The Nonstudent Left By HUNTER S. THOMPSON The Nation, 1965

Tuesday March 29, 2005

At the height of the “Berkeley insurrection” press reports were loaded with mentions of outsiders, nonstudents and professional troublemakers. Terms like “Cal’s shadow college” and “Berkeley’s hidden community” became part of the journalistic lexicon. These people, it was said, were whipping the campus into a frenzy, goading the students to revolt, harassing the administration, and all the while working for their own fiendish ends. You could almost see them loping along the midnight streets with bags of seditious leaflets, strike orders, red banners of protest and cablegrams from Moscow, Peking or Havana. As in Mississippi and South Vietnam, outside agitators were said to be stirring up the locals, who wanted only to be left alone. 

Something closer to the truth is beginning to emerge now, but down around the roots of the affair the fog is still pretty thick. The SprouI Hall sit-in trials ended in a series of unexpectedly harsh convictions, the Free Speech Movement has disbanded, four students have been expelled and sentenced to jail terms as a result of the “dirty word controversy, and the principal leader, Mario Savio, has gone to England, where he’ll study and wait for word on the appeal of his four-month jail term—a procedure which may take as long as 18 months. 

As the new semester begins—with a new and inscrutable chancellor—the mood on the Berkeley campus is one of watchful waiting. The basic issues of last year are still unresolved, and a big new one has been added: Vietnam. A massive nation-wide sit-in, with Berkeley as a focal point, is scheduled for October 15-16, and if that doesn’t open all the old wounds, then presumably nothing will. 

For a time it looked as though Governor Edmund Brown had sidetracked any legislative investigation of the university, but late in August Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, an anti-Brown Democrat, named himself and four colleagues to a joint legislative committee that will investigate higher education in California. Mr. Unruh told the press that “there will be no isolated investigation of student-faculty problems at Berkeley,” but in the same period he stated before a national conference of more than 1,000 state legislators, meeting in Portland, that the academic community is “’probably the greatest enemy” of a state legislature. 

Mr. Unruh is a sign of the times. For a while last spring he appeared to be in conflict with the normally atavistic Board of Regents, which runs the university, but somewhere along the line a blue-chip compromise was reached, and whatever progressive ideas the Regents might have flirted with were lost in the summer lull. Governor Brown’s role in these negotiations has not yet been made public. 

One of the realities to come out of last semester’s action is the new “anti-outsider law,” designed to keep “nonstudents” off the campus in any hour of turmoil. It was sponsored by Assemblyman Don Mulford, a Republican from Oakland, who looks and talks quite a bit like the “old” Richard Nixon. Mr. Mulford is much concerned about “subversive infiltration” on the Berkeley campus, which lies in his district. He thinks he knows that the outburst last fall was caused by New York Communists, beatnik perverts and other godless elements beyond his ken. The students themselves, he tells himself, would never have caused such a ruckus. Others in Sacramento apparently shared this view. The bill passed the Assembly by a vote of 54 to 11 and the Senate by 27 to 8. Governor Brown signed it on June 2. The Mulford proposal got a good boost, while it was still pending, when J. Edgar Hoover testified in Washington that 43 Reds of one stripe or another were involved in the Free Speech Movement. 

On hearing of this, one student grinned and said: “Well I guess that means they’ll send about 10,000 Marines out here this fall. Hell, they sent 20,000 after those 58 Reds in Santo Domirigo. Man, that Lyndon is nothing but hip!” 

Where Mr. Hoover got his figure is a matter of speculation, but the guess in Berkeley is that it came from the San Francisco Examiner, a Hearst paper calling itself “The Monarch of the Dailies.” The Examiner is particularly influential among those who fear King George III might still be alive in Argentina. 

The significance of the Mulford law lies not in what it says but in the darkness it sheds on the whole situation in Berkeley, especially on the role of nonstudents and outsiders. Who are these thugs? What manner of man would lurk on a campus for no reason but to twist student minds? As anyone who lives or works around an urban campus knows, vast numbers of students are already more radical than any Red Mr. Hoover could name. Beyond that, the nonstudents and outsiders California has legislated against are in the main ex-students, graduates, would-be transfers, and other young activist types who differ from radical students only in that they don’t carry university registration cards. On any urban campus the nonstudent is an old and dishonored tradition. Every big city school has its fringe element: Harvard, New York University, Chicago, the Sorbonne, Berkeley, the University of Caracas. A dynamic university in a modern population center simply can’t be isolated from the realities human or otherwise, that surround it. Mr. Mulford would make an island of the Berkeley campus but, alas, there are too many guerrillas. 

