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At the Anniversary of Sproul Hall Sit-In, Perspectives on Activism and Obama

3 December 2008 No Comment

By Angela Kilduff  –

Forty-four years ago, in the early hours of a late fall morning morning, police officers arrested nearly 800 students, ending an historic sit-in at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. It was a turning point in the Free Speech Movement (FSM) and led to the university lifting a ban on on-campus political organizing. The leaders of the FSM made their mark on history and left a legacy of activism at UC Berkeley.

This anniversary this year coincides with another historic turning point, the election of Barack Obama as President. His campaign mobilized an unprecedented number of young voters, including many enrolled UC Berkeley students.

FSM veterans and current students, interviewed independently, see the last half century of Berkeley political activity as one long continuum.

“The FSM was sort of a small thing, although the ripples from it went far beyond the Berkeley campus,” said FSM veteran Lynne Hollander Savio. Her late husband, Mario Savio, gave a speech as the sit-in began that became emblematic of the movement. She is a retired librarian.

“It wasn’t the beginning, and it wasn’t the end,” said FSM veteran Jeffrey Brand, now dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law. He stressed that the FSM emerged out of the Civil Rights Movements.

Bettina Aptheker, a member of the FSM steering committee, was a junior in 1964. Aptheker is a Professor of Feminist Studies and History at UC Santa Cruz and spoke on a panel at UC Berkeley in February. It was part of the Activism Right There Festival and featured activists from each decade, from the 60s to the present. Aptheker said, “Anytime any of us mentioned Barack Obama, the place just exploded.” At that moment, she said she realized the level of support for the candidate.

“From my own experience in the FSM, I knew the power of a mass movement, and I knew the power of community organizing,” she said. Obama’s campaign, she said, was community organizing on a massive scale.

“They’re very different kinds of moments, but they share being unique and exciting,” said FSM veteran Karen McClellan.

Obama, McClellan said, is not a radical. “Those are two different jobs – being a radical and being a politician,” she added.

Margot Adler, another FSM veteran and today a reporter for NPR, said that the election was an enormous step towards removing the stain of slavery. However, she said, “He’s going to make mistakes, he’s going to break our heart, but it’s our country again.”

In the fall of 1964, Margot Adler was a freshman.

Kate Coleman, a FSM veteran and writer, said she was glad to see young people energized politically. “They have been so uninterested in politics for so long,” she said, adding, “Now that they’re facing a disastrous economy they might become more interested.”

At the University of San Francisco, Brand noted the high level of student involvement in the Obama campaign. He said he has a lot of admiration for students today. Although the 60s were chaotic, he said, “It was a time of economic expansion.” That is no longer true.

Brand was a junior in 1964 and received his JD in 1969. In the 60s, he said, “I didn’t want to be separated from the Berkeley campus.”

As a professor at UC Santa Cruz, Aptheker said, “I don’t see this generation as being any less conscious.”

She stressed that the FSM started out small, only a handful of people.

Kristen Hunziker, 20, was the chapter coordinator of Students for Barack Obama on UC Berkeley’s campus. Along with 300 other students, she traveled to swing states to canvass voters.

She downplayed this number in comparison to that of those 776 people arrested at the sit-in and said that there are still roadblocks for political organizing on campus. As one example, she said she couldn’t post flyers in dorms without approval from each resident adviser.

This was Hunziker’s first political campaign, but she said, “I definitely do intend to stay involved in politics.”

Freshman Ian Magruder, 18, served as the California Field Coordinator for Students for Barack Obama. Compared to the FSM, he said, “The way we organize has just changed. We don’t hold huge rallies and protests the way that they did, but we get thousands of people to sign petitions, join Facebook groups and vote.

In the immediate future, Magruder has further political ambitions. He said he plans to run for President of the California College Democrats.

Despite the many memoirs and amount of scholarship published, Brand said, “The definitive history of the 60s has yet to be written.”

If, 40 years later, this is the case, the definitive perspective on Barack Obama’s historic election will be a long time coming, but voices like these will shape it.

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On Thursday, December 4, the annual Mario Savio Memorial Lecture, featuring Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., will take place at the Berkeley Community Theater. He will speak about “Our Environmental Destiny.” It will begin at 7 pm, and admission is free.

After negotiations with the university administration failed, Mario Savio began the sit-in with an address on the steps of Sproul Hall.

He told the crowd, “There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you cannot take part; you cannot even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the wheels, and the gears and all the apparatus, and you have to make it stop.”

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