Skip to main content

Occupy Cal and the Free Speech Movement

David Hollinger, professor emeritus of history | November 22, 2011

As someone who participated in the Free Speech Movement as a student and who is now a member of the Berkeley faculty, I want to caution against the widespread impression (left, e.g., by the New York Times on November 20) that Occupy Cal is an extension of the substance, as opposed merely to the spirit of the Free Speech Movement. The spirit is most definitely similar, and that is all to the good. The eagerness of students to vigorously oppose civic evil and to debate serious issues in public policy does indeed recall the days of 1964, appropriately remembered with our FSM Café and our Mario Savio Steps. But the substantive differences between then and now invite more emphasis than they have so far received.

The FSM was directed against a set of petty, campus-specific regulations unwisely defended by the local administration of Chancellor Edward Strong. The demands of the FSM were quite easily met, and understandably won the support of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate by a vote of 8 to 1. The national movement of occupiers today is directed against something wholly different and much more formidable: economic inequality in the United States.

To be sure, in the background of the FSM was the Civil Rights Movement, but the FSM did not seriously allege that the power structure of Mississippi and that of UC Berkeley were somehow the same. The FSM swept away obstacles to mobilization against Jim Crow without accusing campus administrators of being part of it. But Occupy Cal, by applying the language and symbolism of Occupy Wall Street, implies that the UC Berkeley itself is integral to the economic inequality against which Occupy Wall Street is directed.

The very notion of “occupying Cal” conflates this campus with the political and economic order of the nation, grossly underestimates the role of UC Berkeley in advancing egalitarian goals, and implies that the defunding of higher education by voters and legislators — a step that of course promotes inequality — is somehow the fault of campus authorities and within their power to correct. Students are rightly outraged at the divestment of public higher education by the state of California, but it will not do to blame this on Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and his deputies.

The ban on overnight camping has some reasonable justifications, and it does not impede political advocacy remotely as severely as did the pre-FSM regulations about what words could be said on campus and exactly where and when. The “time, manner and place” rules under which the encampments were prohibited are ironically the product of 1964. There is some merit to the claim that overnight camping is protected speech, but it is a stretch, and the quarrel over this issue is an unfortunate diversion. Pushing the encampment issue and forcing one confrontation with the administration after another directs our energies away from the larger, national issues on which Occupy Wall Street properly focuses attention.

UC Berkeley can be a valuable site for the advancing of the current movement against economic inequality, just as, after the FSM, UC Berkeley was a valuable site for advancing the Civil Rights Movement. Once the inappropriate conduct of the police is suitably repudiated, as surely it must be, Berkeley egalitarians must refocus attention beyond campus. Our real enemies go about their business as usual while we fight among ourselves. Cal is not an appropriate target for the occupiers. The performance of Chancellor Birgeneau and his deputies is far from perfect, but we have bigger fish to fry.

Comments to “Occupy Cal and the Free Speech Movement

  1. I think he should have a talk with Physics Professor Charles Schwartz about the “defunding of higher education” he imagines. Prof. Schwartz will set him straight. See his letter to the Regents here.

  2. I doubt this note will get much attention, but I must observe: 1)even the more compelling comments seem to frame their points inside of “others” (what happened to accountability?)
    2)the heartfelt desire for betterment comes across as W.M.B.C. (whining, bitching, moaning & complaining) because: the republic is based on consensus, and because the wealth of this nation is based on commerce.

    Perhaps my own failure to understand is due to an attraction for systems thinking (Ref: Peter Senge). Are there more failures to understand due to an attraction for spirituality? How on earth can we progress if we overlook human nature? Having a “fair distribution of wealth”? This is not a right, it is a cherised desire to be nurtured and worked for. Harm to the present system will only damage that objective.


  3. Normally when Baby Boomers announce that activism today isn’t comparable to what happened in the halcyon days of the 1960’s, it sounds like wistful nostalgia. In this case, I must agree with Hollinger’s assessment that Occupy Cal is nothing like the FSM. In fact, the contrasts that he draws are instructive and offered with the best intentions.

