MARIO SAVIO

On November 6, 1996, one of the defining and truly great visionaries of the generation that rose up in the 1960s and shook the foundations of the machine that is Amerika passed from our lives. Mario Savio is dead.

The time: Autumn, 44 years ago. Place: University of California at Berkeley.

It’s hard today to appreciate the excitement and importance of what was about to happen, so accustomed have we become to the corporatization of the university and the numbing cynicism of everyday life. But in October, 1964 the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was born, and with it the rise of the student movement.

First, some context. In the summer of 1964 President Lyndon Johnson began expanding the war on Vietnam and preparing the terrible massive carpet-bombing of the North. Hundreds of U.S. students headed south to Mississippi to fight against white supremacy. They registered Black people to vote. They joined sit-ins at lunchcounters demanding service and faced police dogs and the Klan. A young Berkeley student, Mario Savio, who grew up in Queens New York, was among them, working in McComb County.

One participant, Bob Stone (later a founder of the Radical Philosophy Association, and the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), remembers Mario well — they were bunkmates at Freedom House. “McComb was perilous duty in a war without guns (on our side) due to local systematic Klan terror.” At the same time up North, Malcolm X was making the most powerful speeches of his life — he would live only a few more months — at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, redefining the enemy, challenging the Vietnam War and calling for the formation of an international movement for human rights and against Amerika, whose chickens were most assuredly coming home to roost.

The students carried the intensity of their experiences in the civil rights movement back with them to the campuses. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — young civil rights workers who had been murdered that June in Mississippi (and, later, Viola Liuzzo) — were not seen as martyrs to an abstract cause but each one as “one of us,” part of the student milieu and embodying the commitment to which many students aspired. The students’ fighting optimistic spirit was infectious. In Berkeley, they picketed Woolworths and sat-in against racial discrimination at all sorts of local companies — including the Oakland Tribune, which was pressuring the University administration to ban literature tables at the entrance to the campus. The students, of course, resisted the infringements on their rights — as they had for the previous six years.

The liberal university administration invented ever-newer rationales for banning their tables: Free speech was allowed in the abstract, but the literature tables were now said to be “blocking the flow of traffic.” The students pointed out that corporate and military recruiters were allowed to set up tables on the same spot; they offered to put up money for an independent traffic flow investigation. The liberal faculty bemoaned the new student militancy and called for “more negotiations” in “the spirit of compromise.”

After six years of meetings, however, the face of liberalism was finally exposed; the time for negotiations was over.

Cut now to Sproul Plaza, the heart of the Berkeley campus. In a daring step, a number of student groups — not only the various socialist groups, but CORE and SNCC, the Young Democrats, and even the Young Republicans, Students for Goldwater, and the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists — formed a United Front and set up tables. How tame that act seems today! The Administration took all of their names, but only five of them — all members of CORE and SNCC, the leading civil rights groups — were called before the Dean.

Well, 400 students signed a complicity statement saying that they had sat at the tables too. They demanded equal treatment and stayed in Sproul Hall, refusing to leave. At midnight they received word that the five (plus three others) had been suspended.

The next morning, the students brought their tables back out and set them up in front of the Administration building. Michael Rossman writes from the scene: “This time, there’s a ‘non-student’ sitting at one of the tables. He’s a member of one of the organizations, he graduated last year, in mathematics. And the University police come along and arrest him. He goes limp; what else can you do? And so four cops carry him to this police car that’s sitting in the middle of the Plaza.”(1)

The arrested ex-student, Jack Weinberg (who later coined the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30”), sat in the police car for the next 40 hours (the cops brought him an empty beer can to pee in) as hundreds of students surrounded the car and wouldn’t let it move, turning the top of the police car into a stage. A bullhorn appeared; students clambered up on top of the car to take their turn speaking to the growing crowd, by then more than 3,000 strong — no censorship, no rules, no policing — anyone can speak and say whatever they want. And so, the Free Speech Movement was born.