In 1958, I drifted north from Kentucky and became a nonstudent at Columbia. I signed up for two courses and am still getting bills for the tuition. My home was a $12-a-week room in an off-campus building full of jazz musicians, shoplifters, mainliners, screaming poets and sex addicts of every description. It was a good life. I used the university facilities and at one point was hired to stand in a booth all day for two days, collecting registration fees. Twice I walked almost the length of the campus at night with a big wooden box containing nearly $15,000. It was a wild feeling and I’m still not sure why I took the money to the bursar. 

Being “non” or “neo” student on an urban campus is not only simple but natural for anyone who is young, bright and convinced that the major he’s after is not on the list. Any list. A serious nonstudent is his own guidance counselor. The surprising thing is that so few people beyond the campus know this is going on. 

The nonstudent tradition seems to date from the end of World War II. Before that it was a more individual thing. A professor at Columbia told me that the late R.P. Blackmur, one of the most academic and scholarly of literary critics, got most of his education by sitting in on classes at Harvard. In the age of Eisenhower and Kerouac, the nonstudent went about stealing his education as quietly as possible. It never occurred to him to jump into campus politics; that was part of the game he had already quit. But then the decade ended, Nixon went down, and the civil rights struggle broke out. With this, a whole army of guilt-crippled Eisenhower deserters found the war they had almost given up hoping for. With Kennedy at the helm, politics became respectable for a change, and students who had sneered at the idea of voting found themselves joining the Peace Corps or standing on picket lines. Student radicals today may call Kennedy a phony liberal and a glamorous sellout, but only the very young will deny that it was Kennedy who got them excited enough to want to change the American reality, instead of just quitting it. Today’s activist student or nonstudent talks about Kerouac as the hipsters of the ‘50s talked about Hemingway. He was a quitter, they say; he had good instincts and a good ear for the sadness of his time, but his talent soured instead of growing. The new campus radical has a cause, a multipronged attack on as many fronts as necessary: if not civil rights, then foreign policy or structural deprivation in domestic poverty pockets. Injustice is the demon, and the idea is to bust it. 

What Mulford’s law will do to change this situation is not clear. The language of the bill leaves no doubt that it shall henceforth be a misdemeanor for any nonstudent or nonemployee to remain on a state university or state college campus after he or she has been ordered to leave, if it “reasonably appears” to the chief administrative officer or the person designated by him to keep order on the campus “that such person is committing an act likely to interfere with the peaceful conduct of the campus.” 

In anything short of riot conditions, the real victims of Mulford’s law will be the luckless flunkies appointed to enforce it. The mind of man could devise few tasks more hopeless than rushing around this 1,000-acre, 27,000-student campus in the midst of some crowded action, trying to apprehend and remove—on sight and before he can flee—any person who is not a Cal student and is not eligible for readmission. It would be a nightmare of lies, false seizures, double entries and certain provocation. Meanwhile, most of those responsible for the action would be going about their business in legal peace. If pure justice prevailed in this world, Don Mulford would be appointed to keep order and bag subversives at the next campus demonstrations. 

There are those who seem surprised that a defective rattrap like the Mulford law could be endorsed by the legislature of a supposedly progressive, enlightened state. But these same people were surprised when Proposition 14, which reopened the door to racial discrimination in housing, was endorsed by the electorate last November by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. 

Meanwhile, the nonstudent in Berkeley is part of the scene, a fact of life. The university estimates that about 3,000 nonstudents use the campus in various ways: working in the library with borrowed registration cards; attending lectures, concerts and student films; finding jobs and apartments via secondhand access to university listings; eating in the cafeteria, and monitoring classes. In appearance they are indistinguishable from students. Berkeley is full of wild-looking graduate students, bearded professors and long-haired English majors who look like Joan Baez. 

Until recently there was no mention of nonstudents in campus politics, but at the beginning of the Free Speech rebellion President Kerr said “nonstudent elements were partly responsible for the demonstration.’’ Since then, he has backed away from that stand, leaving it to the lawmakers. Even its goats and enemies now admit that the FSM revolt was the work of actual students. It has been a difficult fact for some people to accept, but a reliable poll of student attitudes at the time showed that roughly 18,000 of them supported the goals of the FSM, and about half that number supported its “illegal” tactics. More than 800 were willing to defy the administration, the Governor and the police, rather than back down. The faculty supported the FSM by close to 8 to 1. The nonstudents nearly all sided with the FSM. The percentage of radicals among them is much higher than among students. It is invariably the radicals, not the conservatives, who drop out of school and become activist nonstudents. But against this background, their attitude hardly matters. 

“We don’t play a big role, politically,” says one. “But philosophically we’re a hell of a threat, to the establishment. Just the fact that we exist proves that dropping out of school isn’t the end of the world. Another important thing is that we’re not looked down on by students. We’re respectable. A lot of students I know are thinking of becoming nonstudents.” 

