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Free Speech

Last week I grabbed my cell phone, pen, and a notebook and trudged up University Avenue to the Berkeley campus’s west entrance. I was there to check out the kick-off day for Berkeley’s Freedom Speech Week.

I counseled myself as I wound up to the center of campus to resist falling victim to geezerhood and a bunch of pious generalizations about how much better demonstrations were when I arrived on campus back in 1970. Though the most famous events of the 1964-65 Free Speech Movement were long over by that year, there was still plenty going on with protests against the Vietnam War and racial and gender equality. And though I rarely hold grudges I’m still pissed off about the afternoon I was pepper-gassed from a helicopter as I was innocently walking to my English Lit Don Quixote class. Thank you Ronald Reagan, you were as lousy a governor as you were a president.

Anyway, as I approached the steps of Sproul Hall from the backside to the north, the first thing that hit me was the silence. I could even hear birds twittering away in the trees. Dozens of very substantial-looking barriers prevented the “demonstrators” from walking into the campus from the street. By my reckoning, the police outnumbered the “protestors” by conservatively at least five to one. There were campus police from Berkeley and other campuses, CHP officers, City of Berkeley officers and police from other cities. Streets around the campus were all blocked off, creating gridlock and lots of angry drivers who were re-routed to other streets. Sproul Hall Square was a sea of riot helmets. The police stood around, obviously bored, no doubt wondering why they were there in their “all dressed up with nowhere to go” mode.

Sproul Plaza. Because of all the police barriers I couldn't get up higher for a decent establishing shot (not that there was much to see).

I would be surprised if even a hundred participants were on hand that afternoon for the much-ballyhooed kick-off. A few people held up signs either supporting or dissing Trump. A few more signs mostly read that freedom of speech is either a good thing, or a bad thing if you don’t agree with the speaker.

Free Speech Kick Off

It was hard to get close to the sign-holders what with the thick ring of reporters pressing into them, all trying to salvage something from the non-story story. I was hoping to meet a real-life anarchist to ask about overall philosophy and the nature of his or her cause, but there wasn’t a black-masked person wielding a baseball bat or a flame thrower anywhere in sight – just a bunch of hip-looking, prosperous young people wandering around enjoying the warm late September afternoon.

The silence was only a symptom of what was really missing. There was virtually no emotion, let alone any passion. If football fans were this disengaged and laid back, it would be the demise of the game. How can you demonstrate if you’re not excited about anything? Adding insult to injury, it must be said, was that the non-event happened in Sproul Plaza, near the Mario Savio steps. Nobody at this demonstration was shouting into a bullhorn and calling upon students to throw their bodies on the gears of the Machine.

Trump supporters posing for reporters

Maybe things will heat up again. Maybe the anarchists are at this moment drawing up plans to run through Sather Gate again, setting fires and breaking windows in the student union. Maybe I’ll get the chance to talk with some of them, to ask them what they believe and how burning down the campus furthers their beliefs. Revolution in and of itself is not a cause. Is there any doubt about what Americans believed when they fought their colonial masters? What they believed during the enormous sacrifices abroad and at home during WWll?

Looking back, there was of course, plenty of tear gas, arrests, and even some deaths at the marches I joined way back in 1970. But to this day I can tell you the purpose of each and every one of them: ending the war, enshrining racial equality in U.S. law, changing laws that treated women as second-class citizens. It felt like we were changing the world.

By the time I walked off campus the police were folding up the barriers and leaving, too. I walked down Telegraph Avenue and bought an exotic six-dollar tea at a trendy new tea shop. The place was packed, standing room only. Demonstrating is thirsty work.

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