One of the suspended students, Mario Savio, a 21-year-old undergraduate philosophy major, awaited his turn atop that police car. His speech, totally off the top of his head, was filled with philosophical references to the ancient Greeks, to Thoreau. But what makes it so memorable today is the way it soared beyond the impassioned calls for Weinberg’s release and the right to set up a literature table and offered one of the first coherent indictments of the prevailing liberal ideal of the university as an ivory tower. Clearly influenced by Students for Democratic Society pamphlets — whether or not Mario read them I don’t know, but bits and pieces of the ideas were certainly blowing in the wind — Mario put them all together. He denounced the University as a machine and Amerika as a giant corporation serviced by the University, to which students are cogs in the wheel. Here is part of Mario’s most famous (and impromptu) speech:

“We have an autocracy which runs this university. It’s managed. We were told the following: If President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received from a well-meaning liberal was the following. He said: ‘Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to its Board of Directors?’ That’s the answer. I ask you to consider if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the Board of Directors, and if President Kerr is in fact the manager. I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees and we’re the raw materials! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone. We’re human beings! …

“There’s 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 upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

The students at Berkeley indeed put their bodies upon the gears and, to assert their right to freedom of speech, proceeded to prevent the machine from working at all.

Bob Stone writes:

“Watching the Berkeley uprising on TV, I could scarcely believe the transformation my quiet roommate, Mario, had undergone. ‘Oratory’ isn’t the right word for Mario’s call to Berkeley students to stop even passively going along with the machine. It wasn’t ‘eloquence’ when he said we must instead place our very bodies against it to stop its odious effects. This consisted simply in authentically speaking an emotion, a righteous rage, which a generation shared. This may help explain how such a quiet person could move so many.”

For the next nine weeks the Berkeley campus was rocked with daily sit-ins, speakouts and confrontations. At the end, a sit-in of 1,000 at Sproul Hall was broken by mass arrests. The next day, 10,000 students went out in the first mass student strike of the 1960s, shutting down the University, demanding Free Speech. Although the strike ended in a clear victory for the emerging student movement, Mario Savio and the others were sentenced to four months in jail for their part in demanding that Amerika live up to the freedoms it promises but rarely lives up to.

Along with so many others (and contrary to the corporate media reports about the movements of the 1960s), Mario Savio never sold out. He brought speakers from SNCC and CORE to the campus. He helped the Free Speech Movement develop into the anti-war movement. His name appeared prominently as one of the organizers of the first march on Washington against the Vietnam War, organized by SDS on April 17, 1965. When a team of Navy recruiters put up a table in the Berkeley Student Union in the Fall of 1966, SDS put up an anti-war table right next to it. The liberal administration called more than a hundred cops onto campus to remove it. Mario — along with Jerry Rubin and Stew Albert — were among those arrested defending the SDS table and, once again, the students’ right to freedom of speech.

The media, meanwhile, was recasting their own Hollywood script of the movement. Left out was the vision of a new community and culture, and its intersection with the movement for social justice. Michael Rossman, a participant on the Steering Committee of the Free Speech Movement, recounts what it meant to be part of the movement, and the effect the media’s distortions were having on it:

“I was rapt in the existential wonder of it all, but something gave me the creeps. Distorted in the mirror of the media, the FSM was a caricature of the movement I knew. Around me thousands of people, self-organized into a hundred spontaneous groups, were coordinating an intense web of learning and action; I saw my sisters and brothers turning all their intelligence and energy to something they cared for, for the first time in their lives. But to read it in the papers, the FSM was simply a campus mob organized by a disciplined cadre of radicals and inflamed by a brilliant young charismatic leader. Mario Savio’s angular figure grew familiar on prime-time TV; the publicity made him a national celebrity. It was relentless. …

“The media reduced us to how people wanted to see us, as simple and familiar. [But] when I left my former life and committed myself to a political existence, I wasn’t playing follow-the-Leader. It’s true that Mario had a moral eloquence that gave him a special place in our hearts and made him a natural media target. Before him and since, I have known [those] who put into words the feelings that I could only mumble, exciting my love and trust by speaking for me. … Emboldened to risk and dare only by each other’s presence, we were out there on the existential edge, where what we knew dropped off into the unknown, toward a vision of a different reality. Everything was torn loose for a time: our careers cast off, our lives at times in jeopardy, our very conceptions of who we were and how to be a person among persons were shaken and revised as profoundly, though differently, as in any current transcendental conversion. In this chaos and mystery, alone together and equal facing the unknown, no one led or followed. We were cast into a desperate spontaneous democracy, which was our ultimate and only magic.

