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FSM Vet Jack Weinberg Salutes Alice Waters at the UC Art Museum

By Gar Smith
Wednesday August 31, 2011 - 01:55:00 PM
Jack Weinberg speaking from top of police car. Mario Savio standing on ground in foreground.
Steven Marcus
Jack Weinberg speaking from top of police car. Mario Savio standing on ground in foreground.
Jack Weinberg in police car.
Steven Marcus
Jack Weinberg in police car.

One of the many recent tributes to the work and life of Alice Waters was the Chez Panisse-related OpenEducation event staged at the UC Berkeley Art Museum last Saturday. One of the highlights (especially for old-timers and veterans of the 1964 Free Speech Movement) was a chance to catch Jack Weinberg climbing on top of a squad car positioned against a wall of the Museum to speak about the early days of the student rebellion that refashioned the Sixties. (Note: Kudos to the Museum planners for managing to procure a police car for the occasion. All props to the props department!) 

Event organizers had transformed the Art Museum’s spacious, wrap-around courtyards into a backyard garden packed with food stalls and livestock. Local organic farmers and green foodie types were turning out delicious helpings of homegrown goodies and hand-mixed DIY drinks. Youngsters assembled their own salads while others eagerly waited in line to hop on a bicycle attached to a grain mill that turned their pedaling into fresh flour for baking. 

The grassy lawns were bustling adult food-lovers and lots of cute kids – both the shod, sandaled and barefoot human tykes and the little beasties with cloven hooves. (It’s hard to beat baby goats for cuteness!) It was a perfect demonstration of the social ethic that underlies Waters’ vision of the “Edible Schoolyard.” 

In addition to her role as a participant in the 1964 Berkeley campus rebellion known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM), Alice Waters has continued to be a great friend of student activism over the years (she even devotes the first chapter in her book, Forty Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Sharing to the FSM). But getting her friend Jack Weinberg to fly out from Chicago to stand on a car was a real treat. 

Jack (who went on to become a union activist and an international campaigner for Greenpeace) initially became an unwilling celebrity when he was the first person arrested in what was to become Berkeley’s iconic act of rebellion. His celebrity status was forever sealed when he uttered the memorable youth-protest caveat: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty!” 

To a chorus of applause and cheers, Weinberg clambered up the back of the squad car and planted himself on the roof. Grabbing a hand-held mike, he offered a 15-minute rap on the FSM and its critical role in US history. 

Reliving the Early Days of the FSM Revolt 

“In 1964, there was a protest on the campus,” Weinberg began. ‘I was sitting at a table right in front of Sproul Hall. A police car was pulled up onto the campus to arrest me. I was put into the police car and it was surrounded by students. I sat in that police car for the next 32 hours while the students negotiated with the University. That was the beginning of the Free Speech Movement. 

“1964 was the beginning of what came to be called the Sixties, the Cultural Movement of the Sixties. That was the year the Beatles came to the US for the first time. That was the year when hair that went over your ears was considered ‘long’ and quite ‘rebellious.’ 

“That was a time when, in many parts of the United States, African Americans were not allowed to vote. That was a time when, here in the Bay Area, there was a very strict color bar about who could get a job and where. 

“If, in 1964, when Alice Waters was a student at the University, she would have formed a student organization to advocate that there should be farms and gardens at schools, and children could work on those, and that could be put into the curriculum, she would have been expelled.” 

Weinberg recounted how local businesses had complained to campus administrators that Berkeley students were walking in picket lines in front of their segregated workplaces. In response, Weinberg explained, the university issued strict new rules. Suddenly students “could not sit at tables, they could not raise money and, most importantly, if students on campus advocated for an activity that then led to civil disobedience off campus” those students would be “automatically expelled.” 

The resistance to these rules and Weinberger’s arrest, lead to four months of student organizing and ever-growing protests that culminated in the occupation of Sproul Hall and one of the largest mass arrests in US history. 

On the University’s ‘Cooptation’ of the FSM 

Responding to complaints that UC has subsequently tried to co-opt the FSM rebellion and claim it as its own, Weinberger recalled how, at the time, UC administrators and the press disparaged the student movement. 

Weinberger recalled being interview by San Francisco Examiner reporter Ed Montgomery who demanded to know: “Who’s behind this thing?” (in an apparent attempt to show how the students were being “directed” by sinister forces — like the Communist Party). 