“As a nonstudent I have nothing to lose,” said another. “I can work full time on whatever I want, study what interests me, and figure out what’s really happening in the world. That student routine is a drag. Until I quit the grind I didn’t realize how many groovy things there are to do around Berkeley: concerts, films, good speakers, parties, pot, politics, women—I can’t think of a better way to live, can you?” 

Not all nonstudents worry the lawmakers and administrators. Some are fraternity bums who flunked out of the university, but don’t want to leave the parties and the good atmosphere. Others are quiet squares or technical types, earning money between enrollments and meanwhile living nearby. But there is no longer the sharp division that used to exist between the beatnik and the square: too many radicals wear ties and sport coats; too many engineering students wear boots and Levi’s. Some of the most bohemian looking girls around the campus are Left puritans, while some of the sweetest-looking sorority types are confirmed pot smokers and wear diaphragms on all occasions. 

Nonstudents lump one another—and many students—into two very broad groups: “political radicals” and “social radicals.” Again, the division is not sharp, but in general, and with a few bizarre exceptions, a political radical is a Left activist in one or more causes. His views are revolutionary in the sense that his idea of “democratic solutions” alarms even the liberals. He may be a Young Trotskyist, a Du Bois Club organizer or merely an ex-Young Democrat, who despairs of President Johnson and is now looking for action with some friends in the Progressive Labor Party. 

Social radicals tend to be “arty.” Their gigs are poetry and folk music, rather than poliltics, although many are fervently committed to the civil rights movement. Their political bent is Left, but their real interests are writing, painting, good sex, good sounds and free marijuana. The realities of politics put them off, although they don’t mind lending their talents to a demonstration here and there, or even getting arrested for a good cause. They have quit one system and they don’t want to be organized into another; they feel they have more important things to do. 

A report last spring by the faculty’s Select Committee on Education tried to put it all in a nutshell: “A significant and growing minority of students is simply not propelled by what we have come to regard as conventional motivation. Rather than aiming to be successful men in an achievement-oriented society, they want to be moral men in a moral society. They want to lead lives less tied to financial return than to social awareness and responsibility.” 

The committee was severely critical of the whole university structure, saying: “The atmosphere of the campus now suggests too much an intricate system of compulsions, rewards and punishments; too much of our attention is given to score keeping.” Among other failures, the university was accused of ignoring “the moral revolution of the young.” 

Talk like this strikes the radicals among “the young” as paternalistic jargon, but they appreciate the old folks’ sympathy. To them, anyone who takes part in “the system” is a hypocrite. This is especially true among the Marxist, Mao-Castro element—the hipsters of the Left. 

One of these is Steve DeCanio, a 22-year-old Berkeley radical and Cal graduate in math, now facing a two-month jail term as a result of the Sproul Hall sit-ins. He is doing graduate work, and therefore immune to the Mulford law. “I became a radical after the 1962 auto row (civil rights) demonstrations in San Francisco,” he says. “That’s when I saw the power structure and understood the hopelessness of trying to be a liberal. After I got arrested I dropped the pre-med course I’d started at San Francisco State. The worst of it, though, was being screwed time and again in the courts. I’m out on appeal now with four and a half months of jail hanging over me,” 

DeCanio is an editor of Spider, a wild-eyed new magazine with a circulation of about 2,000 on and around the Berkeley campus. Once banned, it thrived on the publicity and is now officially ignored by the protest-weary administration. The eight-man editorial board is comprised of four students and four nonstudents. The magazine is dedicated, they say, to “sex, politics, international communism, drugs, extremism and rock’n’roll.” Hence, S-P-I-D-E-R. 

DeCanio is about two-thirds political radical and one-third social. He is bright, small, with dark hair and glasses, clean-shaven, and casually but not sloppily dressed. He listens carefully to questions, uses his hands for emphasis when he talks, and quietly says things like: “What this country needs is a revolution; the society is so sick, so reactionary, that it just doesn’t make sense to take part in it.” 

He lives, with three other nonstudents and two students, in a comfortable house on College Avenue, a few blocks from the campus. The $120-a-month rent is split six ways. There are three bedrooms, a kitchen and a big living room with a fireplace. Papers litter the floor, the phone rings continually, and people stop by to borrow things: a pretty blonde wants a Soviet army chorus record, a Tony Perkins type from the Oakland DuBois Club wants a film projector, Art Goldberg—the arch-activist who also lives here—comes storming in, shouting for help on the “Vietnam Days” teach-in arrangements. 

It is all very friendly and collegiate. People wear plaid shirts and khaki pants, white socks and moccasins. There are books on the shelves, cans of beer and Cokes in the refrigerator, and a manually operated light bulb in the bathroom. In the midst of all this it is weird to hear people talking about “bringing the ruling class to their knees,” or “finding acceptable synonyms for Marxist terms.” 

