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UC students mark civil rights anniversary

By Judith Scherr Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday October 02, 2002

On Oct. 1, 1964, former student and Congress of Racial Equality worker Jack Weinberg was passing out flyers at Sproul Plaza after the college had forbidden the distribution of literature for non-university causes. Police arrived and put Weinberg in a squad car. But they couldn’t take him away. A group of students had surrounded it, and they held the car captive until the college agreed to lift the distribution ban. 

“The students won,” said Matt Murray of the student ACLU Tuesday to about 50 people celebrating the 38th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. 

In today’s climate, Murray said, under the Patriot Act and other legislation, freedom to speak is not a given. “Today we need to protect our freedom of speech,” he said. 

To underscore the value of the free speech that was won in 1964, the campus ACLU brought together a dynamic range of people with strong, opposing views to participate in a series of quick debates on the steps of Sproul Plaza. 

The Israel Action Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine were among groups that squared off with words. “I’m an Israeli,” said student Oren Lazar, arguing that Israel is the “only place in the Middle East where free speech is truly celebrated.” He attacked the Palestinians for walking away from the 2000 Camp David peace talks and into guerrilla war. The solution now, he said, is helping Palestinians find another leader. 

But Chris Cantor countered that arguments put forward for the IAC speaker did not go to the heart of the issue. “What is the problem we’re solving?” he asked, then answered: “Occupation.” You don’t resolve the question of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands by building settlements, he said. 

Other debaters included the anti-abortion Berkeley Students for Life who argued that abortion supporters “fail to extend liberties to the weakest among us.” The National Organization for Women was there, reminding listeners that illegal abortions caused death and injury to countless women, and warning that President George W. Bush was poised to appoint pro-life judges. An atheist from Students for a Nonreligious Ethos called for religion to get out of government and the schools, while a speaker from Victory Christian Ministries said that god exists and that it is 99.99 percent certain that the New Testament is an authentic document. 

The Berkeley College Republicans and the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary were given a few extra minutes to respond to one another’s arguments for and against affirmative action.  

Republican Paul LaFata argued that affirmative action based on race is illogical because as people of different races intermarry and have children, the question of what race a person is becomes moot. “Races are constantly changing,” he said. Further, he argued, people of all races have endured discrimination, so how does one go about deciding which group gets affirmative action. 

Arguing for affirmative action, Yvette Felarca pointed to a dramatic drop in the number of Latinos and blacks at the university since the end of affirmative action. Responding to LaFata’s arguments, Felarca contended that “If you look black, you’re treated like you’re black. You’re racially profiled.”  

Affirmative action is critical, she said. “You can’t pull someone up by his bootstraps on an unequal playing field.”