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Students In Rebellion
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 all the people who run it, to the people that own it, that unless you’re free, the machines will be prevented from working at all.
-Mario Savio, December 2nd 1964

Berkeley. Harvard. MIT. Prestigious institutions of learning known for their advanced curriculums, well-educated and elite professors, and dedicated students. However, in the 1960s these students had dedicated themselves to something besides their studies: protests whose participants seemed “bent upon ripping up society and letting the pieces fall where they may.” (Crawford 39) Society searched for something to blame for the student riots, and brought forth such issues as drugs, music, even the officials and teachers at the very colleges the rebellious students attended.

The most infamous riots occurred at Berkeley, the home of political activism in California Universities. Though the student’s protests were rarely successful, their large turnouts showed “that student activists could tap mass support if they were able to identify and use popular issues.” (Rorabaugh 16) In the summer of 1964, the students formed the Berkeley Congress of Racial Equality to have their say in civil rights, and to protest job discrimination in the mostly segregated city of Berkeley. Such acts were dismissed by some as a sign that “a handful of agitators systematically used the campus as a staging ground for making trouble.” (Rorabaugh 18) Yet the administration was too quick in waving off the students who knew “when to advance, when to retreat, how to use crowds, how to use the media, how to intimidate, and how to negotiate.” (Rorabaugh 20)

The real problems at Berkeley begun in 1964, when “the administration suddenly banned political activists from passing out literature, soliciting funds, or organizing support from card tables set up at the edge of the campus.” (Rorabaugh 10) The ban would prove an unwise move for the administration, as ruffled activists joined together to form the Free Speech Movement on campus. They even gained “overwhelming faculty support.” (Rorabaugh 10) In December, the ban was dropped in what would be “the greatest success of the student movement during the 1960s.” (Rorabaugh 10)

A notable activist among the FSM was Mario Savio, shown next to the quote above. He was a twenty-one year old junior who, at a sit down demonstration by the FSM, “removed his shoes to climb atop the surrounded police car, and when he spoke, his words seemed especially to energize the crowd.” (Rorabaugh 21) He was identified as the leader of the activists, and his words rankled Clark Kerr. Kerr was president of the University, and it was his administration who had passed the ban that the FSM protested so vehemently.

After the initial fuss over the Free Speech Movement, political movements faded out of Berkeley life until the surfacing of the anti communist feelings in America. With these came the Vietnam War, and this hit the students close to home. Anti war protests began, and a survey of American students was to show that “most of the seniors considered themselves vulnerable to the draft, but 27% said they would try to avoid induction, preferably by legal means: only two percent said they would resort to illegal draft dodging.” (Crawford 39) But what a loud 27% they were, with protests at campuses all over the country.

In 1967, leaders of the anti war and anti draft faction on campus planned a demonstration, which “was to begin with a teach-in in Pauley Ballroom inside the Student Union on the University Campus on Monday night. After organizers agreed to keep nonstudents out, the University administration agreed to allow the teach-in.” (Rorabaugh 116) Yet “at the last minute… the Alameda County Board… persuaded a local judge… to issue an injunction prohibiting both the teach-in and antiwar rallies.” (Rorabaugh 116)

Students, now unable to attend the teach-in, held an illegal rally that night, during which two draft cards were burned. It was gleefully announced that “300 people had burned their draft cards across the United States earlier in the day.” (Rorabaugh 116) The next day, the same protestors tried to block the induction center, yet were blocked by several hundred police officers. These officers were true thugs, and more protestors were taken to hospitals than to jail. (Rorabaugh 117) Friday of the same week the large demonstration yet occurred, as 10000 demonstrators confronted 2000 police officers who were ill trained to deal with rioting.