Political conversation in this house would drive Don Mulford right over the wall. There are riffs of absurdity and mad humor in it, but the base line remains a dead-serious alienation from the “Repugnant Society” of 20th-century America. You hear the same talk on the streets, in coffee bars, on the wall near Ludwig’s Fountain in front of Sproul Hall, and in other houses where activists live and gather. And why not? This is Berkeley, which DeCanio calls “the center of West Coast radicalism.” It has a long history of erratic politics, both on and off the campus. From 1911 to 1913, its Mayor was a Socialist named Stitt Wilson. It has more psychiatrists and fewer bars than any other city of comparable size in California. And there are 249 churches for 120,300 people, of which 25 per cent are Negroes—one of the highest percentages of any city outside the South. 

Culturally, Berkeley is dominated by two factors: the campus and San Francisco across the Bay. The campus is so much a part of the community that the employment and housing markets have long since adjusted to student patterns. A $100-a-month apartment or cottage is no problem when four or five people split the rent, and, there are plenty of ill-paid, minimum-strain jobs for those without money from home. Tutoring, typing, clerking, car washing, hash slinging and baby sitting are all easy ways to make a subsistence income; one of the favorites among nonstudents is computer programing, which pays well. 

Therefore, Berkeley’s nonstudents have no trouble getting by. The climate is easy, the people are congenial, and the action never dies. Jim Prickett, who quit the University of Oklahoma and flunked out of San Francisco State, is another of Spider’s nonstudent editors. “State has no community,” he says, “and the only nonstudent I know of at Oklahoma is now in jail.” Prickett came to Berkeley because “things are happening here.” At 23, he is about as far Left as a man can get in these times, but his revolutionary zeal is gimped by pessimism. “If we have a revolution in this country it will be a Fascist take-over,” he says with a shrug. Meanwhile he earns $25 a week as Spider’s star writer, smiting the establishment hip and thigh at every opportunity. Prickett looks as much like a Red menace as Will Rogers looked like a Bantu. He is tall, thin, blond, and shuffles. “Hell, I’ll probably sell out,” he says with a faint smile. “Be a history teacher or something. But not for a while.” 

Yet there is something about Prickett that suggests he won’t sell out so easiIy. Unlike many nonstudent activists, he has no degree, and in the society that appalls him even a sellout needs credentials. That is one of the most tangible realities of the nonstudent; by quitting school he has taken a physical step outside the system—a move that more and more students seem to find admirable. It is not an easy thing to repudiate—not now, at any rate, while the tide is running that way. And “the system” cannot be rejoined without some painful self-realization. Many a man has whipped up a hell broth of reasons to justify his sellout, but few recommend the taste of it. 

The problem is not like that of high school dropouts. They are supposedly inadequate, but the activist nonstudent is generally said to be superior. “A lot of these kids are top students,” says Dr. David Powellson, chief of Cal’s student psychiatric clinic, “but no university is set up to handle them.” 

How then are these bright mavericks to fit into the super-bureaucracies of government and big business? Cal takes its undergraduates from the top eighth of the state’s high school graduates, and those accepted from out of state are no less “promising.” The ones who migrate to Berkeley after quitting other schools are usually the same type. They are seekers—disturbed, perhaps, and perhaps for good reason. Many drift from one university to another, looking for the right program, the right professor, the right atmosphere, the right way to deal with the deplorable world they have suddenly grown into. It is like an army of Holden Caulfields, looking for a home and beginning to suspect they may never find one. 

These are the outsiders, the nonstudents, and the potential—if not professional—troublemakers. There is something primitive and tragic in California’s effort to make a law against them. The law itself is relatively unimportant, but the thinking that conceived it is a strutting example of what the crisis is all about. A society that will legislate in ignorance against its unfulfilled children and its angry, half-desperate truth seekers is bound to be shaken as it goes about making a reality of mass education. 

It is a race against time, complacency and vested interests. For the Left-activist nonstudent the race is very personal. Whether he is right, wrong, ignorant, vicious, super-intelligent or simply bored, once he has committed himself to the extent of dropping out of school, he has also committed himself to “making it” outside the framework of whatever he has quit. A social radical presumably has his talent, his private madness or some other insulated gimmick, but for the political radical the only true hope is somehow to bust the system that drove him into limbo. In this new era many believe they can do it, but most of those I talked to at BerkeIey seemed a bit nervous. There was a singular vagueness as to the mechanics of the act, no real sense of the openings. 

“What are you going to be doing 10 years from now?” I asked a visiting radical in the house where Spider is put together. “What if there’s no revolution by then, and no prospects of one?” 

“Hell,” he said. “I don’t think about that. Too much is happening right now. If the revolution’s coming, it had better come damn quick.”™