Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Occupy Cal and the Free Speech Movement

By David Hollinger

As someone who participated in the Free Speech Movement as a student and who is now a member of the Berkeley faculty, I want to caution against the widespread impression (left, e.g., by the New York Times on November 20) that Occupy Cal is an extension of the substance, as opposed merely to the spirit of the Free Speech Movement. The spirit is most definitely similar, and that is all to the good. The eagerness of students to vigorously oppose civic evil and to debate serious issues in public policy does indeed recall the days of 1964, appropriately remembered with our FSM Café and our Mario Savio Steps. But the substantive differences between then and now invite more emphasis than they have so far received.

The FSM was directed against a set of petty, campus-specific regulations unwisely defended by the local administration of Chancellor Edward Strong. The demands of the FSM were quite easily met, and understandably won the support of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate by a vote of 8 to 1. The national movement of occupiers today is directed against something wholly different and much more formidable: economic inequality in the United States.

To be sure, in the background of the FSM was the Civil Rights Movement, but the FSM did not seriously allege that the power structure of Mississippi and that of UC Berkeley were somehow the same. The FSM swept away obstacles to mobilization against Jim Crow without accusing campus administrators of being part of it. But Occupy Cal, by applying the language and symbolism of Occupy Wall Street, implies that the UC Berkeley itself is integral to the economic inequality against which Occupy Wall Street is directed.

The very notion of “occupying Cal” conflates this campus with the political and economic order of the nation, grossly underestimates the role of UC Berkeley in advancing egalitarian goals, and implies that the defunding of higher education by voters and legislators — a step that of course promotes inequality — is somehow the fault of campus authorities and within their power to correct. Students are rightly outraged at the divestment of public higher education by the state of California, but it will not do to blame this on Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and his deputies.

The ban on overnight camping has some reasonable justifications, and it does not impede political advocacy remotely as severely as did the pre-FSM regulations about what words could be said on campus and exactly where and when. The “time, manner and place” rules under which the encampments were prohibited are ironically the product of 1964. There is some merit to the claim that overnight camping is protected speech, but it is a stretch, and the quarrel over this issue is an unfortunate diversion. Pushing the encampment issue and forcing one confrontation with the administration after another directs our energies away from the larger, national issues on which Occupy Wall Street properly focuses attention.

UC Berkeley can be a valuable site for the advancing of the current movement against economic inequality, just as, after the FSM, UC Berkeley was a valuable site for advancing the Civil Rights Movement. Once the inappropriate conduct of the police is suitably repudiated, as surely it must be, Berkeley egalitarians must refocus attention beyond campus. Our real enemies go about their business as usual while we fight among ourselves. Cal is not an appropriate target for the occupiers. The performance of Chancellor Birgeneau and his deputies is far from perfect, but we have bigger fish to fry.