Holding a Police Car Hostage: UC Berkeley’s 1965 Free Speech Movement

Jack Weinberg, creator of the statement "Never trust anyone over 30," was arrested for raising funds to support Civil Rights efforts on the UC Berkeley Campus in the fall of 1965. Students surrounded the police car and held it hostage.

In the fall of 1965, the UC Berkeley Administration declared that the Bancroft-Telegraph Free Speech area was closed and that there would be no more organization of off-campus Civil Rights demonstrations at Berkeley. Student organizers of the various community efforts reacted immediately.

These were not young adults whose biggest challenge had been to organize pre-football game rallies. Some, like Mario Savio, had walked the streets of the South registering black voters and risking their lives to do so.

In the summer of 1964 three of their colleagues had been shot dead and buried under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Many had cut their political eye teeth four years earlier in the anti-HUAC demonstrations in San Francisco and had participated in numerous protests against racial discrimination throughout the Bay Area since. (HUAC was the House Un-American Activities Committee, a hold over from the McCarthy era.)

The student organizers understood the value of demonstrations, media coverage and confrontation and had become masters at community organization. They were focused in their vision to the degree they were willing to face police and be arrested for their beliefs.

The Administration wasn’t nearly as focused. Liberal in nature and genuinely caring for its students, it utilized a 50’s mentality to address a 60’s reality. Its bungling attempts to control off campus political activity combined with its inability to recognize the legitimacy and depth of student feelings would unite factions as diverse as Young Republicans for Goldwater with the Young People’s Socialist League.

It eventually led to the massive protests that painted Berkeley as the nation’s center of student activism and the New Left.

Over the next three months I would spend a great deal of time listening, observing and participating in what would become known world-wide as the Free Speech Movement (FSM). As a political science major, I was to learn much more in the streets than I did in the classroom.

What evolved was a classic no win, up-against-the-wall confrontation. The Administration would move from “all of your freedoms are removed,” to “you can have some freedom,” to “let’s see how you like cops bashing in your heads.” The Free Speech leaders would be radicalized to the point where no compromise except total victory was acceptable.

Student government and faculty solutions urging moderation and cooperation would be lost in the shuffle. Ultimately, Governor Pat Brown would send in the National Guard troops and Berkeley would take on the atmosphere of a police state.

I found myself being radicalized in the process as well although I never reached the point of moving beyond issue to ideology. It was no more in my nature to be left-wing than it had been to be right-wing. However, I would move across the dividing line into civil disobedience.

Within hours of the time that Dean Katherine Towle sent out her ultimatum to campus organizations, 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 predicted at the student leader meeting a year earlier had arrived. There was no joy in being right.

In an era before social networks and cell phones, FSM organizers relied on mimeographed fliers and word of mouth to build instant support. The above flier is one I saved in my files on the Free Speech Movement.

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, a non-student organizer for CORE (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 fountain. Later, in Berkeley-like fashion, the fountain would be named for him.)

A scanned photo of Ludwig from Berkeley's student newspaper.

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 sleep. 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.

Next Blog: The Police and National Guard occupy Berkeley’s campus


On the Edge of Radicalism… Berkeley’s 1965 Free Speech Movement

A major confrontation erupted on the UC Berkeley Campus in 1965 known worldwide as the Free Speech Movement. At stake was the right of students to be actively involved in the Civil Rights movement and other political issues of the time.

While I was playing in Puerto Vallarta, my nephew, Wayne Cox, posted the video of a Campus Cop using pepper spray on students at UC Davis. The students were involved in a nonviolent protest supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It was a strong indictment of the policeman, a bully using his power of position to intimidate and physically strike out at the protestors.

Those who oppose the Occupy Movement rushed to classify the incident as a random act of a disturbed individual. It was bad PR and the video had gone viral. But the use of violence to counter protest movements has a long history in America, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War and the Boston Massacre.

I was to experience incidents similar to Davis during student protests at UC Berkeley in the mid 60s. I’ve already written a two blogs about the roots of the protest (see below).

I returned to UC in the fall of 1965 excited about my senior year. Two of my former dorm mates, Cliff Marks and Jerry Silverfield, had agreed to share an apartment. Prices were high. Landlords had a captive student population to exploit. We ended up with a small kitchen, bathroom, living room, and one bedroom. Things were so tight in the bedroom that Cliff and I had a bunk bed. I would later wonder why this was superior to dorm life.

Jerry (on the right), Cliff and I in our small apartment.

We christened the apartment by consuming a small barrel of tequila Cliff had brought back from his summer of sharpening Spanish skills in Mexico.

While we were recovering from our well-deserved headaches the next morning, UC’s Administration moved decisively to eliminate off campus political activities from being initiated on campus.

There would be no more organization of Civil Rights demonstrations and no more money collected to support political candidates or causes. Controversial speakers would not be allowed on campus without tight administrative control.

The Bancroft-Telegraph entrance free speech area was out of business, closed down, caput. That incredible babble of voices advocating a multitude of causes would be heard no more.

The Administration’s actions were a testament to the success of the 1960s Civil Rights struggle taking place in the Bay Area. It wasn’t that the activists wanted change; the problem was they were achieving it.

Non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful tool. Base your fight on legitimate moral and political issues; use the sit-in and the picket line to make your point. When the police come, don’t fight back; go limp. If they beat you over the head, you win. Sing songs of peace and justice; put a flower in the barrel of the weapon facing you.

It is incredibly hard to fight against these tactics. People tend to get upset when they see nonviolent protestors being beaten with nightsticks in national and international media. It gives power to the powerless.

Major businesses being targeted for their discriminatory practices in the Bay Area, the Sheraton Hotel, United Airlines and Safeway, blinked. Each would alter their practices.

One business that didn’t back down was the Oakland Tribune, owned by William Knowland, a conservative Republican, former Senator from California and leader of California’s Republican Party.

As the protests in the surrounding community became more successful, the power structure being attacked struck back. Calls were made to the Regents, the President of the University system and the Chancellor at Berkeley. ‘Control your students or else’ was the ominous message.

The Regents, President and Chancellor bowed to the pressure.

Some members of the Regents and Administration undoubtedly agreed with the businesses being challenged and saw the protesters as part of an anarchic left-wing plot. Others may have believed that the students’ effectiveness would bring the powers that be down on the university. Academic freedom could be lost. Some likely felt that the activities were disruptive to the education process and out-of-place on a college campus.

One thing was immediately clear; the Administration woefully underestimated the reaction of the leaders of the various organizations and large segments of the Campus population to its dictum. Possibly the administrators believed they were dealing with a small, unpopular minority, or maybe they just needed to believe: the outside pressure was so great it didn’t matter what the students believed or how they reacted.

Next blog: I become involved in ‘civil disobedience.’

Proud to be a UC Berkeley student, I display my sweatshirt.