Public Comment

A Free Speech Grizzly Sermon

By Michael Rossman
Friday November 23, 2007

This is a minimally edited transcript of a speech improvised on September 14, 2007, from the steps below the oak grove near Memorial Stadium, where a small group of protesters had been occupying the trees since last December. Several weeks earlier, the university had put a chain-link fence around the grove, ostensibly “to protect the protesters” from maddened football fans, but actually to further harass the protest, which it was also attacking in court. On this day, after I spoke, 40 members of a new student group supporting the protest—wearing blue-and-gold T-shirts proclaiming “Free Speech” and “Free Trees”—scaled the fence to bring supplies and moral support to the protesters. Twenty-one remained, choosing to be arrested. 

Right before my turn, a young woman, introduced as one of the original tree-sitters, was brought to the steps to speak. Jessica Walsh began, “Wow … So, I ran up into a tree …” and fell silent. She just stood there, shaking slightly, her eyes bright with tears, so evidently moved that the small crowd of listeners remained completely transfixed, save for those who called out “We love you, Jess,” and “Thank you for doing this.” Finally she choked out, in a small voice, “These trees saved me.” After a longer silence, she said, “That’s all,” handed the microphone back to the moderator, and stepped back among her friends. After a brief introduction, thanking me for my role in the Free Speech Movement and ending, “… and let us learn from our elders,” I took the steps. 


That’s really a hard act to follow. Four words: “These trees saved me.” Jeepers. 

I don’t usually flaunt credentials, but I’m doing it here for a reason. Yes, I am a genuine relic from the Free Speech Movement. I was there, I helped do that. I also was a two-time varsity wrestler at the University of Chicago in my youth—so I’m not hostile to college athletics. And I was also a science teacher to young children for 29 years, so you’ll understand why I start by saying that I want to talk about ecology. And I want to talk about social ecology.  

Now you know, these oak trees, ravaged as the ground beneath them is, are home to 400 different creatures large enough to see with your eyes, from sowbugs on up to squirrels. It’s a real, little forest, it actually is doing its job. It’s not like the eucalyptus trees on Treasure Island, which back home in Tasmania have 400 things that live with them but here have practically nothing because their chemicals are weird and not adapted here. So that’s trees, not a forest. This is a patch of genuine forest. 

But I want to talk about social ecology. You understand what an indicator species is. The spotted owl is an indicator species. When the spotted owl numbers go down, it’s wrong not just because we care for the spotted owl, but because the spotted owl is a species that testifies to the health of the entire forest. If its numbers are declining, that means the whole forest is sick.  

The oak grove here is an indicator species in the social ecology. When the oak grove is going down, it’s not just about the oak grove. It’s a symptom of a general sickness in the whole social ecology. The oak grove is not separate from the rest of the university, which looks like it’s across the street. But there’s not a street dividing it into two parts, it’s one thing.  

The university acts in this town … lord, how can I begin? I should not go on too long, right? The university is a large corporate force in the town that is utterly impervious to social control. It uses city services and doesn’t pay for them, it expands one way and another into different parts of the town, and up into Strawberry Canyon, without adequate consideration of the environmental impact. You understand, I’m talking about the social environment. The problems of control right here are not different from the problems of control of the university in the entire town. We don’t want to crush the university. We love it. But we want it to act right. It’s a corporation, so it’s a “person,” unfortunately. So it should act like a good person in the social ecology that we live in, rather than befoul it and pollute it. [applause] 

Fifty years ago, when I was a student, I used to come and sit here at times, under these oaks, just to feel my life, to feel the environment, to try to understand who I was in this place, what I was doing here, what the place was. It gave me some breathing space, some perspective on the university. Kids had been doing that for twenty-five years before me, kids have been doing exactly the same thing here for the last fifty years. I’m talking heritage, I’m talking function. I can’t testify to the Native American bones that are buried here, but I understand that this grove was planted originally as a testament to those who fell in World War I. We’re in the middle of another war at this time, when why they’re falling makes much less sense. Just considering this isolated point, it’s not the best time to tear down a memorial to people who fought in a war that in some respects made more sense.  