    Being member of Generation X and less idealistic, I see a darker side to the Occupy Cal events. After the episodes with the tree-sitters and at Wheeler, the organizers must have anticipated an over-reaction by poorly trained police and vacuous campus leaders. The choice of tactics was made deliberately to provoke confrontation. Whatever blame the police bear for the violence that occurred should be shared by the organizers of the events. The real question to ask is: what motivated the Occupy Cal organizers to divide students from the institution that is one of the last public organizations that represents a real chance at social mobility?

    If I wanted to defuse OWS and deflect attention from the real issue of economic inequality, I can’t think of a better way than to stir up local trouble. Instead of talking about practical changes in the tax code, now we are talking about police brutality and free speech – candy for intellectuals. Instead of gaining momentum, the movement is sidetracked into legal skirmishes to compensate (or exonerate) members caught in the crossfire. The 1% is laughing.

  4. I am tired of the so-called faculty experts sniveling about police brutality or about how great the sixties were. Big deal! Their detachments from reality and the plight of Joe or Jane Students has regressed light years into the distant past.

    I, like the 99% of students, want to graduate and get a job with health insurance. I wish just one of the faculty experts would have the cajones or ovaries to tackle the true travesty of this semester — the e-mail outages! It’s inexcusable!

    Hey faculty experts, stand-up for us! Hey Birgeneau, you finally have something worthy of a mea culpa! Information Services and Technology has lied to us about the status of outages. Nobody is held accountable. Who do we complain to? A call center in India? Who is in charge of IST anyway? You won’t find it on the web. Again, no accountability! And where is their office? Won’t find it on the web, that’s for sure! I want to pitch a tent inside their lobby! Let’s occupy IST!! Anyone want to join me?

  5. Really? the lessons of the 60s are “pick small, easily winnable battles that the elites can agree to without a problem” ? good to know.

  6. @Ryan H.: Professor Hollinger already has tenure. He has had it for a long time. Look at the photo: he is not in his 20s or 30s anymore.

  7. As a Berkeley graduate who protested the invasion of Iraq, I find the distinction between “spirit” and “substance” seductive but inappropriate. I thank you, Professor Langan, for the phrase “adequate education.”

  8. While I agree with the tenor of Dr. Hollinger’s comment and am impressed with the number of replies (beside my own), I would make the following points:

    1) The “conflation” warned against is warranted in a narrow sense. While Berkeley, among the UC’s, has made important efforts to keep college education affordable, diversely populated w/California’s sons and daughters and democratic, the very notion of public education is under attack by virtue of the wider inequality/disparity in the society. [I’ll leave the topic of Sr. Admin salaries/perqs for another day.]

    2)The lodging prohibition specifically came into being as a new element in Student Conduct rules after the advent of the Anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980’s. Each generational movement might harken back to the Oath Controversy and FSM activists, but each time the issue inspiring activism is different…yet each time the administration attempts to narrow the “time, place, manner” and ultimately the ability of students and affiliates to protest.

    I agree we shouldn’t get diverted from bigger picture demands by the necessary repudiation of police attacks. But if the Occupy movement doesn’t belong at Cal, why has it caught fire among students and why did it quickly formulate a number of concrete demands for action that have everything to do with inequality at UC?
    Are you sure this isn’t one of those big fish?

  9. I think you make some very good points but I find that I cannot agree with your statement:

    “The very notion of “occupying Cal” conflates this campus with the political and economic order of the nation, grossly underestimates the role of UC Berkeley in advancing egalitarian goals, and implies that the defunding of higher education by voters and legislators — a step that of course promotes inequality — is somehow the fault of campus authorities and within their power to correct. Students are rightly outraged at the divestment of public higher education by the state of California, but it will not do to blame this on Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and his deputies.”

    State funding decline certainly has taken its toll since the 70’s but so has the conscious decision-making of how to spend what is received. While I cannot speak for other campuses, Berkeley has often been more interested in “keeping” its faculty than investing in students. While instruction, lecturer salaries, staff support salaries substantially lost ground over the past quarter century and student fees rose dramatically, faculty salaries (through retention games, continued merit increases, housing allowances, mortgage loans at below market price, and, within your own ranks, the acceptance of the fact that some of you are “worth” more than others) have born far less of the “state financial” losses. While one can argue that faculty deserve what they have received, I continue to find it interesting that no one seems to care that all this has been at the expense of the students.