“We have a saying in the movement,” Weinberg responded: “’We never trust anyone over 30.’ To me, this meant we weren’t taking orders from anyone: this was our own movement.” 

“We were constantly red-baited in those days,” Weinberg continued. “Clark Kerr was quoted in the press as saying ‘The protestors are 49 percent Castroite Maoists.’ We were vilified by the University. They put us in jail. I served a four-month term in Santa Rita. Civil disobedience had a higher cost then than it has today. For many years, neither I nor Mario [Savio] or many of the other student leaders would have been allowed to come back to school here.” 

“So,” Weinberger said, waving his hand over the spectacle of the crowd gathered in the courtyard of the University Art Museum, “the fact that this is now part of the university’s ‘image,’ I bless them! Great! Whatever good can come from it can come from it. That’s usually a sign that you won something. And the Free Speech Movement did win some very important things. 

“The FSM always had two parts to it. One part had to do with the reforming of the student role on campus — the education experience, the opening up of the university and rebelling against the university as a factory. The other part was equally important — and, for many of us more important — and that was the right of students to engage, as students, in the issues of the broader society — discrimination, later on, the anti-war movement, and many other movements… that changed society as a whole. 

“The very first protest against the Vietnam War in Berkeley drew 25,000 people. So what we did in the Free Speech Movement laid the basis for that,” Weinberg explained. In every previous era, if you spoke out against World War I, WWII or the Korean War, “you went to jail.” Because of the perfect historical timing — during the days of the Civil Rights Movement — the FSM’s insistence on free speech was soon being asserted on campuses across the nation. “When the Vietnam War came, many more people were willing to stand up because they had learned that they have a right to stand up and speak out.” 

While anti-war protesters certainly faced repression and violence, “it was nothing like what had come before,” Weinberg noted, because “part of the legacy of the FSM was to assert and establish the right of students and others to express themselves and to advocate for social causes.” 

Reflecting on the current state of affairs, with the economy in free-fall and corporate power dominating the political process, Weinberg concluded: “We live in a time when the country is falling back into much of the conservatism we had back then. So my hope — and the reason I agreed to come here today — is that anything that I can do to help a new generation of young people to rise up and develop their own movements and fight for their own causes, I welcome that and I’ll do anything I can to help you.” 

Weinberg made good on his promise by joining a line-up of current student activists to discuss strategy. Most of the students were justifiably angry about tuition increases and the increasing “corporatization of the campus.” While supporting their struggles, Weinberg offered a word of caution: Don’t simply focus on issues of self-interest, as compelling and worthy as they may be. “The FSM was successful because it went beyond self-interest. We were concerned with broader issues of right and wrong.” Because the issue of civil rights transcended the politics of the local struggle, the FSM won support far beyond the UC campus — with labor, with minorities, with civil libertarians. 

A Reunion of FSM Vets 

The next day, a group of FSM vets convened at noon to spend some time with Jack at the Free Speech Café at the Moffitt Library on the Berkeley Campus. When the crowd of Sixties activists (who are now mostly in their sixties) discovered the café didn’t open until 1PM, this lead to good-natured yelps of “Who organized this demonstration?!” 

The small crowd included a quartet of local FSM-A board members (FSM-A stands for FSM-Archives and the Website, is the go-to place for all things FSM. But be sure to add the –A or you’ll wind up at the Website for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.) Among them was Board President Lee Felsenstein (who went on to greater fame as one of the pioneering founders of the personal computer industry). 

Felsenstein took the occasion to argue that “the Free Speech Movement was, in fact, a revolution.” After all, he observed, it was a spontaneous mass-action, it overthrew an established order, and it created space for new freedoms and opportunities for popular cultural transformation. 

Early in the meeting, as the covey of old comrades was chatting away happily, fliers started drifting from hand to hand. Some folks were organizing a Peacewalk for a Nuclear-Free World (October 22-November 6, from the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant to a sacred native site in Vallejo) while others were hosting a weekend forum in Alameda to discuss how to transition from a “War Economy to a Peace Economy.” 

This moved one of the grizzled vets to look around and offer the best line of the day. “This is how you know you’re with a group of activists,” he laughed. “When we get together, we don’t swap business cards… we start leafleting each other!”