Berkeley's Radical Roots
By Anne Fortune Wickers

From Gadfly August 1998


"The only thing Berkeley has never protested. It's the cheese."
—Billboard in an ad campaign by the California Cheese Council

The long hot summer of 1968.... People acting up and acting out all over the nation. A dramatic explosion of political and racial tension, of rioting and protest. Unprecedented behavior from Americans everywhere....

Except Berkeley, California.

By 1968, Berkeley was rounding out a decade as the country's bellwether of political and social protest. What was so shocking in communities across America was de rigeur in this small university town just east of San Francisco. What was once a quiet, conservative white suburb transformed itself into a Mecca for radical liberals, students and non‑students alike, who were the vanguard for progressive developments in the political, social and cultural spheres.

The long and storied tradition of Berkeley protests actually began across the bay in San Francisco. On May 13, 1960, a group of protesters, mostly students, many from Berkeley, demonstrated inside the San Francisco City Hall for access to hearings held by the House Un‑American Activities Committee.

The Committee had been enforcing its peculiar brand of anti‑Communist morality on whomever it could intimidate. Simply receiving subpoenas from the Committee was reason enough for some teachers in San Francisco to lose their jobs. Many targets of the Committee were forced to live underground to avoid the devastating effects of its scrutiny.

When the students planted themselves on the floor of the City Hall, the police responded to the sit‑in with egregious brutality—fire hoses, billy‑club beatings, dragging the protesters down the stone stairs of the building. These tactics were more familiar to Southern civil rights protests than the relatively sedate political atmosphere of California.

The anti‑HUAC demonstrations galvanized students at the University of California, Berkeley. Protests and demonstrations continued, both against the Committee and in support of the civil rights movement. The watershed event in Berkeley protest history came in the fall of 1964. That semester, under pressure from conservative politicians, the campus administration had banned on‑campus recruiting for off‑campus activities, arguing that since the university didn't interfere in the off‑campus lives of students, the students shouldn't allow their off‑campus lives to interfere with the university.

On October 1, 1964, Jack Weinberg, fresh from the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, disobeyed the edict against on‑campus recruitment. He set up a table to recruit student support for the civil rights movement. Galled at the audacity of a man who was not even enrolled at the university, Berkeley police arrested Weinberg and placed him in a police car.

And that's where he sat for the next thirty‑two hours—in the back of a police car that didn't move. It couldn't move. Within hours it was surrounded by up to ten thousand Berkeley students. As students flooded to the campus to join the demonstration, Mario Savio, a student and another Freedom Summer alumnus, exhorted his fellow students (from the roof of the police car) to stand against bureaucratic oppression and for the students' right to free political expression and activity. The unpopularity of their ban so acutely illustrated, the university administrators relented, and student recruitment tables resprouted along Sproul Plaza, saved by the demonstration that spawned the Free Speech Movement.

As the 1960s progressed, Berkeley students and residents shifted their focus to the Vietnam War. As early as 1965, Berkeley students had organized a "Vietnam Day" march to military offices in nearby Oakland to demonstrate their displeasure with the Johnson administration's continued support of military intervention in Vietnam. Draft deferments became increasingly difficult to obtain and more and more graduate students and graduating seniors faced potential military service in a war they detested. Anti‑war protests became more frequent and more intense. By 1968, over 80% of Berkeley's eligible male students said they intended to avoid the draft should they be called to service.

It was in this atmosphere that the campus organization Campus Draft Opposition proposed its Vietnam Commencement in May 1968. The initial plan for a formal ceremony at the university's Greek Theatre to honor students planning to avoid the draft was prohibited by university officials. An alternative event took place on the campus' Lower Sproul

Plaza. The graduating male students took an oath to avoid the draft while the eight thousand audience members and the two hundred faculty members present pledged to support them.

The cataclysmic change in the Berkeley protest tradition occurred within one month of this dramatic anti‑war demonstration. In June 1968, after most students had left town on summer vacation, the radicals and hippies who remained in the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the campus continued to push the envelope of protest. On June 28, 1968, just five weeks after the Vietnam Commencement, two thousand people attended a rally in support of radical students in France who were revolting in an effort to bring down the government of Charles DeGaulle. The enormous crowd eventually spilled out onto Telegraph avenue, a main street in town, and closed it to all but pedestrian traffic. Threatened by the chanting crowd, Berkeley police escalated their crowd control tactics to unprecedented levels. Police exchanged volleys of tear‑gas canisters with rock‑throwing demonstrators in a dialogue of violence that might evoke images of Israeli‑Palestinian conflicts in the late 1980s and the 1990s. A street war, replete with flaming barricades, city‑wide curfews, hundreds of arrests, and the near‑throttling of the city's mayor by the rampaging crowds, continued unabated for three days.