    I also find it baffling that it is so difficult to make the connection between the concepts behind OWS and what has occurred within your own ranks through differential salary structures. What could be more “unegalitarian” than allowing, through official policy, some members of the faculty to be awarded more starting and step by step salary than others? What could be more “unegalitarian” than by official financial policy giving more value to the retention of a faculty member than to the instruction and access to the university? It is particularly disturbing when that retention is weighed against losing them to one of the other nine campuses. Biding against ourselves? One might be able to argue “but the funds come from different sources” or “the funds are restricted to such and such use.” That may be true in some cases but not all. And the not all is substantial.

    I think it time to remember that be one a chancellor or just a humble faculty member, you have no job if there are no students and the best students require an environment of diversity from all corners of the world and all parts of life. There is something inherently wrong with a system that prevents the average wage earner (including some of your faculty colleagues) from being able to afford to send their own children to the very place at which they teach. There is something very wrong with a system that requires attendance of 47% of the student population to be subsidized in order to attend.

    There is a connection between OWS and Occupy Cal and it not that elusive.

  10. UC’s president and chancellors are overthrowing civil rights gains of the 60s and 70s.

    As a UCB 1963 graduate and supporter of civil rights advances (who still wants ERA made law ASAP) I no longer have any respect for UC Powers That Be and professors who fail to protect Democracy and quality of life into the long term future as their paramount responsibility.

    It is as if none of them truly understand history, because they are repeating the failures of the past.

    The legacy of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle crashed and burned at UC.

  11. There are some valid reasons to conflate Cal with, “the political and economic order of the nation…” Economically, Berkeley is a powerful symbol of the disintegrating accessibility and quality of public education in specific and the means of social mobility in general. Politically, the board of regents is not an elected body. The spectrum of values of our student and faculty are as poorly represented there as those of our citizenry in broader government.

    Personally, the general lack of leadership and engagement from Berkeley faculty as also an analogue for liberal politicians’ penchant for going limp during key moments. Health care? Dodd-Frank? What watered down garbage offered at a critical point of change! The degradation of public goods/services and the crisis of stratified economic and political power have been some of the major themes of my undergraduate education. Here’s a moment where such issues occupy the national agenda and I can only describe the involvement of most faculty as tokenism.

    I agree with you and others that are troubled by the loose and somewhat disingenuous rhetoric of many protestors as well as the prospect of squandering more time and momentum pursuing unproductive goals. But as with any democratic institution, if you don’t participate, you wont be represented!

    My impassioned pitch to you and others upset with the status quo but uninvolved with the activities is to recognize our current time for the teachable moment it is, and recognize our institution for the role it plays in the larger political economy (both good and bad). People are distraught over the current state of things but evidently lack the expertise to effectively guide their moral outrage into effective channels.

    Those who are truly interested in representing the interests of the “99%” are hungry for constructive criticism and information. Blog posts are an undeniable positive but should only be considered the first step.

  12. Yes we have bigger fish to fry–Yudof and the Regents; this isn’t about Birgeneau, but the future of the entire California education system, and Cal is as good a place as any to protest its spiraling demise.

  13. I read Professor Hollinger’s blog post about the differences between the Free Speech Movement and Occupy Cal with some dismay. I do not concur with Professor Hollinger’s claim that we ought to distinguish between the “set of petty, campus-specific regulations” prohibiting free speech and Chancellor Birgeneau’s decision to enforce a “no camping” regulation against the will of Occupy Cal’s general assembly. Above all, I object to his claim that “Cal is not an appropriate target for the occupiers.”

    As has become all too clear in the past two weeks, tents have provoked state-sponsored violence weirdly disproportionate to their supposed threat to public health and safety, a supposed threat used as justification for their removal.

    No doubt many factors have contributed to this excessive and excessively violent response. But it’s clear that at least one fear is that the camps will allow the homeless and other members of a growing lumpenproletariat to mingle with more fully enfranchised interest groups, and so bring into view the glaring contradiction between the formal equality of the franchise and the actual distributive inequality of social goods—including adequate education.

