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May 4, 17

Students Vs. the State: The True History of the Free Speech Movement

“There is 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, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

– Mario Savio, member of the FSM

In the past several weeks, the Berkeley campus has yet again become a flashpoint of sociopolitical upheaval. As white nationalists and assorted reactionary cadres have been marshalled by conservative student groups under the false banner of “free speech,” leftist students have banded together in ideologically radical solidarity to halt the spread of fascism and defend their campus. These liberationists are opposed not just by blackshirt groups like the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and Turning Point USA (TPUSA), but also by local police, the Trump administration, and even their own chancellor, Nick B. Dirks.

The resulting chaos has shattered the silence which has, up until now, surrounded the fascist marauders invading colleges across the nation, welcomed by obedient administrations who refuse to acknowledge the far-right influence, racist hatemongering, and nationalistic zealotry they have thereby allowed to infect their campuses, and threaten their students. The speaking events of Milo Yiannopoulos, a chittering insect compared to the outright Nazism now confidently paraded at Berkeley, pale in contrast to what has finally hatched forth from the liberal ineffectuality of weak-willed collegiate politicians.

And in the midst of this disgrace, this shameful and cowardly display from America at large, one contemptible prayer from the spineless onlooker is repeatedly offered up in lieu of material support: “Dear students, do not betray the spirit of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement!”

This banal phrase has been penned by journalists from Politico [1], the New York Times, and other “respectable” publications. It has been bandied about by know-nothing conservatives and naive liberals alike. It has been drooled from the repugnant, apple-cheeked faces of duplicitous collaborators in the YAF, who have daintily vowed to sue the campus for “oppressing” them.

All the while, these uninitiated teenage “activists” and obsolete journos not only demonstrate their ignorance, but in doing so, trample upon the proud and fiery history of the original Free Speech Movement, a coalition of students who faced down a menace that would bring the modern College Republican, trembling, to their knees.

This is the true history of the FSM, an organization that the contemporary radical should aspire to emulate, and which the likes of Ann Coulter and Nathan Damigo can never hope to equal.


In 1964, as the decade ticked over into its second half, a small corps of student activists were returning to the Berkeley campus from the South, where they had participated in the brutal struggle against segregation. Members of Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), students who had endured confrontations with Klan members, white supremacist vigilantes, and that corpulent taskmaster Bull Connor, now disembarked on the west coast with fresh battle scars and a firm understanding of radical organization, and mobilization. [2]

“issuing subpoenas to people declared to be “subversives” or Communist infiltrators; just four years earlier, on May 13th, San Francisco leftists had been dragged before a HUAC hearing.”

What they found was a prestigious campus in San Francisco that had only just emerged from the high-water days of McCarthyist propaganda and the Red Scare, though neither witch hunt had actually concluded yet. Vietnam was becoming a quagmire. The House on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) was continuing its operations as part of COINTELPRO, issuing subpoenas to people declared to be “subversives” or Communist infiltrators; just four years earlier, on May 13th, San Francisco leftists had been dragged before a HUAC hearing. A quarter of the accused were teachers, some were student activists, others members of the media. [3]

In protest, Berkeley students first picketed the hearing, then staged a sit-in when it became apparent that HUAC had issued white admission cards to “approved” persons, barring the uncooperative students from entry. When the demonstrators blocked the hallways, police responded with indiscriminate beatings and used fire hoses to blast students down the marble courthouse steps. Many were injured – the blast of a firehose can tear clothing and destroy the eyes of its target [4]. The next day, roughly 3,500 members of the community joined the students in picketing the hearings, astonished and outraged at the barbarity of the police. HUAC, predictably, labeled this as an angry mob organized by a handful of elite Communist agents and propagandists.

It was in this atmosphere of leftist persecution by the state that members of CORE and SNCC began soliciting their fellow students, setting up tables and handing out pamphlets addressing civil rights concerns. Hardened in the fires of Southern aggression during their voter registration campaigns and freedom rides, these radicals were not deterred by UC Berkeley’s loosely-obeyed ban on any political activity or speech on campus, irrespective of its intent, nature, or format. Gay, feminist, and black liberation groups had survived and operated underground despite intense persecution from within and without Berkeley.

