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


Berkeley on Edge… the 60s

Within a week of my arrival at Berkeley, I was President of Priestly Hall, my dorm. Following my stint as Student Body President at Sierra College, I decided to jump into student politics at the University. The dormitories were new so the residents were new. The fact that I was a Community College transfer made little difference.

Student politics seemed dull and almost frivolous compared to the real thing, however. What truly fascinated me about Berkeley was the palpable sense of being involved in the events of the day.

Fellow students had actually signed up for and gone on Freedom Rides in the South. An active effort to end discriminatory hiring practices was underway in the Bay Area and organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality were recruiting students to support their efforts.

I was drawn toward these issues and the call to action tweaked my interest. Limiting the future of a potential Martin Luther King because of who his parents were went beyond being counterproductive. It was stupid; we all lost.

But I wasn’t ready to take up a picket sign. This was my first year at Berkeley and my hands were full in struggling with classes and eking out time to be with Jo Ann. There were also numerous responsibilities to fulfill in my role as dorm president such as organizing parties, collecting rolls of toilet paper to throw during Cal football games and learning the football fight songs.

I did strike one tap hammer blow against the machine, however. We were expected to participate in the annual Ugly Man Contest. Its purpose was to raise money for charity by having someone or thing really ugly as the dorm’s representative in competition with other dorms, fraternities and sororities. People would vote by donating money (normally pennies) to their favorite ugly man. In addition to being fun, it was on the top of the Dean’s list as an acceptable student activity.

I proposed that our ‘Ugly Man’ be an unfortunate Joe College Student whose computer card had been lost by the Administration. Consequently, he no longer existed. We made up a casket and wandered about campus in search of poor Joe.

It was a small thing but it reflected a growing unease I had about the alienation created by assembly line education where numbers were more important than individuals. Apparently the student body wasn’t ready for the message; a popular bartender representing a fraternity walked away with the prize.

While my concerns over student alienation were evolving, the administration was monitoring off-campus student activism with growing concern. The University perceived its primary objectives as carrying out research and preparing young people to become productive members of American society. These weren’t bad goals but there was little room in the equation for students seeking social and political change… in Mississippi, in Oakland or on campus.

But ‘the times they were a changing,’ as Bob Dylan sang. A young President in Washington was calling on the youth of America to become involved, racial equality seemed attainable in the United States and people the world over were yearning for and demanding freedom. It was easy for idealistic young Americans to believe we were at the dawning of a new age and natural to want to be involved in the transformation.

Had the students restricted their political efforts in the early and mid sixties to the far off South, the eruption of conflict on the Berkeley Campus may not have taken place. But they chose local targets as well.

When the students marched off campus to picket the Oakland Tribune, Sheraton Hotel, United Airways and Safeway over discriminatory hiring practices, they were challenging locally established businesses with considerable power. Not surprisingly, these businesses felt threatened and fought back.

Rather than deal with the existing discrimination, they demanded that the University, local authorities, the state government and even the Federal government do whatever was necessary to reign in the protesters.

Their arguments for the crackdown were typical of the times. A few radical off-campus agitators with Communist connections were working in conjunction with left leaning professors to stir up trouble. The participating students lacked mature judgment and were naively being led astray. The vast majority of students were good law-abiding kids who just wanted to get an education, party, and get a paycheck.

The University was caught between the proverbial rock and a very hard place. The off-campus political activism was creating unwanted attention. Public dollars could be lost and reputations tarnished. There was also a justifiable fear of reprisal from the right.

The ugliness of McCarthyism was still alive and well in America. Only a few years before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had held hearings in San Francisco in its ceaseless search for Commies. UC had been a target.

HUAC created a deep paranoia and distrust within society and may indeed have constituted the most un-American type of activity ever perpetrated on the American public. Clark Kerr, the University President, and others had worked hard to protect and restore the academic freedom on campus that loyalty oaths and other McCarthy-like activities had threatened. Student activism might refocus Right Wing attention on the Berkeley Campus.