    One hears repeated complaints that the “Occupy” movement (more accurately, Occupy refuses to move) fails to conform to the model of “interest group” politics, fails to channel its dissent into a narrow policy “issue.” Such complaints demonstrate a widespread, attenuated understanding of the political, of political action, as belonging to that singularly small space conventionally, if anachronistically, represented by the “ballot box.” Instead, Occupy affirms that “the public is the political,” and makes this affirmation take up space. The spaces of public education, especially the extraordinarily beautiful and politically significant landscape of the Berkeley campus, are appropriate sites for Occupy’s encampments.

    Professor Hollinger claims that the Free Speech Movement “swept away obstacles to mobilization against Jim Crow without accusing campus administrators of being part of it.” But surely Mario Savio’s anguished opposition to an odious “system,” his implicit equation of student sit-ins with “putting your bodies upon the wheels, upon the lever, upon all the apparatus,” suggests that he identified the University as part of a system that treats human beings as “raw materials” for the production of capital. It is true that, for a long time, Berkeley has helped to distribute cultural capital more broadly than some of its peers. But it may also be true, as my colleague Robert Hass suggests in his op-ed for The New York Times, that we are now seeing the effects of an project, begun 30 years ago with the passage of Proposition 13, to undo the New Deal.

    Administrators (Chancellors and Presidents,as well as their employers, the Regents) who direct their energy toward seeking donations from entities that ought to be taxed, and who pursue initiatives more likely to benefit a market looking for new sources of profit than to enhance the well-being and intellectual life of the university and the state, are similarly appropriate targets of political speech.

  14. Really? You’re coming to the defense of Chancellor Birgeneau? This must be a move to get tenure, because to condone the following statement by Birgeneau is idiotic.

    “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience.”


    Do you condone the use of pepper spray at Davis as well? Birgeneau is the 1%, the regents are the 1% – YOU are the 1%. I walk through Cal and I see the new lab building being built on Oxford and Hearst. The retrofit of the Coliseum…How many hundreds of millions of dollars went into construction projects just at Cal this year? How much at other UCs? I would guess that those costs easily outweighs the legislative cuts. We’ve been in a recession long before these projects broke ground. But why build a new lab? Because more research scientists means more grant money. And who knows how much money the Cal football team brings in.

    Now with the budget cuts, those investiments are laid on the back of the students. That is they way it is. So, students get upset, UC police hit them with batons and spray them in the most horrific way with pepper spray, and then a you, UC history professor, say not to blame Chancellor Robert Birgeneau for anything really…

    You say “Cal is not an appropriate target for the occupiers.” Listen, the occupiers are students who are upset with the mismanagement of their tuition dollars and because of that mismanagement, tuition has skyrocketed. Now, they’re upset at UC police beating and brutally pepper spraying students. These students pay the salaries of the UC Police, let’s not forget. How is Cal and the UC system not the target?

    As everyone knows, the occupy movement doesn’t have a cohesive message — yes its about banks and the growing gap between the rich and poor, its about the weakening of the middle class — but it is also about a system, an entire system that is failing, if not failed already. The movement is about tearing down that system and like it or not, the University of California is part of that system.

    I love Cal, I just think it could be better – just like I love America, but think that America could be better.

  15. Thank you, David Hollinger, for this clear-eyed and authoritative analysis of the similarities and important differences between the Cal extension of OWS and the FSM. Is there leadership among the present Berkeley activists that that can see and act upon your assertion that “Berkeley egalitarians must refocus attention beyond campus”? Let’s hear from them. Now.

  16. Dear David,

    It is unfortunate that you have put on the mantle of the Free Speech Movement in this manner. Leaving aside the question of whether encampments merit free speech protections or whether the performance of campus administrators merits condemnation, you have failed to make the connections to wider issues of inequality that many in the Cal community have indeed been making as this movement progresses.