But external forces were also shaken by the events of May 13th. Supporters of anti-Voting Right’s Act candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign (who was boosted by the Young Americans for Freedom during an anti-Communist rally [5] and blasphemously cited “free speech” as his reasoning for denying certain humans their rights), including the Oakland Tribune publication, pressured officials at Berkeley to freeze the activists’ work immediately. In September, Dean Katherine Amelia Towle announced that the ban on political activity would be “strictly enforced,” and put a stop to the tabling on the Bancroft Strip [6].

Refusing to be suppressed, the students pushed forward. On September 29th, days after the ban was held up as a warning, members of CORE, SNCC, and other student organizations coalesced into what was briefly dubbed “the United Front.” They held an all-night vigil on the steps of Sproul Hall, the seat of administrative power at the time, demonstrating their refusal to have their rights stripped away for the comfort of conservative pearl-clutchers. The following day, the university escalated the conflict; five students were summoned for disciplinary action for refusing to abandon their posts. In response, Mario Savio and 500 students who had signed a petition arrived at Sproul Hall, demanding that the assembled party A) be treated with the exact same punishment as the other five students, and B) that the policy against political speech be clarified once and for all.

“The next day, roughly 3,500 members of the community joined the students in picketing the hearings, astonished and outraged at the barbarity of the police. HUAC, predictably, labeled this as an angry mob organized by a handful of elite Communist agents and propagandists.”

The collection of students arrived at the hall around 3pm. They remained there until 2:40am, variously using sit-ins, lie-ins, and speeches to occupy the building. Around midnight, Chancellor Edward W. Strong had issued a stern warning: in addition to the five students called up for hearing, another three – including Savio – would be suspended, eight in total. When the students dispersed, they agreed to return at noon to continue negotiations.

On October 1st, an all-out rebellion began.

Tables were set up for solicitation of funds for CORE. The local police were summoned by the university to enforce the speech and silence the activists. This time, one activist in particular, Jack Weinberg, was singled out. Refusing to identify himself to the police, he was arrested and thrown in the back of a squad car. In a spontaneous expression of their anger and solidarity, roughly 100 other students converged on the scene and surrounded the police, sitting down to block the squad car’s path, and chanting “Let him go!” endlessly. In the ensuing chaos, the rally rapidly expanded, at one point swelling to thousands-strong. The standoff would last a total of 32 hours [7].

From the diaspora of student activists and political organizations who had witnessed this massive act of resistance was born the Free Speech Movement (FSM). Containing members of CORE, SNCC, the SDS, the DuBois Club, and many other groups, it would become the beating heart of a massive radical movement against state repression, anti-leftist violence, and the continued denial of civil rights to people of color. But the road ahead would be fraught with danger, as unimaginable lengths were being taken to prevent this uprising.

The United States Government itself would move to crush the Free Speech Movement.


It is vital to this analysis to remember that during 1964, the tides of the Cold War were still violently churning. COINTELPRO had targeted the Black Panther Party as possible Communist collaborators. The semi-official student organization, SLATE, was formed partly in opposition of Senator McCarthy’s absurd “loyalty oaths,” a state-imposed requirement for students and faculty to sign a pledge that they were not members of the Communist Party (recently resurrected in 2015, in Nebraska) [8]. SLATE had broken away from the more liberal TASC (Towards an Active Student Community) based on a radical platform of civil rights progression and anti-HUAC resistance.

McCarthyist disregard for civil liberties infected every facet of American politics, and this paranoid fascination with Communists fell squarely upon the students of UC Berkeley. The loudest voice calling for the punishment of these students was Ronald Reagan, then merely a television host turned charismatic conservative spokesperson. He would deliver a speech in support of Barry Goldwater on October 24th, 1964, not so subtly hinting at Communist elements hidden behind Berkeley’s political turmoil. By this time, the rebellion at Berkeley was in full swing.

“But the road ahead would be fraught with danger, as unimaginable lengths were being taken to prevent this uprising.”

