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Free Speech: or, Movement of A Kind

The Free Speech Movement Café at UC Berkeley is teeming with past and present intensities. The back wall is canvassed by a black-and-white mural depicting the masses in rally mode, a sea of blurry humanity broken up by smaller posters of iconic images. Mario Savio giving a speech on top of a police car takes center stage with epic words captioned nearby: “There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that, you can’t take part, you can’t even passively take part; and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. …” The opposite wall celebrates a more recent, less localized iteration of popular uprising: the events of 2011 that collectively came to be known as the Arab Spring. Connections between past and present are clear. The people, so the walls insist, will be heard.

Other images from the FSM café rattle off different, subtler statements, unsettling only to the eye of a visiting idealist seeking a little history in the present:

  • Above the registers, a bold declaration of commercial investments equates café business with that of the movement. The sign reads, “Members of the FSM felt it was essential to practice their ideals. As providers of food to the campus community, we believe it is important to make food available that is raised in accordance with our ideals. That is why the FSM Café is committed to sustainable methods in our operations. Enjoy!”
  • To the right, a state-mandated sign issues its stern warning: “Maximum Occupant Load: 97 Persons.” It’s a big space with large doors opening up onto a patio. (Only 97?)
  • In the opposite corner, a muted flatscreen tuned to CNN keeps interested parties abreast of “breaking stories.” No one watches.
  • The dining room is dotted by tables for two, but most on this day are taken by single occupants, young people with earbuds firmly in place working assiduously on Apple laptops (as am I).

None of these, alone, is so egregiously offensive. The aggregate, however, forces a pause. The FSM café seems quite undeterred by the ideological clash of images and clientele, iconography of the past and atmosphere of the present. Apparently free speech can quite comfortably share a table with confusing commercial appropriations of past events, engorged emblems of capitalism, muted loops of news/infotainment, and the constant oversight of state control, no matter what pictures and words of the distant and more recent past might promote. The people in here seem quite undeterred about people having or not having voices. No one’s even talking.

It’s not an uncommon scene in our world today. It just feels a little strange here at the Free Speech Movement Café.

*          *          *


I’m sitting here because I have the luxury of being in Berkeley for a month conducting some archival research on literary culture in 1850s California. John Rollin Ridge’s Joaquín Murieta (1854) provides my anchor for seeking out representations of mid-nineteenth-century meanings of democracy in more mundane, local, everyday kinds of ways. The territory/state of California during this era—as most everyone knows and meditates upon—contained some of the most ruthless ramifications of mid-to-late-capitalism ever. Racial, ethnic, gender, and class discrimination teamed up with uninhibited economic greed and begat violent act upon violent act. For much of the state’s first decade, rogue individuals, posse-ordained posses, and well-organized vigilance committees exerted a more localized and nonconsensual sense of political action, as the technologies that would make manifest state-sponsored law and order lagged behind. While the east was sashaying toward Civil War, people in California seemed pretty self-absorbed, thousands of miles away from concerns of “the States,” as several publications termed them. And often rendered blind or willfully amnesiatic about the injustices rippling throughout the land, economic success and unfettered growth made it seem to both Californians and Americans that “theirs” would be an ideal state. Democratic ideals would combine with economic success and produce world-leading civilization.

Rollin Ridge seemed to think so when writing his version of the Joaquín myth. The son of a slave-holding Cherokee chief who led the faction that accepted Andrew Jackson’s suggestion—and later his executive order—to relocate west of the Mississippi, Ridge had witnessed plenty of injustice, not only from the U.S. nation, but also from the opposing Cherokee faction who, disgruntled with their lack of democratic voice, took their frustration out on the assimilationist Ridges and murdered three of his family members. Years later, it seems that he felt some sympathy for California’s outlawed bandit, for he knew what it was like to be pushed around, to be without the privilege of lawful support. Even if he would not justify Joaquín’s criminal activity, he thought the right telling of his legend might provide an important lesson, first to Californians and then, perhaps, to the rest of the nation and beyond. His moral, perhaps trite to modern ears, punctuates his cause: “there is nothing so dangerous in its consequences as injustice to individuals—whether it arise from prejudice of color or from any other source; that a wrong done to one man is a wrong to society and to the world.”

Whether or not Ridge was dialing up the formula for manifesting a longed-for society buttressed by a popularly ordained sense of democratic agency—which I’m trying to argue—is hard to tell. The conflicting stories behind Joaquín are, in my most scholarly choice of words, a “frickin’ mess,” so Ridge had plenty of discrepancies to negotiate in his narration. In his chosen route, the author waffles between apologies for a lack of law and order, celebrations of those who make a positive way in spite of this, and the triumph of citizens petitioning a state to produce a solution. It’s not democracy in its prettiest form, but that concluding moral makes it seem like this sacrifice will one day be worth it. The obvious lack of democratic atmosphere at the time of Joaquín’s arrival in the gold country produced the event that was/is “Joaquín.” But if we believe there can be another way, if we can buy into the words of Marco Savio about stopping the machine, then there seems an enduring desire for democratic energies to deliver on their unrealized promise.


*          *          *

standing man
Standing Man

My own historical and theoretical investments in nonprocedural democratic affect have taken a seat with me in the Free Speech Movement café. This past week, Will Bunch’s “This Democracy Thing is Broken” asks why protests in Turkey, bus fare demonstrations in Brazil, and hunger strikes over public school funding cuts in Philadelphia are happening in nations that are purportedly democratic. Bunch’s smoking gun: “the realities of modern capitalism and the cash-infused art of democratic elections have left citizens with a right to vote—and yet oddly disenfranchised.” In the end, he points to Turkey’s Standing Man as “a man for our century,” someone, “when our so-called leaders refuse to stand up for us,” who “holds his ground.”

While inspiring for a moment, that feels like a pretty unfulfilling conclusion. Bunch claims the democracy thing is broken. His consecration of the Standing Man notwithstanding, it’s tough to argue with his titular concern. In the U.S., except for some local elections here or there, we are pretty far removed from a regularly scheduled appointment with democracy. (The 23.3% turnout rate in the L.A. mayoral race this past spring suggests most people are even skipping these.) The highs and lows of recent Supreme Court decisions make many feel especially powerless. All we have, it seems, are reactions.

Most modern democratic constitutions have been designed to let the many have a voice in choosing the few who ultimately do the lion’s share of deciding and ruling, so the strangeness we see around us is simply the state doing its job. When it’s not tracking down criminals and outlaws and whistle-blowing spies and putting them in their proper place, it’s keeping occupancy at the proper levels and letting students do their learning at their State-funded institution for a budget-(whose-budget?)-friendly-price. This is done in the name of the people, of course, bolstered by the all-to-easy conflation of phrases like “Free Speech Movement (Café)” with something like “Race to the Top.” Its grip only appears to grow tighter by the day.

But the Free Speech Movement—like its predecessors of earlier centuries and those occurring right now in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Philadelphia, North Carolina—remind us that democracy can be so much more than voting or reacting to Supreme Court decisions. And we need reminders. All the time.

That’s what the Free Speech Movement Café could be. This year it was not the cite of protests on the day the Voting Rights Act was shot down, nor did it host a celebration on the day the Defense of Marriage Act suffered its fate. I wanted to see something like that, and I grew increasingly sorry I wasn’t there to see it all the first time around. Independence Day is right around the corner. Maybe something will happen that day.

Whatever the case, in the present those walls stand. And images, at least, insist that the people will be heard.


Berton Emerson: Rubbernecker.

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