For an all-too-brief and shining moment Friday noon, Sproul Plaza reverberated with the rhetorical fireworks that made Berkeley synonymous with radical ideas during the 1960's.
Two firebrands of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) ignited a crowd of thousands in outbursts of cheers and applause, and a defeated but unbowed presidential candidate urged his listeners to join the political fray, both as activists and as candidates.
In commemoration of one of the most celebrated moments of four decades earlier, the speakers addressed the audience from atop a police car—albeit on a wooden platform reached by a ramp.
And though the firebrands were grayer, heavier and more stooped than in those September days of 1964 and some needed a hand to traverse the ramp, on ce atop the UC Police cruiser they demonstrated that they’d lost none of their spirit.
While Howard Dean was the celebrity du jour, delivering a hearty stump speech on behalf of one-time opponent John Kerry, it was FSM vets Bettina Aptheker and state Ass emblymember Jackie Goldberg who delivered the fire to the crowd of 3,000 students and snowy-tressed baby boomers who had gathered in Sproul Plaza to celebrate the movement’s 40th anniversary.
After Berkeley and a subsequent women’s studies teaching job a t San Jose State, Aptheker enrolled at UC Santa Cruz for additional graduate studies, staying to teach in and eventually chair the Women’s Studies Program.
Her voice resonant with passion, her knees pumping with the rhythm of her words, Aptheker hailed t he memory of “the vibrant, effervescent, singing students of this campus.
“This was my generation,” she said, baby boomers whose youth had been shaped by knowledge of the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“To see you today moves me t o tears,” she said, eliciting the first of several rousing ovations.
In passing remarks to a reporter a few minutes earlier, Michael Rossman, an FSM vet and one of the key organizers of Friday’s gathering, had echoed her feelings.
“All of us have been crying at some point today,” he sighed.
Aptheker came by her radicalism naturally as a red diaper daughter of Communist Party members—her father was internationally known journalist and African American studies expert Herbert Aptheker, a white protégé of W.E.B. DuBois.
Comparing the United States of 1964 and 2004, Aptheker found “periods of great social movements and government repression.”
“This is the most significant election in American since 1860,” she said. “Vote,” she implored. “Register and vote. Let your voices be heard.”
“She was my first Communist,” Goldberg said of Aptheker, at the start of an equally rousing, and fervently applauded address.
“The most important lesson my parents gave me when I started at Berkeley was ‘Don’t sign anything!’” Goldberg recalled.
The shadow of the McCarthy era was haunting America in 1964, when “radical” was synonymous with “subversive” and “un-American” and a signature on a petition could earn a file-creating, life-destroying label.
But Goldberg signed. A nd more.
Her politics, awakened by her involvement in the FSM, would eventually earn her “a couple of arrests and convictions” and a rejection when she later applied for a teacher’s job with the Los Angeles school system, which wouldn’t hire anyone withi n five years of an arrest.
She applied for a job in Compton, an economically-depressed African American city in Los Angeles County. She would go on to teach for two decades, win election to the Los Angeles County Board of Education—where, after eight yea rs, she was finally able to end the rule that had barred her from a job.
She later became a deputy to L.A. County Supervisor Dorothy Molina. Twice elected to the Los Angeles City Council in ‘93 and ‘97, she won a seat in the State Assembly four years ago. Her legislative record and her rhetoric from atop the police car match the values she’d espoused in Berkeley from atop another police car.
She denounced the forces of reaction for creating a cynical mythology in which students lapsed into political ina ction, convinced “that you’re apathetic, that you can’t measure up to us. Hogwash!” she declared, leaning in toward her audience. “You are light years ahead of us!”
Denouncing the tuition-raising mindset that holds that “we can’t afford to tax anybody an other dollar” to support education, sending college tuition ever-upward, she offered “a simple formula: ‘Tax the rich! They have all the money!’”
Howard Dean opened his own stump speech with an homage. “Arnold, you better watch out, because Jackie Goldbe rg’s comin’ ta getcha!”
While Dean’s call to political arms offered no surprises, the speech by UC Chancellor Robert Birgeneau did.
No one missed the obvious irony of a Berkeley chancellor speaking from atop a police car in Sproul Plaza, but what evoked a few headshakes of surprise was his revelation that he too had been part of the same civil rights movement whose recruiting tables sparked the confrontation that led to emergence of the FSM.
After introductory remarks by ASUC President Misha Leybovich, Birgeneau recounted the events after his graduation from Yale in 1964—where he’d done volunteer work in inner-city New Haven.
Birgeneau and his spouse headed to the deep South as a volunteer in the civil rights movement, where they shared a dwelling wit h two FSM leaders.
“I had only been out of Canada for two years, and it was an extraordinarily valuable experience,” he said.
Birgeneau’s address did draw resounding boos with the mention of the former Secretary of State who was the architect of Preside nt Richard Nixon’s Southeast Asian war strategy.
“I had dinner last week with Henry Kissinger and a senior official from Vietnam,” he said. The Vietnamese official “said we would not have had peace and unity in Vietnam if not for” the antiwar movement in the United States.
The most poignant moment came when a frail Julia Vinograd, Berkeley’s well-known Telegraph Avenue street poet, was assisted onto the podium to read her poem about another iconic movement moment, “The Sproul Hall Sit In.” .