In an act of self-serving opportunism, Reagan seized upon the conflict at Berkeley to shame the students for their resistance. Playing off of existing Red Menace anxieties in America, Reagan’s speeches also painted any form of protest in the same light as HUAC had; foreign subversives manipulating students into supporting Communist infiltration. During his most famous speech in support of Goldwater, “A Time for Choosing,” Reagan said of America’s future, “There’s only an up or down: [up] man’s old – old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.” In this context, “totalitarianism” was code for socialism [9].

But behind the Gipper’s down-home, patriotic grandstanding was a more cunning and corrupt force, hard at work in the demonizing of students, civil rights leaders, activists, and leftists.

Uncovered by the FOIA-supplied research of one Seth Rosenfeld in 2012 [10], ties between the FBI, COINTELPRO, and Ronald Reagan are now plainly demonstrable. Of the three hundred FBI agents who were active in Northern California in 1964, forty-three were assigned to infiltrate, monitor, and if possible, sabotage and neutralize those people J. Edgar Hoover deemed “subversives.” In 1965, Hoover and CIA Director John A. McCone cooperated to leak unsubstantiated rumors meant to discredit the FSM and reduce it to infighting. Earlier in 1964, HUAC, under Hoover’s direction, responded to the May 13th demonstrations outside that San Francisco hearing by producing a 45-minute film entitled “Operation Abolition,” a rundown of what HUAC claimed was evidence of Communist deception and subversion, designed to purposefully incite a riot through otherwise peaceful and naive students. The film was so riddled with inaccuracies and deliberately-altered chronologies that the ACLU released its own version, entitled “Operation Correction,” which laid bare the dishonesty of the original in doctoring the facts to suit a preexisting conspiracy theory [11].

“In an act of self-serving opportunism, Reagan seized upon the conflict at Berkeley to shame the students for their resistance.”

UC Berkeley President Kerr himself was being spied on [12], without legal cause, to see if he was merely inept, or actually working for the Communists himself. This was a continuation of Hoover’s project known as the “Responsibilities Program” of the 50s, which monitored college professors in the hopes of uncovering subversive ideologies, passing along anonymous and unproven accusations to then-Governor of California, Earl Warren. These professors would then almost certainly be fired, not dissimilar from the work of Turning Point USA today. Hoover was enraged by the news of Berkeley’s uprising, but he would not make good on his vow to punish the university until 1966, when Reagan seized power in a fierce gubernatorial election.

Reagan was fully aware of the FBI’s plot to undermine Berkeley’s activists.

Two weeks after being sworn in, Reagan contacted the FBI directly and asked for assistance with the political groundswell there. Having used Berkeley as a boogeyman in order to gain political support during ’64 and ’65, Reagan now had to follow through on his boastful declarations of action against the campus. He had threatened to cut state funding to the university by 10%, and was one of the first voices calling for the instatement of official tuition fees at Berkeley, where attendance was, at the time, officially free (except for a patchwork of fees meant to bolster their government funding) [13]. The school which had once been supplied with millions in government research funds and projects, including work related to the atom bomb during WWII, was now a den of free love, psychedelic drugs, and pinko longhairs who needed a lesson in manners.

The FBI’s investigation into the Free Speech Movement had quickly evolved into spying and cloak-and-dagger schemes (FBI director Robert S. Mueller III acknowledged as much in 2002). Reagan and Hoover had a plan in the works to strike back at the growing presence of student activism. Two agents, Curtis O. Lynum and Glenn A. Harter, a field officer and domestic security specialist respectively, met with Ronald Reagan at his mansion in Sacramento, in January of 1967, on the orders of Hoover himself. Irate that Clark Kerr was either unwilling or unable to properly quash the rebellious youths of Berkeley, Reagan was not satisfied with the dense file presented to him, a dossier on Mario Savio. He gave Agent Lynum instructions to collect information on Kerr, the Board of Regents, and student organizers as well.

