Hal Draper’s classic account of the 1960s Berkeley student free-speech movement reveals enduring patterns that remain important for all activists, argues Joshua Newman

Hal Draper, Berkeley: The Student Revolt, intro Mario Savio (Haymarket Books 1965/2020), 283pp.

This account of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley which took place between 1964 and 1965 is more than the sum of its parts. The book is divided into two sections: the first is a strictly chronological account of the movement and the actions of its leaders and adversaries, and the second is a collection of words written and spoken by the major players referred to in the first half. I will speak mainly about the first section as it will be most relevant to those who might be interested in picking up this book.

Hal Draper was an American socialist and activist who, at the time of the events recorded in this book, had a job working in the library archives at Berkeley. He was already an experienced left-wing activist by the time the Free Speech Movement began so was able to act as something of a mentor to the leaders of the movement, including Mario Savio (of ‘bodies upon the gears’ speech fame) who writes the introduction. Draper’s position as someone involved in the movement but somewhat separate to the student body itself makes for a fascinatingly lucid account.

The real quality in this work does not lie in its blend of forensic detail and dry humour, although that does certainly make it a more pleasurable read than you might expect from a strict chronological account of a very localised student movement in the mid-1960s. The greatest merit of the book is how Draper portrays the events at Berkeley as a microcosm for all liberation struggles. Mario Savio alludes to this on the very first page when he says, ‘there are certain things that happened at Berkeley which it would be useful for people in other places to know about, as an aid in understanding themselves, as help to them in preparing revolts of their own’ (p.1).

Draper has a way of presenting the different characters within the University administration and strands within the movement as very real and detailed figures but also as archetypes. The catalyst for the movement is that a powerful minority and a relatively powerless majority co-exist reasonably peacefully until the powerful minority overplays its hand in an arbitrary display of strength, infringing on the rights of the majority simply because it believes there will be no repercussions. This infringement marks the point at which the majority becomes conscious that the administration has gone too far and a broad coalition of people not normally inclined towards open rebellion, but affected by the actions of the powerful, form around a more radical and theoretically developed core.

Following these initial steps, the administration attempts to clog up the process of negotiation and brings in the armed reinforcement of the state to suppress a movement it is neither able nor inclined to understand. Within the administration there are those who are outright hostile to the protestors, those who quietly sympathise but are wedded to the system of power, those who openly sympathise but wish they would use less direct tactics, and a few who come out in full support of the movement. Similarly, within the movement itself there is substantial disagreement on the level of militancy that should be employed. Draper makes the interesting note that the willingness of participants to use militant tactics does not always map onto the groups who were in principle for or against such tactics before an actual movement broke out. This is just the kind of transferable lesson that appears throughout the book.

The Berkeley issues

In the case of Berkeley, the catalyst moment where the administration thought they could act with impunity was when the heads of the University enacted legislation to all but ban any political action on campus and threatened to extend disciplinary action to those found to be engaging in subversive political activity off campus. Eight students were suspended merely for setting up stalls, distributing information, and collecting donations. Draper lists some of the frankly bizarre rules set out by the administration:

  • The student union was forbidden from taking stands on ‘off-campus issues’ and ‘political-interest and social-issue clubs were misleadingly labelled “off-campus clubs” and forbidden to hold most organizational meetings on campus, or to collect funds or recruit.’
  • Outside speakers were not permitted except on a 72 hour-notification basis.
  • Students for Racial Equality were forbidden to use $900 collected to establish a scholarship for a black student expelled from a southern university.
  • Club posters were censored on other grounds of political content (pp.20-1).

Other pedantic examples of bureaucratic meddling included the requirement for a tenured member of the academic staff, as well as a police ‘guard’ which was to be paid for at the club’s own expense, to be present for any external speakers who were approved to speak on any matters deemed controversial. In practice, this made it all but impossible to invite political speakers to talk at the university.

The strategies of repression

The ‘establishment’ appears in three main guises which will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in protest movements of any kind: the bureaucracy, the police, and the press. The first acted by stalling talks and claiming that they simply could not make any further concessions despite having made no concessions of any real importance. The attempt to portray quite basic and realistic demands as outrageous proved disheartening for some members of the movement who began to see the Free Speech Movement’s goals as unattainable.

When it was clear this approach even so would not be sufficient, the police were called in and allowed to make arrests and use unmoderated force with the entirely peaceful protestors. Draper darkly recalls how ‘a number of policemen hid their badges to prevent identification’ (p.122).

The press played their part by presenting the movement to the outside world in a stream of hackneyed tropes. Draper dryly notes that it was ‘a mystery to the newspaper commentators who could oscillate only between “college kids on a tear” and “sinister Communist plot”’ (p.68). This came alongside caricatures of the movement as indistinguishable from the Ku Klux Klan. This line of denouncing militant liberation struggles of any kind as indistinguishable from fascism is common still in a media that rarely denounces actual far-right militancy with the same fervour.

The tactics of the movement included a strike which was extremely effective, mostly since many graduate students involved in the movement, or at least unwilling to cross a picket line, were also doing the majority of the teaching at the University. This did not stop the local newspapers describing the strike as a failure, which Draper points out is designed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy to sow discouragement rather than an actual news bulletin.

There is a wealth of fascinating detail in this book and I would encourage anyone who expects to be involved in a liberation movement of any kind in the future to pick up a copy. Draper draws a picture of the events that shows us how, whatever differences there may be between different struggles, there are eternal patterns and archetypal characters that will appear in the course of any grassroots movement and gives us some idea of how we might handle them.

Draper leaves us with two vital lessons. Firstly, when the powerful minority tells you they can go no further, they are lying, so hold the line and keep pushing. Secondly, once the movement is underway you may be surprised by who you find standing at your side and who you do not.

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Josh Newman

Josh Newman is a teacher, musician, and writer from East Kent who now runs Counterfire and Stop the War branches in Oxford