The nominal leaders of the militant crowds eventually recognized that the wild riot was unsustainable as a political protest, and so quickly changed tactics. Organizing the masses to attend the next city council meeting to issue demands that Telegraph Avenue be closed on July 4, 1968 for a political rally/street party, the radicals succeeded in intimidating the city council into acquiescing to its demands. For the first time, a majority of non‑students had driven a protest. For the first time, the protests had degenerated into violence and mayhem. And, for the first time, the demonstrators had imposed their will over the city of Berkeley and its political establishment.

Thirty years after these political battles, the image of Berkeley as the bastion of radical liberalism and counterculture prevails. The city and the university still find themselves defined in the popular imagination by the events of the 1960s. The reality of Berkeley, though, belies this myth. People sometimes look at me with astonishment when I tell them that Berkeley, in fact, has a thriving College Republicans organization, that not all students have dread locks, and that we aren't issued copies of Marx upon matriculation. The once politically potent student body has been transformed by both political apathy and increased conservatism. You can still find the occasional protest on campus, most recently against the California ballot initiatives Proposition 187 (eliminating most government‑sponsored services for illegal immigrants) and Proposition 209 (eliminating affirmative action in university admissions). But the once‑vibrant student protest culture is now only a shadow of its former self.

Whereas university students drove the initial explosion in Berkeley's political activism, city residents have supplanted the now‑docile student body. In the late 1980s, the Berkeley City Council declared the town a nuclear‑free zone to protest nuclear proliferation. Check your warheads at the city limits, folks. No longer can the city's fleet of cars fill its gas tanks at major chain fuel stations—Berkeley is boycotting virtually all of them for political reasons, like Dutch Shell's abuse of the Ogoni tribal homeland in southern Nigeria (the details and ideology of political‑correctness are inescapable in Berkeley, but don't try to avoid it, it's part of the charm). Want to celebrate Columbus Day in Berkeley? Too bad. It doesn't find its way onto the city's calendar. But don't fret, a holiday is still celebrated on the same day. It's called Indigenous People's Day. Are you still wondering why the city has been nicknamed the "People's Republic of Berkeley"?

Berkeley's progressive legacy can be felt throughout the city, not just in its politics. A stroll down the legendary Telegraph Avenue reveals the remnants of the 1960s counterculture mixing with the city's sizeable homeless population and Polo‑clad university students along an effervescent strip of cafes, bars, bookshops and clothing stores. Telegraph dead‑ends at Sproul Plaza, the university's main square and once and future site of student protests. Here, students wile away the between‑class hours by watching locally famous transients with nicknames like the "Hate Man" harangue fundamentalist preachers proselytizing from their milk‑crate pulpits with a parade of humanity, 30,000 strong, for a backdrop.

Tear yourself away from the enjoyable specter of the campus and Berkeley reveals its hip cultural and arts scene. The Berkeley Repertory Theatre, recipient of the 1997 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, is one of the most critically acclaimed arts organizations in the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Performances by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall are not to be missed. For performances of less‑traditional tunes (say, bubblegum punk or world beat), locals head to Gilman Street or Ashkenaz. For those with gourmand sensibilities, Berkeley's Chez Panisse is arguably the birthplace of California nouvelle cuisine. It is located along Shattuck Avenue in an area of cafes, delis and food shops that has become known as the "Gourmet Ghetto" (see, you can't escape politically loaded phrases in Berkeley even when you discuss restaurants).

In the hills above Berkeley, Tilden Regional Park offers a secluded opportunity to commune with nature. Miles of hiking trails and bike paths might make a Berkeleyan forget about the often exciting, sometimes exasperating city in the flatlands below. And the residential areas of the Berkeley hills offer an interesting survey of architectural styles. Devastated by a firestorm in 1991, a few fascinating specimens of craftsman‑style homes survive in the hills, by such accomplished architects as Julia Morgan. The theater on College Avenue which bears her name is almost as famous for its architectural style as it is for the performances that take place within.

And at the opposite geographical end of Berkeley from Tilden Park lies the Berkeley Marina. The views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge are breathtaking. A stroll along the Berkeley Pier, originally built three miles long, affords the hardy walker a panoramic view of the Bay Area. And just inland from the Marina is the Fourth Street District, a former industrial area converted into a neighborhood of restaurants and shops—a cleaner, upscale version of Telegraph Avenue (diet Telegraph—all the energy and only half the vagrants).

Berkeley has traveled far down a meandering path. The once sedate San Francisco suburb overcame its complacency to become the staging ground for an entire political era. And while this famous radicalism is in retreat, the historical pride of the city and the mere presence of the university will never allow it to be entirely defeated. And though many of the yuppified airs of contemporary Berkeley would probably have Mario Savio rolling over in his grave, the city seems to have struck a relatively comfortable balance between past and present. Long live the People's Republic.... And if you don't agree, feel free to sit‑in at my house.