Fifty years ago and up to this time, students have been using this space. It’s not just an empty space that’s decorated with some trees. It’s a functional part of the campus, it’s like a piece of lung where people can breathe. Forty years ago, I used to pause here while going up to the Greek Theater to see the Grateful Dead or whoever, because this was a good place to have a few puffs. For thirty-five years before that, kids had been pausing on their way to the Greek Theater to have a little tipple. And in the years since I did this, that’s been part of the night function of this little lung here. Hey, that’s part of the night-time university. They say it doesn’t count like the day-time university. That’s not true, you learn as whole people. What goes on in the night informs what goes on in the day, they should not be artificially separated. And these—how would you describe what I’ve just been talking about, “social amenities”?—should not be easily sacrificed to corporate greed.  

O my god, how can I speak of corporate greed? Well, let’s talk about it. I’m a friend of athletics. But baseball isn’t baseball any longer, you know that, not even Little League. We used to choose up teams ourselves and make our own field … Football isn’t football any more. The kids who play football here are not getting paid so much right now, but they’re going to make five million next year. It’s a feeder for the vast corporate entertainment industry. [applause] 

So put first things first. That the university wants to build its athletic center here is a sign of the corporate priorities. Hey, you’ve got a stadium here which many of us love, I used to go watch the Bears in the stadium. You’ve got a stadium here, it’s cracked, it’s broken. And you know that the ground’s going to shake. I’ve been living here since 1958 and the ground didn’t used to shake, and it keeps going more and more like this [demonstrates], I can feel it with my body, I’m an animal on the planet, I feel the ground shaking, this is not a joke. It’s going to shake big-time, and if it shakes when there are sixty thousand people in there, there’s going to be many more people killed than if they did something to fix it up.  

“No, no! We’ve got to build a $125 million athletic facility here, right next to the stadium, so the kids don’t have to walk so far.” There are places all over the campus where you could do it, there are places all over the town where there are ugly buildings, where there’s a university-owned parking lot. You just have to build a structure above the parking lot, it’s not taking anything away, it’s not where it will blight people’s vision. No, get the priorities straight. Fix the stadium before you build something else right on top of the Hayward Fault. [applause] 

You don’t have to be a graduate student in social policy, a graduate student in engineering, to understand that this is not smart. You don’t have to be a graduate student in political science to understand that there was something fudged in the Environmental Impact Report. And that when the university can get away with doing its own Environmental Impact Report, and have it sanctioned because it’s a high governmental agency already, without going through the offices of the town, then something is wrong. So, I’m still talking about indicator species, you understand? This is a profound indicator species.  

The university takes over more and more territory in the town, and the town, on the whole, has rolled over, because it’s just another big developer, in fact it’s the biggest developer, right? So the town has actually rolled over the most for the biggest developer. So much for our present city administration! You understand? You do understand, because you’ve followed these things. Your opinions ought to be respected, young people. That was true in my day, and it’s true now. How much of what I’m saying is new to you, aside from maybe the metaphor of the indicator species? Nothing! You know all this stuff already, right? How come no change happens? Whoa! It makes less sense to me now than it did when I was your age, and it didn’t make hardly any damned sense then.  

The campus itself … I stand before you as just another aging hippie, standing around a fence. Like when I was a younger hippie, with this hair, I was standing around the fence they put around the People’s Park. Whoa! They did the same thing then, they’re doing the same thing now. We made something pretty there, and they put a fence around it, and said “you can’t do that here, this is corporate property, you can’t touch it.” This grove was already here, it didn’t need any amenities, it was okay like it was. Let it be. Right? But you pointed out the problem, and so they put up a fence to keep you from parking here, from speaking here.  

Before the fence went up, three old ladies went and climbed a tree here. Only they weren’t just any three old ladies. The oldest of them is old enough to be my mommy, Sylvia McLaughlin, 91 years old, she’s not seen on the streets much these days. She comes out of her place to climb the tree to make a point. She’s not just any old lady, she’s the old lady who with her two buddies started Save the Bay, which stopped them from filling in the Bay, which looked like an inevitable consequence of unstoppable power. [applause] But they stopped filling in the Bay. And now we’re reclaiming the Bay. These things can happen. These things can happen. It doesn’t take very many people who are determined, to actually do it. This is the profound lesson from Sylvia.  

This is the profound lesson from the Free Speech Movement, also. You should get it straight. The press makes it look like, “oh, there were giants in the earth, in those days!” It’s not true. We were just like you. Except we didn’t have T-shirts like yours printed up, because it cost too much then. We had the same feelings of being outshouldered, neglected, bulldozed, nobody listens to us. We looked a little funny. We dressed a little funny. So it’s not the past. The past is still in the present. This is a profound free speech issue. These people in the trees, they’re there for me. I didn’t climb the tree. They did it for me. Thank you, people in the trees. [applause] I’d like to say, “because you were there, I didn’t have to climb the tree.” But you know, that’s a cop-out. That I didn’t come before this, that I didn’t climb a tree like Sylvia climbed the tree.  

