A recurring theme in criticism of the students pepper-sprayed at UC Davis last week is that in forming a ring around police and their fellow activists they were violating the principles of nonviolent resistance. “A fundamental tenet of civil disobedience is to accept arrest when protesting injustice,” Berkeley Daily Cal columnist Casey Given wrote yesterday, and so the UC activists of today have no right to “compare … their struggle to … the Free Speech and Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s.”
Casey Given is right that civil rights activists mostly submitted to arrest willingly (though one of the movement’s greatest unsung heroes did not). But to invoke the Berkeley Free Speech Movement as an example of this supposed rule of nonviolence is a deeply strange choice.
The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was christened on September 30, 1964, at a sit-in following the citation of eight students for violating the university’s leafleting policies. The very next day, on the morning of October 1, the university administration escalated the conflict by arresting former student Jack Weinberg for tabling in support of the civil rights movement in Sproul Plaza.
When police told Weinberg he was under arrest, he refused to move, and the officers were forced to call for backup. As they waited, the crowd grew. Eventually a squad car arrived. As police carried Weinberg into the car, the students standing nearby spontaneously sat down, blocking it from leaving Sproul. Police ordered them to move. They refused. Soon Mario Savio climbed onto the roof of the car and declared a noon rally at that location.
Savio was granted a meeting with university administrators not long after, at which he declared that the students surrounding the police car would disperse if and only if the administration released Weinberg, dropped charges against him and the eight students cited the previous day, and opened serious negotiations on campus regulations. Several hundred students spent that night surrounding the car, many of them in sleeping bags. (The demonstrators continued to use the car’s roof as a podium, denting it severely. They also deflated its tires.)
It was not until the following evening, after the administrators had accepted most of their demands, that the students allowed the police car to exit the plaza.
This is the history of nonviolent student protest at Berkeley. It is the history of peaceful student organizing, yes, but it’s also a history of students disrupting police business, refusing to submit to arrest, damaging police property, even holding police hostage.
That is the history of the students of the University of California. That is the inheritance of the student activists of today.