A Police Car Is Held Hostage and Becomes a Speaker’s Podium… Berkeley in the 60s

Mimeographed sheet on Free Speech Movement from the files of Curtis Mekemson.
Hastily run off mimeograph sheets such as this one kept students up-to-date on what was happening with the Free Speech Movement. It seems terribly quaint in the age of the Internet and cellphones. (From my FSM files.)

Within hours of the time that Dean Katherine Towle sent out her ultimatum about the closure of the Free Speech area and the ban on organizing off-campus activities or raising funds for such activities, the brother and sister team of Art and Jackie Goldberg had pulled together activist organizations ranging in orientation from the radical to conservative, and a nascent FSM was born. Shortly thereafter, the mimeographs were humming and students were buried in an avalanche of leaflets as they walked on to campus. I read mine is disbelief. The clash I had warned the Administration of a year earlier had arrived. There was no joy in being right.

As soon as it became apparent that the Administration had no intention of backing off from its new rules, the FSM leadership determined to challenge the University. Organizations were encouraged to set up card tables in the Sather Gate area to solicit support for off campus causes. I had stopped by a table to pick up some literature when a pair of deans approached and started writing down names of the folks manning the tables. Our immediate reaction was to form a line so we could have our names taken as well. The deans refused to accommodate us. The Administration’s objective was to pick off and separate the leadership of the FSM from the general student body.

A few days later, I came out of class to find a police car parked in Sproul Plaza surrounded by students. The police, with encouragement from the Administration, had arrested Jack Weinberg, an organizer for CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, who had been soliciting support for his organization. Someone had found a bullhorn and people were making speeches from the top of the police car while Jack sat inside. I situated myself on the edge of the fountain next to the Student Union and idly scratched the head of a German Short Haired Pointer named Ludwig while I listened. Ludwig visited campus daily and played in the water. He’d become a Berkeley regular.

Jack Weinberg, who would coin the 60s rallying cry of “Never trust anyone over 30,” being held in the police car on the Berkeley campus. (From my FSM files.)

Eventually I stood up and joined those on the edge of the crowd thereby becoming a part of the blockade. It was my first ever participation in civil disobedience. It was a small step. There would be plenty of time for more critical thinking if the police showed up in force. Being only semi-radical, I did duty between classes and took breaks for eating and sleeping. Eventually, after a couple of days, the FSM negotiated a deal with the Administration. Jack was booked on campus and turned loose, as was the police car. A collection was taken up to pay for minor damages the police car had sustained in the line of duty while serving as a podium. I threw in a dollar. Weinberg, by the way, was the one who coined the rallying cry of youth in the 60s: “Never trust anyone over 30.”

The situation did not improve. Each time a solution seemed imminent, the Administration would renege or the FSM would increase its demands. In addition to the right to organize on campus, the disciplining of FSM leaders became a central issue. Demonstrations took place almost daily and were blasted in the press, which wasn’t surprising considering the local press was the Oakland Tribune. I learned a great deal about media sensationalism and biased reporting. One day I would sit in on a very democratic and spirited discussion of the pros and cons of a specific action and the next day I would read in the Tribune or San Francisco Examiner that I had participated in a major insurrection of left leaning radicals who were challenging the very basis of law and order and civilized society. 

Older adults, looking suspiciously like plain-clothes policemen or FBI agents, became a common occurrence on Campus. It was easy to become paranoid. If we signed a petition, demonstrated, made a speech or just stood by listening, would our pictures and names end up in some mysterious Washington file that proclaimed our disloyalty to the nation? These weren’t idle thoughts. A few years earlier people’s careers had been ended and lives ruined because someone had implied they were soft on communism. J. Edgar Hoover was known for tracking Civil Rights’ leaders and maintaining extensive files on every aspect of their lives. While we weren’t up against the KGB, caution was advisable. We looked warily at those who didn’t look like us. One day a small dog was making his way around the edge of the daily demonstration, sniffing people.

“See that Chihuahua?” Jo whispered in my ear. I nodded yes. “It’s a police dog in disguise. Any moment it is going to unzip its front and a German Shepherd will pop out.” 

The wolf in sheep’s clothing was amongst us. It was a light moment to counter a serious time. And we were very serious. I sometimes wondered when the celebrated fun of being a college student would kick in. 

NEXT WEDNESDAY’S POST: I join an occupation of the Administration Building, give a speech from the Dean’s desk, and sit down with a small group of people to sing Civil Right’s protest songs with Joan Baez.

14 thoughts on “A Police Car Is Held Hostage and Becomes a Speaker’s Podium… Berkeley in the 60s

    • Never left me, G. 🙂 The issues that drove my thinking in the 60s and 70s still drive me today. For example, I am delighted that the US finally has a woman Vice President! –Curt

  1. How safe is it there now, Curt?
    I remember the protests against the Vietnam war here in Australia. Bricks were thrown and university professors and their student were seething with discontent. I don’t know about today. Perhaps we are so full of sugar and the protest gene has morphed into compliance and genuflecting to authority.

    • It’s relatively safe, Gerard. The media tends to blow things out proportion. Biden has had a calming effect on the nation. The Republicans seem to be getting stranger by the day, almost appearing to worship Trump. Their ploy now is to do everything they can to limit voting since when everyone has an opportunity to vote, Republicans lose. They seem to be willing to sacrifice democracy to remain in power. –Curt

  2. They would never say that you didn’t deserve to be there even though you’re barely over the 30 year old crowd Curt. 🤣🤣
    You have the spirit and can’t wait to see what killer Chihuahua does or is it door number 2 with the G.S?m💖

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