The next follow up to this occurred in February, when a number of students formed the Campus Draft Opposition to protest against both the draft and the war. (Rorabaugh 120) A Vietnam Commencement ceremony was held, and 866 male students attended to pledge to avoid the draft. Around 7000 supporters attended to watch the ceremonies. ("Campus Disorders" 6) A poll taken later, in 1968, showed that 81% of draft eligible students planned to avoid the draft. (Rorabaugh 121) On the war in general, out of 11,280 Berkeley students 49% favored the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, and another 43% supported at least some reduction of the American war effort. (Rorabaugh 121) Despite this, protests toned down for a while, although the more militant activists were soon to find a new focus in People’s Park.

On April 13th of 1969, local Berkeley activists suggested that they “could rally both the {Berkeley} hippie and radical communities to build a park. To the hippies, the park could symbolize the community’s hope for the future, could be a place for rock concerts and other community gatherings… To the radicals, the park offered… confrontation, repression, and new recruits.” (Rorabaugh 156) The park was to be built in an area where once low cost dwellings had stood, only to be ripped down by the University in order to “get rid of the rat’s nest" that is acting as a magnet for the hippie set and the criminal element. (Rorabaugh 150)

“The park could not survive without some sort of theory to support it against its enemies.” (Rorabaugh 157) After all, the people working on the park did not own the land, and in fact this “People’s Park” was a completely unlicensed project. Chancellor Heyns was caught in a most unforgiving position, for the hippies saw no reason to negotiate for their own rights to the property, and the Regents “insisted the site had to be used for University purposes.” (Rorabaugh 159) Announcing that the park was to be fenced, the chancellor sent a crew to post no trespassing signs around the park. They were ripped down by vigilant park supporters and burned in the center of the park.

The first large People’s Park rally took place when the fence was completed. A law student said, “Let’s go down and take over the park,” and whether his words were rhetorical or not they were followed by thousands. They marched down, but did not even reach the park- it was heavily guarded, and the police fired tear gas into the crowd. (Rorabaugh 160) The “battle” raged on, getting continuously more violent.

In May of 1969, one of many struggles over People’s Park ended in what could “perhaps most accurately be described as an outbreak of class warfare between cops and students.” (Barnes 37) The violence expanded at this riot, with the police and National Guard spraying the demonstrators no longer with tear gas but with CS, known among the students as pepper gas. (Barnes 37) According to reporter Peter Barnes, who covered the incident, the gas “not only stings the eyes but sets fire to the nose, mouth and throat, and made me, at least, feel groggy and mildly nauseated.” (Barnes 37) People’s Park had become a battleground, and even bystanders were no longer safe- one onlooker was killed by “buckshot pellets the size of a marble.” (Barnes 37)

No one denies that there is a group of revolutionaries in Berkeley and throughout the country who are determined to provoke confrontations. No one questions the fact that tens of thousands of American students feel alienated from society as they see it. But you do not diminish alienation or defeat a hard core of revolutionaries by gassing and clubbing and shooting indiscriminately.
-Peter Barnes, June 2nd 1969

The controversy over People’s Park had made it “an even more potent symbol of protest.” (Newsweek “Battle of Berkeley”, 36) Despite the fact that one of the organizers, Art Goldberg, known for his speeches during the Free and Filthy Speech Movements, claimed “I’ll be perfectly honest and say there were times when we wanted a confrontation, but we didn’t want an atrocity,” an atrocity seemed to be occurring. Airborne gas attacks were common, as Barnes had witnessed during his stay as a reporter, and some police officers “simply clubbed youths on the spot and then left them.” (Newsweek “Battle of Berkeley”, 36)

Although eventually Berkeley won back the park, they turned only a portion of it into a parking lot. It was never used, and “considering the shortage of parking in Berkeley, this result was noteworthy.” (Rorabaugh 166) Student rebellion toned down immensely as the sixties drew to a closure, and the riots ended for the most part. Berkeley regained a relative calm as it entered the new decade.

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  • “Campus ’66.” Il Newsweek. 70: 72. October 10 1966.
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  • “Teen Scene: High School Students.” Il Seventeen. 28: 150-1. March 1969.
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