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.
“When antiwar demonstrators were shut up inside the hall and protesters outside were beaten, the conclusion was that there’s nobody in the system who is our ally,” said Barbara Epstein, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who specializes in the history of social movements and was a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s. “At that point, the movement took on a different and angrier tone.
“Affecting foreign policy is different from getting domestic laws passed. The Free Speech Movement was lucky because there was a series of easy victories, and there’s nothing that builds a movement faster than easy victories. And that, of course, evaporated later on because with the war in Vietnam, there was no such thing as easy victories.”
UCLA’s Corey said the student antiwar movement -- as well as similar movements for the establishment of black studies departments, reforming of town-gown relations and affirmation of Chicano rights, particularly on California campuses -- became characterized by a determination “to demonstrate militancy rather than that ‘we’re ordinary Americans trying to exercise our rights.’ ”
The escalating militancy of the students was met by an increase in harsh, sometimes savage, suppressive tactics by police and the National Guard (a commission studying the events surrounding the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention characterized them as “a police riot”). Increasingly angry protests against the war -- the flag-burning, the taunting of soldiers -- inevitably raised the patriotic ire of many Americans.
Few campuses in California were untouched by the ferment.
In November 1968, students at San Francisco State embarked on a 4 1/2 -month strike, demanding a black studies program and an end to the war. In the course of the strike, students engaged in sporadic vandalism (one was injured when a homemade bomb exploded in his hands) and police clubbed demonstrators and arrested hundreds.
Campuses increasingly became the stages on which black militancy played out. In January 1969, two local leaders of the Black Panthers were shot and killed by rival militants on the UCLA campus. Later that year, university officials began attempts to fire UCLA philosophy professor Angela Davis, a member of the Communist Party and a strident black militant, which plunged the campus into turmoil over academic freedom. Davis was dismissed in January 1970; she now teaches at UC Santa Cruz.
Three riots by students at UC Santa Barbara in the winter and early spring of 1970 resulted in the arrest of a score of student leaders and the burning down of the Isla Vista branch of the Bank of America. Gov. Ronald Reagan called in the National Guard, and a student trying to defend the temporary bank set up to replace the one that had burned was accidentally shot and killed by police.
The decision by President Nixon, announced April 30, 1970, to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia triggered a furious outburst of protest on the nation’s campuses. Four days later, Ohio National Guardsmen fired on demonstrating students at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine.
The next day, May 5, hundreds of demonstrators at UCLA went on what The Times described as “a window smashing march through the Westwood campus” in “one of the worst disruptions on California campuses.” It prompted university officials to declare the first state of emergency in the school’s history. More than 70 were arrested, and a dozen students and 10 police officers were injured in clashes.
Four days later, the president of USC offered students at his university the opportunity to drop out of classes without academic penalty if they wished to work for the peace effort full time.
The National Chicano War Moratorium, headed by former UCLA student-body President Rosalio Munoz, drew 20,000 people, many of them students, to an antiwar parade and rally in East Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 1970. The demonstration erupted in looting and arson along Whittier Boulevard. In the police attempt to quell the disturbance, Los Angeles Times Mexican American affairs columnist Ruben Salazar, who was also news director at KMEX-TV Channel 34, was killed by a tear gas canister that a deputy fired into a bar where the 42-year-old journalist had stopped to use the restroom and drink a beer.
Early in the evolutionary arc of the student protest phenomenon, countercultural influences began to seep into and increasingly define the movement in the public mind. Serious-minded reformers, Corey said, were often upstaged by “a kind of pranksterism, levity and street theater” practiced by such leaders as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. This influence was most apparent in such events as an attempt, led by Hoffman, to encircle the Pentagon during a massive rally in October 1967 and sing and chant until the building levitated and turned orange, driving out “evil spirits” and ending the Vietnam War.
Harsh police response to the antiwar demonstrations shocked many student protesters. They were, in the main, the sons and daughters of a comfortable middle class, and were prone to assume that university officials and national political leaders would respond to their concerns. The vivid refutation of that assumption by police billy clubs and National Guard bullets convinced some of the activists that revolution was imminent, a notion virtually nonexistent among the vast majority of Americans. That sort of thinking, “that fictive revolution,” Corey said, “was anathema to real politicos” in the movement.
“We made a lot of mistakes, and we were under fire and went a little wacky in the head,” she said. “But what we believed in was one of the truly great ideas -- participatory democracy -- which was what we were taught this country was about.”
The demonstrations after the Kent State shootings marked the last great outburst of massive student protests, thanks mostly to the steady decrease in U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, which ended in 1973. “As the war came to an end, most of those who had participated in the movement withdrew from politics and turned their attention to getting their lives together,” Epstein said.
Demonstrations occasionally materialized on California campuses in subsequent decades -- against racism in the 1980s and for Chicano studies in the 1980s and 1990s. In May 1993, for example, demonstrations for a department of Chicano studies at UCLA resulted in vandalism and the arrests of 90 protesters; after a two-week hunger strike by nine students and faculty members, the department was created.
These, however, tended to be isolated events driven by local conditions. Broader protests against U.S. policy -- for instance, in Nicaragua and Guatemala -- were generally not campus phenomena.
Just this year, students persuaded the UC Board of Regents to divest from some companies with ties to the Sudanese government, a move to protest violence in the country’s Darfur region. Although the students staged some demonstrations, they succeeded largely by working with the regents rather than against them.
Within five years of playing his symbolic role in the origins of the student protest movement, Jack Weinberg had begun having misgivings about the course it had struck.
“It was not so much that I had some objection to the antiwar movement, but rather it became clear that if Berkeley was the whole country, the changes we wanted would be accomplished. But Berkeley wasn’t the whole country. I thought the movement had become very self-absorbed and that protest was becoming not a means to an end but an end in itself.
“I had a hard time relating to that, the notion you could make revolution in one college town. I felt the kind of activism at Berkeley wasn’t going to go anywhere until it had a broader social base. I decided I didn’t want to stay in Berkeley anymore, and I decided to move on.”
In the ensuing years, Weinberg moved to Detroit, worked in several automobile plants and became active in the United Auto Workers union. He was fired during a wave of wildcat strikes in 1973 and moved to Gary, Ind., where he involved himself in the United Steelworkers Union and settled in for a life as a steelworker.
On learning that a nuclear power plant was to be built near his home, he organized a successful campaign against it. After the steel industry around Gary collapsed, Weinberg eventually got a job with Greenpeace International on Great Lakes pollution issues and later hired on with the Environmental Health Fund. Now he works on environmental issues in developing countries, which requires him, a grandfather of three, to travel frequently. He also has an adjunct faculty position in public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Now I’m definitely thinking about the time when my life of activism draws to a close and I go into a quieter period of retirement and reflection,” he said. “I’ve been going pretty much nonstop ever since those Berkeley days.”