“Reagan’s work with the FBI was intensive and expansive. He came to consider Berkeley itself an enemy of the people, stating plainly in a 1966 campaign speech that the demands of “beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates” had gone beyond acceptable limits.”

Reagan’s work with the FBI was intensive and expansive. He came to consider Berkeley itself an enemy of the people, stating plainly in a 1966 campaign speech that the demands of “beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates” had gone beyond acceptable limits. In 1967, he wrote to the chancellor of San Francisco State College, Glenn Dumke, asking, “Hasn’t the time come to take on those neurotics in our faculty group and lay down some rules of conduct for the students comparable to what we’d expect in our own families?”

Most gruesomely, in May of 1969, the campus was shocked by the events of Bloody Thursday. FSM students and other associates seized a vacant parking lot as a secondary organizing area for their political campaigns. The local community donated shrubs, sod, and flowers; free food was passed out to the students working to construct what was dubbed “People’s Park.” But Vice Chancellor Earl Cheit turned control of the park over to a construction business, to become parking space once again. On May 15th, the students staged a defense of their self-made space. To disperse them, 250 police were organized into a posse to defend a construction crew who fenced off the area in chain link. Five hours later, the students staged another protest at Sproul, and this time, the police unleashed the very worst of their tactics: tear gas filled the air, fired from helicopters circling overhead; billy clubs and fists pummeled the students; what was originally reported to be birdshot fired into the crowd turned out to be buckshot when the autopsy of a 25-year-old named James Recter was completed.

Reagan’s attitude is captured in a video clip of his appearance at a press conference televised by San Francisco’s KQED. He combatively asks a reporter, “When did any of you appear before the students? When did any of you stand up at Sproul Hall on Thursday and beg them not to go down there?” As usual, the established order blamed its own use of cruelty on the victims [14].

This extreme violence would come years after the FBI’s investigations turned into full-blown surveillance and counterrevolutionary methods, though that early stage was no less sinister in nature. But faced with this immense and far-reaching opposition from their own government, the Berkeley administration, the local police, and the intelligence community, the students of the FSM would refuse to back down, and would eventually wrest victory from the hands of these jackbooted authoritarians.


Jack Weinberg’s arrest in 1964 was the beginning of an increasingly hostile series of events on the Berkeley campus, which would lead to the most recognized, iconic moment of this long, and apparently, unfinished, struggle for student autonomy.

While the events of October 1st unfolded around him, Weinberg remained trapped in that squad car, fed sandwiches through the open window while the vehicle itself became a staging point for student actions throughout the next day. Savio functioned as an interlocutor between the campus authorities and the FSM participants, demanding of Chancellor Strong that Weinberg be released. When these demands were not met, 400 students packed the doorway of the office of deans Peter Van Houten and Arleigh Williams, effectively holding them hostage inside.

What followed was an exchange of saber-rattling between the students and campus authorities [15]. At one point, 2,000 students who had gathered outside Sproul Hall charged the doors, knocking aside the two police officers stationed there,one  was bitten on his leg. The demonstrators eventually decided to gather outside in a united front, and issue their demands afresh. Counter-demonstrators arrived to harass the FSM. Campus officials issued bland responses to the students’ actions, doing little else but inciting more outrage and determination. By 1:30am on October 2nd, the area outside the now-locked and guarded Sproul Hall was littered with sleeping bags and tents belonging to FSM members. By 4:45pm, with a negotiation between Kerr, Strong, and FSM spokespeople, the assemblage included 7000 students and onlookers, and about 600 police.

Finally, at 7:20pm, Weinberg’s release was secured. Savio read the agreement: the students would disperse, Weinberg would not be charged, and a council of student spokespeople and campus officials would meet at a later date to finalize a policy on political activity on the campus. But even this was not the end of the conflict at Berkeley.

Having achieved reduced sentences for the eight suspended students through what would be dubbed the Heyman Committee, the FSM was dumbstruck by a second wave of authoritarian hypocrisy: the Board of Regents reversed the overturned disciplinary rulings, and reinstated the original policy against political action, effectively dismissing any progress or agreements made by the FSM and the vaguely cooperative President Kerr. New disciplinary measures were instituted by Chancellor Strong against Savio and fellow student Arthur Goldberg for their actions on October 1st, on the argument that the original deal only included crimes committed from September 30th backward. By December, the students had been pushed to their breaking point.