My greatest insight into the mindset of the Administration was when the Dean of Students called student leaders together to discuss the growing unrest on campus. Our gathering included members of the student government and presidents of the resident halls, fraternities and sororities. Noticeable in their absence were student representatives from off campus organizations such as CORE, SNCC, Young Democrats, Young Republicans and other activist groups.

We sat in a large room in a huge square; there must have been at least 40 of us. I was eager to participate and imagined an open discussion of the issues.

A Dean welcomed us, thanked us for agreeing to participate, and then laid the foundation for our discussion. A small group of radical students was disrupting the campus and organizing off-campus activities such as picketing and sit-ins that were illegal in nature.

While the issues being addressing were important, there were other, more appropriate means available for solving them that didn’t involve Berkeley. The Administration had been extremely tolerant so far but was approaching a point where it might have to crack down for the overall good of the University.

The Administration wanted our feedback as student leaders. What did we think was happening, how would our constituencies react to a crack down, and how could we help defuse the situation? We were to go around the room with each student leader expressing his or her view. I expected a major reaction… hopefully a protest or at least a warning to move cautiously, to involve all parties in seeking some type of amenable agreement.

The first student leader stood up. “The radical students are making me extremely angry,” he reported. “I resent that a small group of people can ruin everything for the rest of us. The vast majority of the students do not support off-campus political action. I believe the student body would support a crackdown by the Administration. You have my support in whatever you do.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. Was the guy a plant, preprogrammed by the Administration to repeat the party line and set the tone for everyone else? If so, he was successful. The next person and the next person parroted what he had said. I began to doubt myself.

Normally, I am quite good at reading political trends and sensing when a group leans toward supporting or opposing an issue. My read on what was happening at Bancroft and Telegraph was that the majority of the students were empathic with and supportive of the causes the so-called radical students were advocating.

The Martin Luther Kings of the world were heroes, not bad guys, and their tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience were empowering the powerless. Sure, the majority of the students were primarily concerned with getting through college. To many, an all night kegger and getting laid might seem infinitely more appealing than a sit-in. But this did not imply a lack of shared concern.

Or so I believed. Apparently, very few of the other participants shared in my belief. Concerns were raised but no one stopped and said, “Damn it, we have a problem!”

As my turn approached I felt myself chickening out. I was the new kid on the block, wet behind the ears. What did I know?

Acceptance in this crowd was to stand up and say, “Yes, everything you are talking about is true. Let’s clamp down on the rabble rousers and get on with the important life of being students.” And I wanted to be accepted, to be a part of the establishment. I stood up with shaking legs.

“Hi, my name is Curt Mekemson and I am the president of Priestly Hall,” I announced in a voice which was matching my legs, shake for shake. This was not the impression I wanted to make. As others had spoken, I had scribbled some notes on what I wanted to say.

“I believe we have a very serious problem here, that the issues are legitimate, and that most students are sympathetic. I don’t think we should be cracking down but should be working together to find solutions. Now is not the time to further alienate the activists and create more of a crisis than we presently have. I believe it is a serious mistake to not have representatives from the groups involved in organizing off campus activities here today.”

I was met with deadly silence. A few heads nodded in agreement, but mainly there were glares. “Next,” the Dean said. No yea, no nay, no discussion. I was a bringer of bad tidings, a storm crow. But it wasn’t ‘kill the messenger.’ It was more like ‘ignore the messenger,’ like I had farted in public and people were embarrassed.

After that, my enthusiasm for student government waned. I should have fought back, fought for what I believed in, fought for what I knew deep down to be right. But I didn’t. I was still trying to figure out what to do with 15 books in Poly Sci 1. I had a relationship to maintain on campus and a mother fighting cancer at home. The dark, heavy force of depression rolled over my mind like the fog rolling in from the Bay.

Finally I decided that something had to go and that the only thing expendable was my role as President of the dorm. So I turned over the reins of power to my VP and headed back to Bancroft Library. Politics could wait.

Next blog: John Kennedy Is Shot Down on the Streets of Dallas.