“I’m going back to speak on top of the police car,” said Goldberg, who was among those hopping onto the vehicle 40 years ago. “That event in 1964 was probably the only really spontaneous thing I have seen in my long political life.”

Waters described her exposure to the movement as a young undergraduate from New Jersey as “an empowering experience that completely changed my life.”

Although she was only on the fringes of the movement, Waters said the experience showed her what people could accomplish when they tried. Indeed, it helped give her the courage to launch her own restaurant.

“Without the Free Speech Movement there would have been no Chez Panisse,” Waters said.

Over at the Free Speech Movement Cafe, 19-year-old sophomore history major Lisa Shapiro was sitting at an outdoor table, intently reading a biography of a 19th century American slave.

Looking up from her book, Shapiro, from the nearby city of Orinda, said she could still sense the “aura” of the Free Speech Movement.

“When I first came here and saw the photographs, it gave me a kind of tingly feeling that something special had happened here,” she said.

But Shapiro said the events 40 years ago had little relevance for most of today’s students. Without the military draft, even the current occupation of Iraq is not as galvanizing an issue as it might have been in years past.

“You tend to get people now,” she said, “who are more rebels without a cause.”