A legacy of dissent
Campus’s activist tradition dates back to 1930s

By Cathy Cockrell,Public Affairs


sather gate 1940

Berkeley students hold an anti-conscription rally outside Sather Gate, in September, 1940.
Photo courtesy of University Archives

10 October 2001 | Like the Washington Mall, Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, and Peking’s Tianamen Square, Sproul Plaza has long served as a center and symbol of dissent. So when Berkeley students, in response to September’s terrorists attacks and the aftermath, raised both American flags and anti-war banners over its historic pavement, press and public took note.

It was the Free Speech Movement of the mid-1960s that crystallized Berkeley’s reputation as a place where the right to free speech is defended and exercised “with passion and intensity, frequently very loudly,” as Chancellor Berdahl said at the recent memorial for alumnus Mark Bingham, one of the passengers aboard hijacked United Airlines Flight 93. “While Berkeley is a great center of learning and action,” he said, “it is also a boisterous, contentious, disputatious place.”

History of Protest 101
That tradition of disputation didn’t start or end with the Mario Savio’s electrifying speeches on Sproul Plaza, as students learn during their very first week on campus.

A decade ago, Hal Reynolds of the Office of Student Life developed a presentation on “The History of Student Protest at UC Berkeley,” and he has offered it each year since.

As an antidote to newcomers’ sketchy and sometimes stereotyped impressions of the campus’s activist tradition, one “thread” of his Welcome Week talk is informational — describing campus activism dating back to the 1930s, when Berkeley students organized around rent, jobs, labor struggles and the Spanish Civil War.

In the decades following the second World War, each generation took on issues of the day — McCarthyism, the loyalty oath, civil rights, the draft, People’s Park, women’s and gay rights, apartheid and divestment in South Africa, ethnic studies, affirmative action, sweatshop labor.

Students in the ’60s fought for the right to distribute political literature on campus. Their offspring attend an institution steeped in a history of dissent, and staffed by many faculty and administrators who were once student activists themselves.

Reynolds — who participated in student protest as a Berkeley grad student in the Vietnam War era — urges students to consider the value of thoughtful engagement and dissent.

While some campus organizing has failed to achieve its goals or gotten sidetracked by violence, he says, there’s also cause for pride in what students have helped accomplish: an end to the war in Vietnam, the expansion of civil and women’s rights, the defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

Activist support
From a pedagogical viewpoint, the campus’s activist tradition can serve as a potent tool for sharpening students’ critical thinking skills and broadening their understanding of the world.

Teaching fellow Ken Light, who directs the Graduate Center for Photography at the School of Journalism, began his career as a photojournalist documenting the politics and culture of the Vietnam War era. “I’m encouraging all my students to get out and take pictures,” Light remarked following the Sept. 11 attacks and campus gatherings that followed. “These are historic times.”

Last spring, when a group of students silently entered the lecture hall of Professor of Public Policy David Kirp with bandanas over their mouths — dramatizing the drop in African American admissions since the end of affirmative action — he managed to transform it into a “teaching moment.”

“I (later) came to regard the intrusion as pedagogically fortuitous,” Kirp wrote in an account in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “When a Classroom Protest Becomes the Lesson.” Students began debating the protesters’ presence in terms of ethical questions, First Amendment rights, justice and political action — “getting an education” in the process, he wrote, “if not in the tidy form the syllabus outlined.”

From the police department to the student life office, the campus has come to anticipate, and in many ways support, an engaged student body.

“The Constitution allows us to have the freedom of assembly and to say what we wish,” says Capt. Bill Foley, who has served during hundreds of campus demonstrations in his 31 years with the UC Police Department. When people exercise their rights, he believes, “it keeps it fresh, keeps it going.”

These days, his department likes to be proactive rather than reactive in demonstrations, to work with student organizers before and during planned protests, and to train officers not only in tactical matters but in crowd psychology and non-provocative procedures.

Staff in the Office of Student Life work with 600 student organizations to plan and execute activities — from informational tabling and ethnic dance performances to teach-ins and protest rallies — and train staff volunteers to serve as impartial observers at those events most likely to foster controversy.

“I love the students and their passion,” says student affairs officer Virginia Nelson. “I may not always agree with their point of view, but it’s satisfying to help them plan an event that works and is safe for everybody.”

To the extent that students are open to their input, Nelson and her colleagues work with student activists before and during planned actions — helping them think about how best to communicate their message, understand the rules, and anticipate the consequences should they choose to violate campus regulations or the law.

A sounding board
Dean of Students Karen Kenney has followed student activism at Berkeley for 15 years. She notes that while liberal and progressive voices have traditionally been the loudest, in the past few years more conservative opinions have joined the fray.

“There have been always been quiet conversations among more conservative students,” she says, “but it’s the first time since I’ve been involved that there’s been a presence of activists on both sides.”

At initial demonstrations of student sentiment following Sept. 11, and at a series of heavily attended campuswide teach-ins, viewpoints varied and the lines seemed less sharply drawn than in the past.

Berkeley College Republicans shared a microphone with a group of Cal Democrats during a rally supporting the Bush administration. Bystanders lingered for the better part of an hour after the event to continue a searching dialog.

“For the most part, the descriptions were not ‘us and them,’” said Ojan Vafai, a sophomore taking classes in peace and conflict studies and computer science, of an anti-war rally on Sproul. “I was very impressed with people’s willingness to be open to different perspectives, and to work toward the greater unity.”

In the coming weeks, that spirit will surely be tested, as the national debate over war and peace plays out at this historical epicenter of free speech.

“If you do nothing but listen, you hear so many diverse viewpoints, … it keeps you questioning,” says Foley, who wore a UC police uniform identifying him as “part of the establishment” during Vietnam-era demonstrations and was forced to “question my own beliefs and values” as a result.
“Berkeley has a reputation of pushing the envelope, bringing issues to the forefront,” he said. “We’re kind of the sounding board, before we start seeing the same issues (raised) in other places in the country or the world.”


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