By Cherilyn Parsons
It wasn’t quite Berkeley in 1964, but it wanted to be, and that might be the ultimate significance of the thousands-strong gathering Tuesday night in Sproul Plaza on the Cal campus.
The Occupy movement, which has kept apart from other social movements, reached back and grabbed onto the past.
It just so happened that the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture Fund’s Young Activist awards ceremony had been scheduled in a ballroom on campus that night, with Robert Reich as the headliner. Occupy Oakland asked the Savio Foundation if the event could be moved to Sproul Plaza.
What would Mario have done? For all the criticism of the Occupy movement’s “marketing,” this was an inspired move.
The helicopters were loud over Berkeley all afternoon. Occupy Oakland protesters marched up Telegraph Avenue, shouting “Education Should Be Free,” while another group—an amalgam of the UC Berkeley fee-hike protesters and the small Occupy Berkeley gang—marched from downtown Berkeley to the plaza. They were joined by thousands more students and community members.
The night was clear and crisp, fragrant with the redwoods that line the center of campus, with barely a whiff of Northern California’s great export, marijuana. The crowd was distinctly multi-generational. Yes, students hung from the trees, climbed atop roofs, and plopped easily to the ground as everyone sat for the formal program, but there was a heck of a lot of creaky hips and cracking knees as the elders among us (now trusting other people over 30) eased themselves to the cold concrete. A couple of old guys in plaid shirts near me had brought folding camp chairs.
The program started with a rather long introduction by Lynn Savio, Mario’s widow, and excerpts of Savio’s speeches performed by his sons and foundation board members. Then came the presentation of the Savio awards to three young activists, all under 26—not even close to being born when Savio galvanized the campus free speech movement in 1964.
Reich finally took the stage. When Mario Savio spoke here in 1964, Reich said, the average CEO was earning 30 times what the average worker was earning. Today it’s over 300 times. “When so much income goes to the top, political power also goes to the top. … It’s not wealth that’s the problem, but irresponsible use of wealth.”
Equal opportunity, he said, is the moral foundation of America—and that’s what we’re losing. How can we let people fall down if we’re the richest nation on earth?
Boo, hiss, went the crowd, especially when Reich mentioned the Koch brothers.
“Moral outrage is the beginning. The days of apathy are over, folks.”
Reich himself brings such moral authority, intellectual firepower, eloquence and experience in the belly of the beast that both students and elders hung on his words. The only problem with the speech was that it was way too brief. He was being considerate of the cross-legged seating arrangement, but I think everyone wished he had talked much longer.
He often makes “short jokes” since he’s only 4-feet-10. He wound up by telling a story about how he used to get bullied as a kid. “The best way to stop getting beat up was to make alliances with bigger guys,” creating his “very own protection racket.” I thought at that point he was going to call for the Occupy movement to ally with others—labor, maybe. Instead, he connected the crowd and the movement with history.
He told how one of his protectors was a guy named Mickey Schwerner. Just like Savio, who had been in Mississippi registering voters before the Freedom Summer in Berkeley in 1964, Schwerner was concerned with civil rights. That summer, Reich learned that his protector (known to younger people as Michael Schwerner) had been brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan for his civil rights work. “I knew then,” Reich said, “something profound had to change in America.”
He didn’t have to say that the bullies remain.
After the speech, the crowd milled around as if not quite sure what to do next. There were a few tents in the middle of the plaza; the Occupiers had announced earlier that evening that they were going to keep their tents up, despite the expressed intention of the UC police to remove them.
But the hard-core Occupiers were only a tiny fraction (less than 1 percent, I dare say) of the larger crowd, which also wants to “do something.”
I walked back from the gathering with a friend who had been in Sproul Plaza on that day in 1964 when Savio gave one of his most famous speeches, including these lines: “There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels.”
I asked my friend how the current vibe differed from then. She said that back then, she and other young people had a tremendous sense of hope. They had no doubt that a better future was ahead, and if they wanted a piece of the American pie, they could have it. They could do anything. Today, she said, kids feel like they have no chance. The system is stacked against them. They’re more realistic, true, but there’s despair, frustration and a casting about for a way to create change.
She added that she feels a sense of loneliness in this movement today, a social loneliness. Back then there were so many different movements, and they connected together. There was so much to become involved in.
Last night, at least, the crowd remembered and renewed the wellspring of hope. Before Reich spoke, one of the three young Savio award-winners stirred the crowd with a vivid vision of “when hope comes back.” Here’s hoping.
Flickr / c_baek (CC-BY-ND)
Part of the crowd that gathered for Tuesday’s event at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza.