People, Politics & society, Profiles

Buxbaum still going strong after seeing Berkeley through years of turmoil

Lawyer and activist has been teaching law at Berkeley through the Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam draft and the Third World Liberation Front strike and still has a yen to be in the classroom.

Richard Buxbaum

Richard Buxbaum has seen it all at Berkeley in more than half a century of teaching and advocating for the disenfranchised. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

“I don’t mind a little turmoil, I have to tell you. I didn’t then, and I don’t now.”

That, in two short sentences, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Richard Buxbaum, lawyer and activist.

At 88, Buxbaum is among the oldest professors still teaching at UC Berkeley, a place where turmoil has made some inroads over the years.

Do you remember the Free Speech Movement? Buxbaum does. He defended 773 activists arrested during the FSM between 1964 and 1965. Do you remember the Vietnam War? Buxbaum does. He schooled dozens of young Berkeleyans anxious to avoid conscription in how to claim conscientious objector status. Do you remember the Third World Liberation Front strike in 1969? Buxbaum does. He spent weeks helping to bail many arrestees out of jail and was lead co-counsel for 150 of them.

And, frankly, that doesn’t begin to encompass the turmoil Buxbaum, the Jackson H. Ralston Professor of International Law at Berkeley Law, has seen. He was born in Germany, and remembers the horrors of November 9 and 10, 1938, that accompanied Kristallnacht, when Nazis there went on a rampage, torching synagogues and vandalizing homes, business and schools of persons suspected of being Jews. At least 91 died.

Not long after that, the Buxbaum family packed up and headed for the United States. They would wind up in upstate New York, where his father, a doctor, worked on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. Buxbaum would go on to nearby Cornell University to get a law degree and then to Berkeley, where he earned an advanced law degree.

Richard Buxbaum

Richard Buxbaum. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

From there, at the very end of the Korean War, he was drafted into the U.S. Army where, once again, turmoil found him. As a native speaker of German, he was detached as a junior counsel to Heidelberg, where not much was happening — just the finalization of the treaty that ended the 10-year occupation of Germany by the allied nations of World War II. Buxbaum was on hand as his native country earned equal status among western nations.

“All I had to do,” he says, “was to make sure both sides understood what their treaty obligations were.”

Piece of cake.

Buxbaum came to Berkeley in 1961 to teach law. Over the next half-century, he would do that and more. He would live through history.

“Berkeley invited me back, and I got involved,” Buxbaum says. “I was teaching, but with the Free Speech Movement, Vietnam and the Third World Liberation Front, I wasn’t doing the kind of research I thought I’d be doing. But as an old lefty, I had a fair amount of sympathy for what the students were trying to do.”

His first taste of the building tide of unrest that would engulf Berkeley came in 1964. One of his law students came to him with the news that a couple of her sorority sisters had been at an FSM sit-in, had been arrested and were sitting in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. Could Buxbaum do something to help bail them out? He could. And he would make multiple trips to Santa Rita in the coming weeks to attempt to free dozens of others.

“The work that had to be done started with those December 1964 arrests,” Buxbaum says. “I was like the frog in slowly heating water. I was in.”

The FSM trials began in April of 1965 and ran into the summer. Of the approximately 800 arrested, 773 pleaded not guilty. By having those 773, including most of the FSM ringleaders, take the same plea, that meant they would all get the same sentence. It took two years before the final appeals of sentences — mostly fines and probation — were made.

So how did an Army veteran wind up on the side of the rebels?

“I was always an old lefty,” Buxbaum says. “In the army, I defended a lot of men being court-martialed. I served as the prosecutor some of the time, too, so I knew what both sides were going through. Going way back, I’d been a supporter of affirmative action. And when the (Third World Liberation Front) strike came in 1969, I was immediately in favor of it.

Richard Buxbaum

Richard Buxbaum came to Berkeley in 1961 and has just kept on keeping on. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

“When I saw those arrested being overcharged with felonies, I knew it was just nonsense,” he adds. “A bail fine of $5,000 in those days was hard to raise; it was just a way of seeing that the strikers would be taken off the playing court. It was an abuse of the system. I spent much more time trying to get them bailed out, although I did do some representation, too. Minority students were under immediate threat.”

Some of the strikers, including Oliver Jones, a leader of the African American component of the Third World Liberation Front, faced a second threat. They’d received draft notices as the armed services revved up for Vietnam. Again, Buxbaum stepped up, both for the draftees and for those protesting the draft.

“With Oliver Jones and some others, what you basically do is walk them through the statutory jungle,” Buxbaum says. “I didn’t accompany them to court, but we read the material and regulations and the case law to help make them prepared.”

With all that on his curriculum vitae, Buxbaum could have coasted, but that wasn’t his way. With much of the unrest in Berkeley dying down in the late 1970s, he started doing research in his specialties—international law and business law. He would go on to serve as the director of Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies. From 1993 to 1999, he was Berkeley’s dean of International and Area Studies.

He won a 15-year grant from the German government, did a spell as director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute and then took a turn as director at the National Center of Financial Services. Along the way, he was editor-in-chief at the American Journal of Comparative Law.

Throughout it all, he continues to teach. Couldn’t he find some time to rest?

“This was a way of keeping me rested,” Buxbaum says of his time in the classroom. “Otherwise, I would have been bored out of my skull. I like the work. I like students.”

Did we mention he enjoys a little turmoil?