It’s déjà vu all over again.
Reports of the recent cancellation of a UC Regents meeting, because of fears of student protests, disturbed the ghosts of the student movement of the 1960s.
Already, members of the media were hyping this new wave of student activism, crystallized by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement as “the Free Speech Movement of the 21st Century.”
In 1967, one of my projects as a newly minted member of the California Legislature’s staff was to follow the dynamics of Free Speech Movement on the UC Berkeley campus and the battle being waged by newly elected Governor Ronald Reagan to “clean up the mess” there and cut UC funding.
I see some parallels between the two movements.
The Free Speech Movement began on the UC Berkeley campus in 1964 as a protest against the University’s edict banning on-campus political speech and activities.
After a tumultuous year of sit-ins, rallies and protests, the University relented, allowing political activity on Sproul Plaza. What FSM had started there spread to campuses nationwide.
A speech by Berkeley activist, Mario Savio, at the height of the 1964 protests, has become the anthem of many in the Occupy Movement, particularly here in California.
"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can't take part,” Savio said. “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."
That rhetoric reverberates in Occupy’s broad insistence that our political system is rigged in favor of the privileged few—that 1%. In the Golden State, Occupy Cal has placed special focus on issues like those rocking UC in 1967, when newly elected Governor Ronald Reagan moved to “clean up the mess in Berkeley” and cut higher-ed funding.
Today, Occupy Cal, and groups on other campuses throughout the state, are protesting increasing UC tuition, ballooning student debt, and cut-backs in state funding and student services.
There are other—discomfiting--similarities. The changes in the FSM, from its inception in 1964 to 1967 when anti-Vietnam war sentiment propelled student dissent, are described in “Days of Cal,” a multimedia history of UC Berkeley (http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/CalHistory/):
“By this time…the Free Speech Movement had changed character. No longer were young, idealistic citizens fighting for their rights, but the demonstrations turned into parties. It was fun, it was cool…”
Then demonstrations became more violent; confrontations between police and demonstrators began to escalate.
All that led to a significant voter backlash, which helped propel Reagan to the California governorship and Richard Nixon to the Presidency and managed to help politicians who were diametrically opposed to the dissenters’ goals advance their electoral agendas.
FSM helped to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War, arguably shaping history. But the movement could not sustain itself beyond its victories as a political force.
We don’t yet know what the long-term consequences will be of OWS’ attempt to turn public opinion against “the haves.”
Or whether the movement will have long-term political impact.
The Tea Party succeeded in morphing its protest movement into a powerful political force--at least in 2010 and this year's GOP primaries.
It is too early to tell whether today's protesters will succeed in Occupying the political high ground, fizzle into the background or ignite a backlash that leaves them even more frustrated and powerless.