“I knew many who felt this way. I wanted to believe that all my comrades did, and that only the media and those who feared us were responsible for the heresy that we were sheep. But well before the FSM’s climax I witnessed the sweet flesh of our imagination turning rank. Though we scoffed at the media portrait of the FSM as a disciplined, efficient ‘organization’, with Mario as its ‘Leader’, we subtly came to adopt a kindred view. Rather than take responsibility for the simple complex of our action — and the terrifying freedom we briefly felt, in which everything depended on each individual and his or her will to bring a different reality into being — each of us chose in some way to say, ‘It wasn’t me who did this, it was the FSM.’ … Rebelling against the deathly authority of the university and the State, we found ourselves re-creating the same forms of authority — in part because we had no language or training to support the different forms we had briefly materialized in our freedom, in part because we were afraid to.”(2)

In Democracy from the Heart, a wonderful book about his life in the student movement, Greg Calvert — National Secretary of SDS in 1966 — talks about what it was like for him (Calvert) to be gay but in the closet. The cross-wiring of overt political rebellion, liberatory sexualities and so-called “personal” experiences — daily life — infused and continues to infuse our movements with a depth that resists attempts to reduce them to simplistic cause-and-effect linearity, of conflating “movement” with “organization”. So too with dear Mario Savio, whose life was torn apart by the media’s anointing him “leader” of the movement. I wish I knew more about his life during this time, his relationship with his wife and child, his mathematical inspirations and research, for I am certain that there are important and rewarding lessons for all of us there. But I don’t. I anticipate Robert Cohen’s forthcoming book on Mario’s life for more insight into this amazing person whose words and actions galvanized my life, and fired up the student movement.

What I do know is that it was through his advocacy and practice of participatory democracy that Mario, working quietly and steadily on various worthy projects over the years (while also teaching mathematics), was able to regain his balance. Mario was active in resisting Reagan’s wars in Central America throughout the 1980s. It was not until the Gulf War, however, that he again rose to prominence, putting his shoulder against the war machine to fight against the U.S. government’s bombardment of Iraq. As in the past, Mario’s eloquence and insight challenged the liberal framework of the anti-war movement. Opposing the war was not enough, he argued; we have a moral and political obligation to defend those who are resisting the war within the military, those brave soldiers who refuse to kill for Exxon, Mobil and the U.S. government and who were deserted by the liberal arm of the anti-war movement and persecuted by the government.

Mario spent the last few months of his life fighting against Clinton’s elimination of affirmative action and his welfare “Deform” Act. Against the advice of his doctors, Mario worked around the clock with his son, Nadav, to produce a pamphlet “In Defense of Affirmative Action,” which was used widely on the campuses to try to stop Proposition 209, the racist resolution that promoted an end to all forms of state-supported affirmative action. A few days before the vote, Mario suffered a heart attack (he had a long-standing heart condition) and went into a coma. The day after losing a round in that political battle, Mario, age 53, died. And now, all we have are memories of half a lifetime ago, the 21-year-old student philosopher connecting us to the spirit of another time, a vision of a different world.

More than any of the other heroes of our movement who have died recently, Mario was fragile, vulnerable and . . . sweet. He didn’t simply elicit agreement with him on the issues, he also elicited a desire to do right by him personally because he dared to risk, dared to assert his humanity in the face of Leviathan, dared to put his shoulders against the gears and, yes!, bring that machine grinding to a halt. Even if only temporarily, Mario helped thousands attain space for our liberation movements to breathe.

From all of us in the trenches, sweet dreams dear Mario. You made all of our lives mean something, which is pretty much all one could hope for. Mario Savio, presenté.

Mitchel Cohen
November, 1996

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Mitchel Cohen was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at SUNY Stony Brook (1966) and co-founded the Red Balloon Collective (1969), the Mid-Atlantic Greens (1986) and the Brooklyn Greens/Green Party of NY State (1995). He started attending SUNY Stony Brook a year after the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. You can check out his pamphlet: What Is Direct Action? and other essays by writing to him at 2652 Cropsey Avenue, #7H, Brooklyn NY 11214 or emailing him at mitchelcohen@mindspring.com.

NOTES
1. Michael Rossman, The Wedding Within the War, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1971. (Michael Rossman, New Age Blues: On the Politics of Consciousness, E.P. Dutton, 1979.)

2. Michael Rossman, New Age Blues: On the Politics of Consciousness, E.P. Dutton, 1979.

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