Celebrating the Past–the Legacy of the Free Speech Movement

Against the Current, No. 145, March/April 2010

Gretchen Lipow

A COMMEMORATION OF the 45th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement took place at the University of California at Berkeley last December 2nd. As the years fly by anniversaries become more significant as the students who participated exit the stage of life. The usual 10-year anniversary is now shortened to five years. Just recently the FSM gang that met for a potluck dinner decided to celebrate each year!

This year’s event coincided with the struggle of UC students from several of the campuses: Davis, Irvine, Santa Cruz and UCLA. The focus of the struggle has been the reaction to the 32% fee increase to over $10,000 a year to attend a California public university. Reminiscing over this decision FSM alumni remembered the fees in the 1950s to be around $60. Just ten years ago they were less than $5,000.

The cost of attending a UC has been steadily growing, making it more costly to obtain a university education. At the heart of this problem is the huge and growing deficit facing all public services in the state of California. Particularly hard hit are the schools — kindergarten through higher education.

Several us who were on hand to commemorate the 45th year of the FSM spoke on this crisis: that the corporate elites or 1% of the U.S. population owns close to half of the wealth and receives benefits of tax loopholes. According to the California Budget Project, tax cuts enacted in CA since 1993 have cost the state $11.3 billion each year. If the state had continued taxing corporations at the rates equal to those in place 15 years ago there would not be a state budget crisis today. Proposition 13, passed in 1978, limited property taxes to one percent and required two-thirds majority of the state legislature to pass the state budget.

To make matters worse and in the face of continued budget downturns; the tax laws were recently changed to provide further loopholes for the corporate wealthy to the tune of an estimated $2 billion a year. Presently there are moves afoot with two initiatives designed for split-roll taxation. To meet next year’s deficit budge we need to increase taxes on those who can pay and provide breaks for the state’s working people.

Class sizes in the state’s K to 12 schools is on the rise, thousands of teachers have been laid off and more are scheduled. In the 1980s, 17% of the state budget went to higher education and 3% went to prisons. Today it’s 9% for higher ed and 10% for prisons.

We are watching schools being starved of funds, setting the stage for charter schools thereby undermining the public school system. This, then, was the climate in which I made the following remarks at the December 2nd rally.

WHAT YOU SEE today here on campus is really a continuation of the fights that we went through back then.

On the morning of the arrest Jack Weinberg came over to my apartment to pick up a table. We carried this hollow core door on the top of my car.

I let Jack off and went to park the car. When I came back, I said, “Where’s Jack?”

“He’s in that police car.”

“Why is everyone sitting on the ground.”

“We’re not going to let the car move!”

Great. That was the beginning.

One of the beauties of the FSM movement was that every organization on this campus was represented in the governing body, from the Young Republicans to the Young Socialists, and the whole range in between. They met almost every night (not quite, people had to study) but it was really quite a process to watch as it unfolded and more and more students got involved.

Civil rights activities were going on all around the Bay Area: on auto row, in Jack London Square and the Sheraton Palace to name a few.

It took about a year to bring people together.

When you leave college, if you are interested in organizing, you’re going to be doing the same thing in your community or on your jobs, either as a union person or as a community organizer. You take the time out to bring people together around the goals, to broaden it so that when you’re ready to move you have a critical mass to make it as effective as you can.

There’s a saying: “If you want to go fast, go by yourself. But if you want to go far, go together.”

That’s a very important principle to pass on. It takes time to educate people. Some of us get it quickly, and some of us need more time.

ATC 145, March-April 2010