A reverse metaphor here. They were filling in the Bay, they’ve stopped it. Look, the university before, when I was young, it had many lungs. You understand? There was a lot of breathing space in the university. There were more spaces like this one. And they’ve gone down, one by one. It’s like they’ve been filling in the Bay of Peaceful Spirit here, with this building here and that building there. And where you can go just to sit and relax and be yourself, and breathe with the earth, which is still in the middle of all of this, it shrinks smaller and smaller. “Well, that’s not important.,” they say. “That’s not important, it’s just some kind of amenity. What’s important is to build a new $300 million research facility funded by corporate pharmaceuticals.” Well, that may be important, in some ways. But hey, get it in balance! Don’t forget about it! 

Okay. I could go on and on, but I think I’ve hit the main points. [applause] Except for free speech. These people in the trees are canaries, singing for us. The university’s got no right to stop them from singing. This is sacred space, not only for the things we’ve listed, but also because this is one of the places where we ringed the campus with picket signs after a bunch of us got dragged off to jail in 1964. Zachary, the Free Speech Movement didn’t start on December 2, that’s when it peaked, with the Sproul Hall sit-in and strike. So starting an occupation here on that date was even more appropriate than Zachary indicated. 

Now, one last thing. I come walking along, right over there, and I see this big bronze bruin sculpture, right? It’s the Cal Bear! What kind of bear? A grizzly bear, right? Well, the last grizzly bear was seen in this state when? In 1896, or something like that, right? So, after the grizzly is safely extincted, they raise a monument to the grizzly. Now, I am the grizzly. Look on my chest, there’s a picture on my T-shirt, of all those people in the Plaza, sitting around the police-car in ‘64. You have now in the middle of the campus the Free Speech Movement Café. I helped to plan it. But I don’t want that to be the statue of the grizzly. There’s a picture of me there. One of the people walking through Sather Gate, on the right-hand side, one of the guys with his hand on the pole of the banner that says “FREE SPEECH” is me when I’m your age. Okay? That’s the grizzly. Okay?  

You don’t want the Free Speech Grizzly extinct on this land. You don’t want them boasting about how they got its pelt and its bones without live grizzlies in the streets, up in the trees, doing what grizzlies do. [applause] And you’ve got to live with them! That’s the thing about bears, the bears are coming back, and you’ve got to live with the bears. They’re people, right? They’re actual people, more so than corporations. The Native Americans had it right. The bears were people, we’re people. They lived with the bears. You’ve got to live with them, you can’t just go thunk and they’re gone. The free speech grizzlies are Bears. The university has to learn that it’s got to live with them. It can’t put up fences, make law-suits to extirpate them, because they’re going to come back, again and again and again.  


When whoever it was among you put forth this litany here – “oh, we knocked, we lettered, we petitioned, we had meetings, we gave this and that” – tears literally came to my eyes, because that’s what we did, and you know, the truth was, you’ve got to go through all those steps, and it won’t make a damned bit of difference to them, but you’ve got to cover your ass. And then you take the next step. Because of potential felonious conspiracy charges, I am definitely not urging you to go do such nasty things to this fence that they have to have a 24-hour armed police guard continually here to make clear to the public what is happening here. I can’t say that, I can’t ask you to do that, you know. But I will tell you what happened in 1972, after two and a half years, with the fence around People’s Park.  

Somebody printed up 500 copies of a flyer that gave a certain date. And on that date, three thousand people came to People’s Park, around the fence, and they pulled it down with their bare hands. [applause] And then what happened? Then they came in with the shotguns, and they killed one, blinded another, wounded many, I got a little buckshot … no, I’m sorry, that was the first time. The second time we did it, they didn’t do anything. Because the fallout from the first time, when they shot and beat so many, had been so extensive, that they actually let three thousand people pull down the fence and take the Park back. And the Park still, in its battered way, in the social ecology, is still limping along. God help us, it’s still an open space, for that long. May this fence come down! May this place still be an open space, thirty years from now! [applause] 


[Had I not been flustered at running on so long, I might have added: “How fine it is to see you grizzly cubs come back to this land. Go Bears!” But I think they knew how I felt about them.]