    Occupy Cal has indeed been making explicit connections between state divestment in education and the rising tuition and consequent student debt. It has also been making connections between the distribution of those cuts with the governance structure of the UC. Unaccountable regents appointed for 12-year terms by the governor (largely as a reward for campaign contributions) profit off continued capital investment at the same time as they raise tuition. President Yudof and the chancellors and senior administrators continue to receive generous salary increases as they increase their prestige by inviting building new stadiums and soliciting private institutes within the university while instructional budgets stagnate and the composition of the student body squeezes out the middle class.

    State divestment is an important part of the equation, but that is not an excuse to turn a blind eye to the distribution of the remaining resources within the university. As Bob Meister has shown, the regents and senior administrators would still have an incentive to raise tuition in the absence of state divestment because tuition is an unrestricted form of revenue which can be applied to things like a better credit rating and then cycled through the bond market to finance shiny new buildings, research facilities, and fresh armies of administrators that contribute little to the instruction students are supposedly paying for.

    All of this is directly in consonance with the Occupy movement, which seeks to overturn the misappropriation of public resources for private gain and to force those who benefit the most in our society to shoulder their fair share of the burden of financing public goods like high quality public education.

    There are many fish to fry. Among the biggest are the Regents and the senior administrators in the UC.

    You have taken your eye off they ball.

  17. Wow. This says, very well, how I’ve been feeling about the recent events on campus. However, I wonder just how innocent the Cal campus is with respect to the larger issues of economic inequality of this country. This campus undoubtedly is educating students to go out into the world with skills that will support the status quo. Are there any or enough programs and opportunities to educate and direct graduates to enact change? Is there meaningful interaction and debate between the academic programs that support the status quo and those promote social change?

  18. The Free Speech Movement, Occupy Cal, and Occupy Wall Street. The Free Speech Movement was not about class equality or about racial justice or discrimination. Professor David Hollinger writes that “the FSM did not seriously allege that the power structure of Mississippi and that of UC Berkeley were somehow the same. The FSM swept away obstacles to mobilization against Jim Crow without accusing campus administrators of being part of it.”

    Even thou this is historically correct it is not right to differentiate the FSM from the Student Movement or Occupy Cal movement by a critique on tactics. These two campus movements take place in different historical, ideological,and structural moments in our campus and society. We now speak about tuition, race and class as part of the same coin. We now connect the dialectic relation of race and class as part of the problem of inequality in ways that students of the 1960s did not.

    But it should be noted that because of this same reason these two movements are different. FSM and the new student movement on campus both are taking place in a different historical moment in a society that now makes new demands with new ideas. The creation of a different way of thinking, doing, and being a social movements to meet the current challenges of our time can not used the model of the FSM. The FSM is outdated for our times, we now want not only for our voice to be free but for our bodies to be free, and our minds to be decolonized from old ways of thinking about the order of things.

    CAL is and will continue to be a place where the old status will be question and challenged. The student movement here at CAL goes beyond the performance of Chancellor Birgeneau and his deputies, we want to question the power structure that put the Chancellor in a mansion and a student in a motorhome…

  19. When are Berkeley and all university professors going to fight back to protect and perpetuate the long-term future for your students?

    It’s time for you to act or lose life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that our Founders and millions of American Military Heroes and Patriots risked and lost their lives to provide as their legacy to us.

    Or are we just one more civilization that politicians and intellectuals are going to fail to protect once again, repeating failures that Will and Ariel Durant documented in their most excellent Story of Civilization, history lessons that we continue to fail to learn from no matter how well we are educated.

    It looks like my Cal generation fought for civil rights that are being destroyed once again by forces of greed and immorality that have subjugated our politicians and intellectuals one more time.

  20. this movement Occupy Cal….generated enthusiasm among students that was not there prior to the Occupy Wall Street Movement, yes i certainly agree that there is bigger fish to fry, but I don’t agree with early prescriptions for the occupy cal movement. What ever comes out of the occupy Cal movement must come out democratically and not dictated to. To assume what the students must do or not do is too premature. The best outcome of Occupy Cal movement will only come from the occupiers themselves. Police brutality should had never happened at Cal and chancellor Birgeneau and his deputies should be held accountable for that action….if you feel strongly about Occupy Cal or inequality your are welcome to attend the General Assembly today 11-22-11

Comments are closed.