The FSM returned to Sproul Hall once more, bloodied, but unbowed. It was there, in front of 1,000 students, that Savio issued his brief, but famous “Bodies Upon the Gears” speech. Yet again, an all-night standoff developed. This time, there would be no semblance of civility: beginning at 3:45am, and stretching for twelve more hours, students were dragged from Sproul Hall by police who let their arrestee’s bodies tumbled down the marble steps as they were pulled from the building, having gone limp as a form of civil disobedience. Witnesses would claim arms were wrenched, hair pulled, and billy clubs being employed against these demonstrators.

At 1:00pm, the students were joined by a new voice of resistance. Graduate students and TA’s, vital members of the faculty essential to the campus’ function, added their rage to the bonfire of dissent, having seen enough of the mistreatment of these students. In January, the campus altered their policy slightly; rules were slackened, but still heavily favored the campus’ authority over that of the students themselves. It was a dissatisfying conclusion to another round of negotiations in which the Board of Regents worked against the students and unilaterally rejected their demands. It surprised nobody when tensions continued long into the late 60s. The year was 1967, and Ronald Reagan’s first action against Berkeley, as governor of California, was to fire President Kerr for his failure to crush the rebellious students.

Nonetheless, on January 4th, 1967, the FSM and a large gathering of unaffiliated students held their first legal rally on the steps of Sproul Hall. Joan Baez sang ballads for the attendees. The FSM vowed to continue the fight. In five years, they would bear witness to both Bloody Thursday and the Kent State massacre.


Where to begin with the unrivaled shame of contemporary rightists comparing themselves to the ugly, grinding struggle of the original Free Speech Movement?

First and foremost, the students of the YAF who are planning on suing the campus have yet to identify the state action which has so cruelly blunted their First Amendment rights: the campus acquiesced to their invitation of yet another shameless, uncouth, ignoble panderer of racist predilections and American exceptionalism: Coulter, in this case. The chancellor expressed concern for her safety and agreed to move the date of her speech. She declined, and looked elsewhere for a venue. Do the gutless, crawling sycophants of the YAF truly dare to contrast this bungling of logistics with the deliberate, undisguised statist action taken against the heroic members of the FSM? Do these oblivious, quivering pretenders dare claim heirship to this legacy of struggle for liberation, with their GOP-funded parade of ignorance and cooperation with avowed white nationalists?

Is there a word in any language which can properly describe this impossible impudence, this inexcusable usurpation of the names of those who suffered genuine oppression by the government? Should a YAF member even be allowed to show their face in public without ridicule, unless they publicly apologize for daring to lay claim to the title of the Free Speech Movement?

What of the cheapjack celebrities, politicians, and publications co-opting the image of the original FSM to serve the narrative that antifascists, the very liberators who would have stood beside SNCC and CORE as servants of shared humanity, are the true villains at Berkeley? What words could contain the necessary rage and bile one must feel when these squirming reptiles instead console the white nationalists who stand on the other end of the battlefield, the people who would have championed segregation alongside George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Bull Connor, all in the name of “free speech?”

What monumental delusion, what mirage of grandiosity, could lead a person to this unspeakable chasm of cultic idiocy and shallowness?

Truthfully, there is nothing to be said. The warped ideology of fascism render its followers incapable of even comprehending their own blindness, much less recognizing the historical implications of what “free speech” meant to an earlier generation, when Jim Crow’s grave was being freshly dug by the incredible strength of civil rights radicals. They cannot see beyond their own self-obsession, to understand the depths of their depravity in appropriating the struggle of black men and women who were firebombed in their beds by the very sort of people now carrying Swastika flags into battle at Berkeley. Their minds are now fully inoculated against reason, and they have exhausted the leftist’s capacity for forgiveness.

The time for words is over. The time for revolution is dawning.
















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Chronicling the radical struggle in the central region of so-called America.

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